“I began to hear noises. Constant shelling. I looked outside and saw people throwing stuff in their cars and taking off. Alarms were going off. It was serious. I talked to my neighbour. We couldn’t take anything, just documents. In that moment, you’re not thinking, just acting out of anxiety. We headed to the subway and stayed for two days, like sardines. We came out at night, looking up at the sky, a bit of calm.”
On 24 February, Reggie* like millions of people in Ukraine was surprised by Russia’s attack on the country. Originally from Nigeria, he studied in Kharkiv and had been working there for several years. Once the initial shock wore off, he made plans to get out.
More than 7.8m refugees have fled Ukraine since the outbreak of the war. Millions more are internally displaced. Around 7,000 people arrived in Luxembourg by the end of last year, the latest data available, with 5,244 having registered for temporary protection.
From Hungary, Reggie eventually made his way to Luxembourg. With a background in finance, a friend already living in the grand duchy had told him to come. “It was really not easy for third country nationals,” Reggie said. “A lot of them weren’t being granted protection.” Why he was allowed to stay, he doesn’t know.
Through the LUkraine association, he attended an accounting course as well as signing up to other networking and learning opportunities. “You have to use what you’re given to get what you want. I had to go for it. I started to share my CV, pushing for jobs. That’s how I got my opportunity.”
Reggie has started learning French and is now on a one-year contract in the financial sector. He’s looking to move out of state-sponsored accommodation. Once the waves have settled a bit, he will consider his options of what’s next. He has family in the US or might consider going back to Nigeria at some point. “For now, I want to settle in, work on myself, gain some experience.”
Patience and pragmatism
Settling in and building a future is also what Viktoriia Tymtsias has been doing.
Viktoriia was in Beijing when the war broke out and raced home to fetch her 13-year-old daughter who was staying with her grandmother in Kyiv. “She woke up from bombing at 5 o’clock in the morning.” Viktoriia travelled from Beijing to Paris and from there drove to the Poland-Ukraine border, where friends had brought her daughter.
Her mother stayed behind. “We didn’t know anything, so we decided to save the most important thing in our life--my child.” Her mother has since also fled to Slovakia.
“My level of familiarity with Luxembourg was zero,” Viktoriia said. “I had never been here.” An acquaintance who had reached out when the war started recommended Luxembourg to her as a destination. “She said it’s good for kids, that I will find a job.”
Viktoriia started working on a seven-month contract but in March will begin a permanent position at a big four company. She has been learning French and found an apartment to rent. “I was lucky,” she said.
Of course, it’s difficult. People are dying. They are dying for freedom.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some administrative hurdles. Viktoriia has been unable to register her child with the family allowances fund (“Zukunftskeess”). This means she’s in a higher tax bracket. She has also made enquiries to change her temporary protection status to residency. “My experience is just to be patient. They’re figuring it out and are working on the problems.”
Friends from back home have left to the Czech Republic, Poland, even Canada. Viktoriia hopes to visit Ukraine this year but isn’t making any plans yet. “I have difficult moments,” she said. “It sounds very pragmatic, but you get used to it. If I thought about it every day or cried, I would just destroy myself. I cannot do it. I had to leave. Of course, it’s difficult. People are dying. They are dying for freedom.”
Viktoriia doesn’t expect the war to end anytime soon and thinks her daughter will perhaps even finish school in Luxembourg. “For now, we are here. We started building something and have done a lot already in this one year. In the long term, who knows?”
Hope for Ukraine
Like Viktoriia, Mi Ji considered herself lucky. Her brother and father were already living in Luxembourg, which is why she chose to come here with her son when the war broke out. Within several months she found a job. When fleeing, Mi had left most of her belongings behind. She planned a trip to Kyiv to pick up some things and ended up staying.
People couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to return to Luxembourg. “I have two friends in Luxembourg, one of them is still looking for a job a year later. I found a job. I had the school settled. Not all mums do. I had a place to live… But I was very depressed. I wanted to go home all the time.”
Mi finally planned a two-week vacation in Ukraine. On her last day, “I packed all this stuff, my luggage, said goodbye to all my friends. The next morning, I was going to come back to Luxembourg. But I just couldn’t. I decided to stay.”
She works from home for a Ukrainian company, although she has also worked from a gas station across the road that provided wifi during electricity cuts by way of a generator. Her son’s kindergarten has converted the basement into a shelter. Mi has seen a nearby power station being bombed from her apartment on the 23rd floor.
Scheduled electricity outages have become part of daily life. “I can plan now, wash my dishes, take a bath. We have adapted. I charge all my power banks, my phone. I have a lot of water storage. I bought a small gas stove.” But there have also been unplanned power cuts. The longest lasted for three days.
People, she said, have moved closer together, “valuing the moments much more than before.” Mi has friends fighting on the frontlines. “When I see something good here, like a sunset, or people smiling in the street, it’s more intense.”
She’s taking a risk, she said. “I am paying a price for something I have here. I do not have it in Luxembourg. And I’m not sure if I ever would.” Her mental health has improved in Ukraine, she can take better care of her child. She lives nearer her ex-partner. “My son can have a connection with this father.”
When Mi was a child her family, originally from China, moved to Ukraine. She remembers well the challenges of growing up in a foreign country. Ukraine is home, she said.
“Time has stopped. You cannot plan. I value everything I have. When I see my child, I’m extremely happy. There are many people who have lost close friends and relatives. They cannot be as positive as I am. This is war. But I feel alive. And I have a lot of hope for Ukraine.”
*The interviewee’s name has been changed at his request