They counted the days until they could return to Ukraine. Now, they’re not sure they’ll go back

Written by on February 20, 2023

CHICAGO – When the Russian rockets started flying over his region of Ukraine, Nazar Volianiuk, his wife and three kids hastily packed clothes, piled into two cars and fled to the Polish border. 

They waited two frightening days in line at a crossing clogged with refugees, scrambling for cover in a roadside forest amid the scream of air raid sirens.

Like many who fled Russia’s invasion a year ago, Volianiuk, 31, and his wife, Natalia, 32, figured it would be safe to return to their home in Lutsk, Ukraine, after a few months. 

Today, Volianiuk is settled in a tidy suburban apartment outside Chicago, with a cable company job, kids in school and a supportive community – and no desire to return to Ukraine, even when the conflict ends.

“No chance,” he said, drinking tea in his Chicago apartment on a recent day. “We want to stay here.”

Ukrainian refugees Nazar Volianiuk, 31, his wife Natalia Voianuik, 32 and three children stand in front of their apartment in Chicago.

One year after Russia’s invasion sparked Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, more than 8 million refugees are scattered in Europe, the U.S. and beyond. As the conflict they fled grinds on, their new roots grow deeper. 

Amid new jobs, languages and lives hangs a consequential question: Not just when to go home, but whether. 

How many ultimately return to Ukraine is a question with important ramifications: for refugees, including those with temporary immigration status; for host countries that see tensions as new residents add to their workforce but strain their housing and schools; and for Ukraine’s capacity to rebuild its country and economy. 

A United Nations survey that included 43 countries, published in September, found that 81% of refugees hoped to return to Ukraine one day, though most said they plan for now to stay in their host countries. 

But as the war drags on, the impetus to return is likely to diminish, experts say. 

“The longer it lasts, the greater chance that people really start to envision and build up a life (outside of Ukraine) and not go back,” said Hanne Beirens, who heads the Migration Policy Institute of Europe. 

Last year, a European Commission official estimated up to 3 million might decide to stay in other countries in Europe. Other estimates put the total number of Ukrainians settling elsewhere at 5 million or even more.

But accurate forecasts are difficult given the unknowns as the war marks a grim milestone, including an apparent new Russian offensive and a recent poll showing declining U.S. public support for military aid to Ukraine. 

For now, millions of displaced Ukrainians living abroad –  including more than a quarter-million in the U.S. – are left in limbo as they grapple with questions about their future.

“We are hearing, ‘Yes, We’d like to go back, but what are we going back to?” said Dylanna Grasinger, director of U.S. field offices for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which provides services to Ukrainians. “One day it’s yes, the next day it’s no.”

More:Ukraine-Russia war has scattered families worldwide. Hear their stories of survival.

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In Germany, a Bucha survivor looks homeward 

On a recent February day, Diana Guloz was getting ready for a yoga class in her small German town, a key respite from caring for her infant child and war’s traumas.

Guloz, 35, a language teacher from Kyiv, was pregnant when she fled to Bucha after the war began, only to find herself in the middle of a battle that led to Russia’s takeover of the town. 

Praying in a basement as fighting raged, she then spent a terrifying few weeks in a city without electricity and gas, scared each day of being shot or raped. A slew of civilian deaths later sparked war crimes investigations

When Russian troops finally retreated, she fled to Germany, which was among the European nations that provided temporary protection and help with housing, health care, language courses and work permits.

In the town of Stralsund – at the edge of the Baltic Sea, a thousand miles from her home –  she gave birth to her son, Ellis. 

Diana Guloz, 35, a language teacher from Kyiv, and her son, Ellis.

Like Guloz, most of the more than 1 million Ukrainians who arrived in Germany are women with children. In Ukraine, men of certain ages are barred from leaving the country because of the war.

Grateful for the welcome refuge, she said she never thought she’d be in Germany for the past 11 months. More recently, she said, some Ukrainians have seen anecdotal signs of resentment emerge. Some fellow refugees’ children struggle to be accepted at school.

She’s working to learn German and find work, but life there can feel at times like the “backside of the moon.”

“I want to go back to Ukraine as soon as possible,” she said.

But some others plan to stay, including some who lost homes or worry about their ability to thrive economically once the war ends.

An October survey in Germany for the research group EconPol Europe found that  21% said they didn’t intend to return to Ukraine, and 27% said they weren’t sure. Only 6% planned to return soon. 

“A large share of Ukrainians will not be ready, or willing, to return for quite some time,” analysts wrote in their study of the poll.

Guloz is not sure what will happen when legal permission to stay in EU member states expires in March 2024, though it could be extended again.

Though some feel safe enough in Kyiv, she said, her brother told her that a bomb landed close to his apartment recently. It was a reminder of her own post-traumatic stress that still lingers, another force keeping her from going back right now.

“I remember the worst days,” she said, the Bucha battles and the Russian occupation. “There are a lot of pictures in my imagination.”

In Poland, refugee advocates see rising struggles

Ukrainians Nataliia Lukashevych, 22, and her colleague, Yuliia Fedyk, 25, spend their days in Warsaw, Poland helping refugees reach the United States.

Poland has taken in 1.5 million Ukrainians, the most of any nation – many of whom were greeted with help from hot meals at the border to housing – as well as health insurance, education and other benefits.

A volunteer helps a Ukrainian refugee walk along a platform at a railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on Friday, March 25, 2022.

Some had connections in Poland, long a destination for Ukrainian migrant workers. Though the influx has bolstered the labor force, it has also strained housing and schools. 

“Living conditions in Poland are not very comfortable. With very low salaries, housing prices are simply exorbitant. People …. sometimes cannot meet their basic needs,”  Lukashevych said, explaining why some want to reach the U.S. for the chance to earn more money.

In March, refugees will have to begin to pay half of government housing costs after four months, a fraction that will later rise. Still, one poll found that 27% of Ukrainians plan to stay for good, even after the war. 

Lukashevych and Fedyk work for American Service in Ukraine, a small nonprofit that matches Ukrainians with U.S. sponsors in Minnesota and supports them with jobs and other aid.

Many reach out to them on Telegram in messages that underscore the suffering driving people to flee Ukraine: People without heat or electricity. Workers who are unable to earn money. Residents exhausted by air raids. Parents seeking a safe life for their children. Women journeying alone as their husbands fight in the war. 

Lukashevych said most want to stay in the U.S. permanently.

On Jan. 10, one of those messages arrived from a 42-year-old man named Buryi Mykhailo. He was an Army veteran and former coal plant worker from Donetsk, he wrote, but was forced to flee in 2014 during fighting with pro-Russian separatists.

He and his girlfriend moved to Vasylkiv, in central Ukraine. The day Russia invaded last year, he woke at 5 a.m. to explosions as an airfield in the town was bombed. The couple fled again, and two days later, a shell destroyed their home.

They finally reached western Ukraine, and with Lukashevych and Fedyk’s help, planned to buy his flight to the U.S. in February. 

“We are fleeing the war for the second time and have been living out of our suitcases,” he wrote in the message.

Mykhailo told Lukashevych that he still wants to be able to visit relatives in Ukraine and Europe. But the priority, he said, is to stay legally in the United States and build a new life.

In Minnesota, Ukrainians meet aid, uncertainty 

Sofiia Rudenko, 22, spends her days in constant motion, helping newly arrived Ukrainians in Minneapolis who need housing, furniture, groceries and a ride to job interviews.

A university student in Ukraine when the war started, she reached the U.S. and now works with ASIU, which provides full resettlement support for sponsors of Ukrainians. So far, she’s among more than 50 to have arrived in Minneapolis with the nonprofit’s support.

“Nobody expected the war to be this long,” she said. Now, “everyone can see it’s not going end the in near future.”

About 110,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the U.S. as part of the Biden administration’s Uniting for Ukraine program, which grants humanitarian parole for displaced Ukrainians who have a U.S. sponsor. About 35,000 have been approved for arrival, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

And 151,000 Ukrainians have entered the United States through other immigration channels since March 24 last year, a DHS spokesman said.

The U.S. has received more than 200,000 requests agreeing to support Ukrainian parolees as part of Uniting for Ukraine, ranging from individual families and churches to nonprofits and other groups.

Though it has often worked well, some people have found themselves overwhelmed by the needs, said Chris George, who heads Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a refugee resettlement agency in Connecticut. 

In Minneapolis, some of the Ukrainian arrivals, many of them well educated, work for employers including Home Depot, which allows them to send money to relatives in Ukraine. Rudenko herself has sent battery banks and electric blankets to her family.

Sofiia Rudenko, 22, right, helps newly arrived Ukrainians in Minneapolis who are supported by the non-profit American Service in Ukraine.

What their future holds is less clear, said Aswar Raham, who started the organization. That includes being uncertain what happens when their parole status expires in two years.

And many aren’t sure whether they will return, even once they decide it’s safe enough or the war ends. Right now, it’s difficult to make any plans. 

“The uncertainty built into all this is just incomprehensible,” he said. 

Indeed, many Ukrainians in Minnesota want to go back, he said, but it’s complicated. He cited one couple with a young child. They are thriving, earning a middle-class salary. But they will probably face an agonizing dilemma at some point. 

“They’re going to have to make the call in a few years to decide whether they go back to their country to rebuild … or stay here for the sake of her daughter’s education and her future,” he said.

In Chicago, support leads to deepening roots

Inside Volianiuk’s ground-floor apartment not far from the Chicago airport, pairs of children’s shoes sit near the door. In one bedroom, Olena, 9, Oleksandr, and Maksym 3, play on the floor. 

Though most men are barred from emigrating, Volianiuk said he was allowed to leave Ukraine because he has three children. After months in Poland, he was admitted to the U.S. in the fall under a program that allows members of religious minorities in former Soviet Union countries to join U.S. family members.

He was among the many Ukrainians who were already seeking to migrate before the war, hoping to provide a better life for his children.

Ukrainian refugee Natalia Voianuik, 32 plays with her children in the family’s apartment in Chicago.

In Chicago, he found a large Ukrainian community. RefugeeOne, Chicago’s largest resettlement agency, helped provide everything from housing and groceries to laptops to furniture.

They quickly found a community at a Ukrainian Baptist church. They’re learning English and have children attending an elementary school nearby. Volianiuk, who worked in civil engineering in Ukraine, is earning enough with a cable company to support the family.

Though he’s determined to stay, he said, views on eventually returning are mixed among those who fled the war. 

“A lot of Ukrainians want to come back home to Ukraine. And a lot of Ukrainians want to stay in the USA or in Europe,” he said, his wife adding that some in Ukraine resent those who fled the country. 

A RefugeeOne spokesman said it often depends on where they are from: Those from Eastern Ukraine, especially from places such as Mariupol and Bakhmut, often feel they have little to which to return.

What the future holds

Ukrainian officials are increasingly worried about how a prolonged war will affect its workforce and ability to rebuild, Beirens said. Labor shortages in Europe could mean health care workers or college professors find better-paying jobs. 

The war has already decimated millions of jobs in Ukraine and sent tax revenue plummeting, according to a Crisis Group report. The World Bank has projected that Ukraine’s shrinking economy could push the majority of the population below the poverty line.

How many ultimately return is hard to predict based on past examples, she said, in part because of how the Ukrainian crisis differs. During the Syrian war’s refugee crisis, it was mainly men who went abroad first to find work and then bring their families. In Ukraine’s case, it’s mostly women and children. 

Kateryna Odarchenko, a Ukrainian political consultant, wrote last year that “at the end of martial law, the husbands of the women who have left will probably rejoin their families, since those families will have already settled into life in other countries,” potentially fueling a demographic crisis in an aging nation.

Leading up to this month’s signs of a new Russian offensive, refugee populations had been relatively steady, said Simon Schlegel, a Kyiv-based Ukraine analyst for the International Crisis Group. 

After the initial rush a year ago, Ukrainian military gains led to more returns than exits by last summer, he said. That changed in the fall as Russia targeted Ukraine’s power grid.  By early February, the feared winter surge hadn’t materialized, Schlegel said.

Children look through a car window as they and other refugees from the Kharkiv Region of Ukraine come to a temporary camp in Belgorod, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Thousands fled northeastern Ukraine to Russia amid the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the region.

Much of what comes next also depends on the fate of those internally displaced, and those who left for Russia, Schlegel said. While larger cities are more likely to draw people back, some Ukrainian towns in the east, which grew up around a coal or fertilizer plant, could suffer the most from depopulation.

“It’s hard to imagine some of these towns will come to life again, that people will pick up from Germany in come back,” he said. 

In Ukraine, Mykhailo Tsikhovskyi, 28, who formerly aided refugees and internally displaced residents but is now in a Ukrainian military unit, said his nation first must focus on the fight. “We need to win first, the rest is a matter of time,” he said via Whatsapp. 

Volianiuk’s family hasn’t been immune to the war’s toll and sacrifice. His brother-in-law, a pilot, was killed in action during the fighting early in the war. And they have ensured that the home they left behind could be used by multiple families among the 6 million displaced within Ukraine.

If the war ended today, he said, it could take a decade to rebuild from fighting that devastated homes, along with businesses and energy infrastructure.

But nobody knows the future.

For now, he’s focused on building the best life he can for his children. 

Chris Kenning is a national correspondent. Reach him at and on Twitter @chris_kenning.

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