The farmer, the dishwasher and the performance artist: how war forced career changes on Ukrainian refugees | Ukraine

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than 8 million refugees have fled the country for Europe. But according to UNHCR data, only a third of them have found jobs since their displacement and many complain of underemployment.

What is it like to flee your home and then try to earn a living in a foreign country? To lose a career and a lifetime’s work, and start all over again? Five Ukrainians tell us what has been lost and what has been gained, since war forced them to transform their working life.

Zug, Switzerland

Olha specialised in business law, handling litigation, contracts and numerous prestigious clients in Ukraine. When Russian tanks approached the outskirts of Kyiv, Olha realised that she might not survive.

“I made a promise to myself: if I survive, I will change something in my life and get closer to my dream.”

Olha at the Swiss agricultural school in Chamau, near Hünenberg. Ohla hopes that one day she will be able to use her new skills to farm in Ukraine. Photograph: Katharina Lütscher/The Guardian

That dream was to become a farmer, inspired by a visit to an agricultural exhibition years before. “I usually attended business meetings filled with bankers and lawyers, but this was something different,” Olha remembers. “There was a real sense of community.”

In March 2022, she wrote to the Swiss Farmers’ Union, believing that the country’s farming traditions offered the best opportunity for her transition. However, the responses were initially discouraging.

“Of course, it was kind of a shock for people, for them to hear from a Ukrainian lawyer,” she says. “‘We have no openings,’ they said.

“And to work on a Swiss farm, you require specialised education, particularly for animal care.”

Undeterred, Olha persevered and in May last year she received the offer of an internship. The next day, she packed a small bag of clothes and set off.

“I didn’t know a single person,” she says. “Initially, I cried every other day, then once a week, then once a month. Well, now I’m not crying any more, I’m just learning. I travel a lot, I talk with farmers and cheesemakers in order to acquire knowledge.

“And learning German was a challenge, but now I take exams without the need for interpretation.”

A woman laughs as a cow sticks its tongue out trying to reach the hay she is holding
‘I love farming,’ says Olha. ‘These cows make me happy.’ Photograph: Katharina Lütscher/The Guardian

Olha sustains herself on a modest scholarship, which is lower than the minimum wage. “My standard of living is very different from my life in Ukraine, but I pay for everything myself.”

Her perspective on life and work shifted profoundly after the invasion. “A neighbour offered me her car to go grocery shopping. Would I have lent my car to someone just so they could buy groceries? I would do it now. Two years ago, I’m not so sure.”

Olha’s future plan is to return to Ukraine but not to her legal career. “I love farming,” she says. “These cows make me happy.”

Oxford, UK

“I turned 50 in November,” Yanina says with a mix of surprise and gratitude. “My colleagues from the pub treated me in the most incredible way. A cake with the yellow-blue of the Ukrainian flag inside.

“I never expected such warmth away from home,” she says.

A woman leans against a wall in a town with old buildings in the background
Yanina found refuge through the Homes for Ukraine programme in Oxford in November 2022. A month later she had started work washing dishes in the Dewdrop pub. Photograph: Urszula Sołtys/The Guardian

For 15 years, Yanina lived in a resort village in the Kharkiv region, where she had built a guesthouse overlooking the river. “After university, I was interested in green tourism in Ukraine, and I was engaged in this for most of my life,” she says.

More than 80% of the houses in her village have been either critically damaged or destroyed. “Russian troops were just across the river, firing at our village,” Yanina says. “My guesthouse, like many others, was lost.”

After several months of occupation, Yanina miraculously managed to escape in May 2022, with only the clothes she was wearing.

A burnt-out house with no windows and buckled metal roofing on the ground
Yanina lived near Kharkiv, where she had built a guesthouse by the river. ‘Russian troops were just across the river, firing at our village,’ she says. ‘My guesthouse was lost.’ Photograph: Yanina

She found refuge through the UK’s Homes for Ukraine programme in November 2022. “People here have opened their doors to us. I am literally living in someone’s home, as part of their family. My sponsors are a wonderful family, the age of my parents. They helped me a lot.”

Faced with the challenge of acclimatising to a foreign culture and language, Yanina began taking English lessons. “There are plenty of free courses available for Ukrainians,” she says.

She appreciates the support she receives in the UK. “The benefits here keep you afloat, but they also encourage you to seek employment. I don’t understand how one could live on £330 even in Ukraine.

“For me, it would be a shame not to work in a country that offers housing, free travel, English courses and more,” Yanina says.

Last December, she started working in the Dewdrop pub in Oxford, balancing her job as a dishwasher with studying psychology. She washes dishes while listening to online lectures, especially about war trauma.

“All Ukrainians, without exception, need psychological help. Russia is killing us not only on the frontline, but it is killing the civilian population as well.”

The future holds uncertainties, but she remains steadfast in her connection to Ukraine. “The majority of Ukrainians, both those who stayed and those who left, cannot dream normally. They cannot dream and plan for the future.

“I will return,” she says, “but I don’t know when or where yet, because there is no way of restoring the destruction I have experienced.”

A smiling woman in an apron stands holding plates in a restaurant kitchen while two other smiling catering workers look on
Yanina is studying psychology, with a focus on mental health and war trauma. She listens to online lectures while washing dishes. Photograph: Urszula Sołtys/The Guardian

Vienna, Austria

In the quiet of a February night in 2022, Oleksandr and Olena, both dentists from a small town near the Ukrainian-Romanian border, encountered the ominous signs of the impending Russian invasion and made the life-altering decision to leave.

“We packed our bags and crossed the border just as the war began,” recalls Oleksandr. “It was surreal, like we were in a parallel reality, not knowing who or where we were.”

Their destination was Vienna, where they had relatives. “An Austrian woman provided an apartment for two months, free of charge. It was an incredible act of kindness,” says Oleksandr, 30, who speaks German.

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The couple applied for official status and submitted their medical certificates in the hope of being able to work, but “we could not officially rent housing because you need to show the last three payslips and pay a deposit” – something they did not have.

While still undocumented, the couple found work off the books in an Austrian winery. The work was tough, says Oleksandr, “but we felt capable of doing more.”

Now they have their work papers, and are employed in an orthodontic clinic in Vienna. “We’re in a multicultural team, working with those whose parents also fled war zones like Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kosovo,” he says.

Despite relative stability, their lives in Austria remain uncertain. Their papers are only valid for three years and they do not yet know if they will be allowed to stay on when their permission to remain expires.

“We’re in limbo,” Oleksandr says. “And psychologically, we’re torn. We worry about our friends and family back home.”

For a long time Oleksandr experienced guilt over those left behind. “Three of my friends volunteered for the army. One died, one has already returned. The third is still fighting. Our friends didn’t understand our decision to leave.

“They might condemn me but I don’t want to fight,” he says. “Maybe after the war we will all reconcile.”

Paris, France

In a Parisian cafe, Snizhana, a young artist, reminisces about her journey to France, one that began in the war-torn Luhansk region in 2014. “ I lived in many cities across Ukraine after the war in Donbas. I busked – reading poems in the park, collecting money in my hat.

“Then I studied performing arts and I found myself in a theatre in Kyiv. I never looked back. Theatre is my life.”

A young woman in a classic formal Parisian public garden
Snizhana, a young Ukrainian artist, in the Palais Royal gardens in Paris. She worked as a nanny to make ends meet, writing and performing in her spare time. Photograph: Sara Farid/Guardian

Paris became Snizhana’s unexpected refuge last year. “I didn’t want to leave Ukraine. I arrived in Paris with just €25. I was on the brink of poverty. Buying cherries for the first time in a year made me cry,” she says.

Snizhana started working as a nanny to make ends meet, saving nearly everything she earned during the first year in Paris. “I lived on social benefits of €400 a month, barely enough to afford daily coffee,” she says.

In her free time, she reprised her street performances and began participating in festivals. She wrote a script about the Holodomor (a man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33), the Soviet occupation of Ukraine and the current war. She used her savings to stage it.

“Forty per cent of the audience were French,” she says. “The fact that they understood the message was incredibly valuable. Their tears during the performance gave me strength.”

A young woman sits on a chair in a formal French city garden kicking her legs up
Snizhana hopes to bring her country’s classics to the Parisian stage in an effort to better portray Ukraine. Photograph: Sara Farid/The Guardian

Now Snizhana attends acting and language courses, trying to grasp the essence and nuances of French drama.

Recently, she began teaching performing arts to children. “It doesn’t bring me much money, but I love the work,” Snizhana says.

Her future plans are to bring Ukrainian classics to the Parisian stage. “My goal is clear: to portray Ukraine abroad. I want people to understand the difference between Ukrainian and Russian culture,” she says.

Porto, Portugal

At the beginning of 2022, Anna believed her future was deeply rooted in her passion project, a Ukrainian brands firm near Kyiv, where she had spent six years as the executive director.

“It was a labour of love, not just work,” Anna remembers. “A team that felt like family.”

A glum-looking woman sitting at a table with a climbing plant behind her
Anna Honchar in her newly opened cafe in Porto. She worked as a waitress when she first arrived in Portugal and then became a teacher. Photograph: Maria Abranches/The Guardian

When Anna, 40, and her family relocated to Portugal after the invasion, they initially planned for a short stay until the situation in Ukraine stabilised. They did not think that it would turn out the way it has. When Anna’s income source in Ukraine came to a halt, she began waiting tables in Porto and then became a teacher.

She opened a children’s centre in Portugal because “many families like ours were arriving, and there was no place for their children”, she explains. Initially, the centre operated on a voluntary basis but quickly transitioned into a commercial project due to overwhelming demand.

“We built a strong team, developed an educational programme, and created a great Ukrainian community in Porto,” Anna says.

Despite its success, the centre eventually closed as more families who chose to remain in Portugal decided to integrate and send their children to Portuguese schools.

Now Anna runs a Kyiv-style brunch cafe in Porto with another Ukrainian family. “Portugal has welcomed us. The bureaucracy works slowly, but it works and that’s reassuring,” Anna says.

Looking ahead, she would like to expand her cafe franchise, and improve her Portuguese. “I like the country, its culture, and its people,” she says. “It fuels my energy. When you’re in a place that feels like home, it’s a solid foundation to build something new.”

A woman stands at a cafe counter with two men with a neon sign above their heads saying ‘Story’
Anna Honchar in her cafe, Story, with her two partners, who are also Ukrainian refugees. ‘I like the country, its culture and its people,’ she says of Portugal. ‘It fuels my energy.’ Photograph: Maria Abranches/The Guardian