In her alteration shop in Warsaw, Marina Shevchenko puts a pink sleeve under the sewing machine. “Sometimes I can’t even believe how well we did,” says the 43-year-old Ukrainian. On March 17, shortly after the start of the Russian attack on her homeland, she fled the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro to Poland with her 15-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. “I didn’t want to traumatize my children. That’s why I didn’t stay in Ukraine until they bombed Dnipro.” First they stayed in a hostel, then they lived cramped in a Polish woman’s apartment for four months.

A year after the start of the war, Marina and her children settled in Poland. The seamstress runs her own alterations workshop, her son is training to be a cook, and her daughter attends a Polish elementary school. Marina does not plan to return to Ukraine. She says: “Poland is in the EU. When my children do their education here, it’s internationally recognised.”

Ukraine refugees in Germany

Many Ukraine refugees in Poland – and Germany – are like Marina. The longer the war lasts, the more they see their prospects in the country that offered them sanctuary.

After Poland, Germany has taken in the most war refugees from Ukraine. According to a representative survey, 37 percent of refugees want to stay in Germany forever or for several years, 34 percent of them until the end of the war, whenever that is. 27 percent of the mostly female refugees are still undecided. And only 2 percent plan to leave Germany again within a year.

“I’ll be going home soon” – we hear that sentence less and less,” says Olena Senyk, who heads the family support department for the Ukrainian House Foundation in Warsaw. Shortly after the start of the war, the main focus was on the basic needs of the refugees: food, shelter, clothing. “We now also offer careers advice and language courses.”

More than eight million Ukraine refugees

Since the beginning of the war, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has registered more than eight million Ukraine refugees in Europe. Accordingly, a good 4.8 million have a status as those seeking protection, more than 1.5 million of them in Poland. However, the UNHCR also admits that the information on the number of people seeking protection is inaccurate, as multiple reports are also recorded in several countries. Germany has taken in just over a million people from Ukraine.

Although Poland, with its nearly 38 million inhabitants, offers protection to a relatively large number of Ukrainians, social support for the refugees remains high. That shows a survey by sociologists from the University of Warsaw in January. According to this, 87 percent of those surveyed believe that their country must help the Ukraine refugees. And more than a third (37 percent) think Poland should allow refugees to settle permanently.

In Germany, too, there is a great deal of understanding for the needs of Ukrainian refugees who are admitted to the states of the European Union without applying for asylum. However, since the number of asylum seekers seeking protection in Germany has been increasing for several months, there are now problems in numerous municipalities. The capacities for accommodation, language courses, school and daycare places are not sufficient.

Adult war refugees mostly women

Since men of military age are usually not allowed to leave Ukraine, a good 69 percent of the adult war refugees who have found refuge in Germany are women. As of January 15, around 140,000 refugees from Ukraine have left Germany, according to official figures, either to return to their homeland or to travel on to another country. There are many reasons, including homesickness, relatives in need of care, and the worry of losing your old job. Those who come from a city that was badly damaged in the war are more inclined to think about reuniting their families in Germany later.

The fact that the Ukraine refugees are allowed to stay immediately via an EU directive and receive basic income, but other people seeking protection do not, has triggered a discussion in some milieus in Germany about first- and second-class refugees. At least there is no difference when it comes to access to the integration courses. Because the traffic light government has decided that not only foreigners with good prospects of staying may attend such courses. Even if this leads to capacity problems in some places, the Federal Government Commissioner for Integration, Reem Alabali-Radovan, says: “The decision remains correct to open the integration courses to everyone regardless of residence status and origin, because it is important that everyone has the opportunity right from the start should have to learn German and get involved here.

According to the Federal Ministry of Labor, around 430,600 admissions to integration courses were granted and approximately 224,100 participants were registered between the beginning of the war and the end of January. According to preliminary information, around 125,000 people with Ukrainian nationality were employed in jobs subject to social security contributions last November, around 67,000 more than before the start of the war on February 24, 2022.

Fresh start in another country

Poland grants the Ukrainian refugees free access to the health system, they also receive a one-off welcome payment and are entitled to monthly child benefits of 110 euros per child. There is no more. According to the latest available data from last autumn, the majority of refugees in Germany live on social benefits. According to the Federal Employment Agency, around 432,000 employable refugees from Ukraine and 218,000 non-employable – mostly children – received citizen benefits in October. At the end of September 2022, around 65,000 Ukrainian nationals were receiving basic security benefits in old age and in the event of reduced earning capacity, around 45,000 more beneficiaries than before the war.

New beginnings are not as easy for all Ukraine refugees in Poland as Marina, the seamstress. Older people in particular find it difficult. Entrepreneur Wadym Onishchuk, who runs a collective accommodation on the outskirts of Warsaw with other private individuals, said: “We currently have 1,100 people. For many, we’re just a transit station, but 600 just can’t get away.” One of the regular guests is Vladimir, a retired chef from the Kherson area. “My house is destroyed, where should I go?” asks the 65-year-old. He wants to continue, to Germany, where the conditions are better, he says. Nevertheless, Vladimir has been stuck in the collective accommodation for three months. Why doesn’t he go to Germany? He can’t find an answer himself. “Maybe he’s scared of starting over again,” says one volunteer quietly.