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Abkhazia: shelter for Ukrainians fleeing war At the height of the war in eastern Ukraine, more than 200 families from Luhansk and Donetsk found shelter in Abkhazia

Ilya moved to Abkhazia from the city of Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine in 2010 to care for his sick grandmother. Four years later, the armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine. Fleeing from the shelling, residents of Luhansk and Donetsk left their homes en masse. Some fled to Russia, others found refuge in Ukraine. When the wave of refugees, or, officially, IDPs reached Abkhazia, Ilya opened a consultation centre for the Luhansk-Donetsk diaspora.

From Luhansk to Abkhazia

Ilya Podkolzin is 38 years old, and has worked as an event manager in show business – organizing nightclub events, concerts. First, he did so at home, then took to Turkey.

He arrived in Abkhazia in order to take care of an injured grandmother who was living there, and Ilya decided to stay.

In the very first year, Ilya got a job at the Sukhumi Electricity Structures Administration (SUES) as a design engineer and still works here.

“In April 2014, when the war began, I urgently left for Luhansk to pick up the rest of the documents, see what happened to the apartment, and, in general, to understand how things were going. Ukrainian border guards did not let me in for a while, then they finally gave in, but we couldn’t make it to the city. We found ourselves under fire twice... We returned to the border. And there, on the Russian side, a huge refugee camp was set up. I went there and asked how I could help. Everyone who learned that I was from Abkhazia said – go home, there’ll be more use out of you."

In June 2014, Ilya returned to Abkhazia and immediately got down to business – to gather immigrants from Eastern Ukraine in Abkhazia.

“To begin with, I tried to understand how many of us were there. It was very difficult, because there was no centralized information. People from Luhansk and Donetsk were reluctant to get in touch, they were simply afraid. I managed to find about 15 families, we exchanged numbers, kept in touch. In early 2015, international organizations – the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Danish Refugee Council – helped a lot. They implemented projects here for repatriates from Syria, and I somehow managed to get in. Together we created a database and held the first meeting of the diaspora. More than 100 families joined us, and many had information about others who also lived in Abkhazia, but could not come. By the end of 2015, there were 205 families in our database."
Ilya Podkolzin at work
“Until 2016, we met periodically. When the database was finally formed, UNDP offered help: they gave out sets of dishes, bed linen, folding beds, shelves, chairs. This helped a lot, because many rented almost empty rooms and slept on mattresses on the floor. The Abkhaz themselves reacted with great sympathy to us. They often said that they wanted to help, because they knew what war was. Many allowed them to live in their apartments and houses for free, giving away clothes and shoes."

He says that the migrants had almost no problems with work. There is no language barrier, there are not enough specialists in Abkhazia. Everyone who wanted to could get a job.

"They take up any task – men are car mechanics, computer technicians, football coaches, masseurs. Many women are in trade or in the service sector – waiters, manicurists, beauticians, fitness instructors. Salaries are small, but everyone has enough for living. There are families who were able to save up for an apartment in five years. For example, in SUES I get up to 15 thousand rubles (about 190 dollars) a month. Of course, you can't feed your family with this money, but I also work part-time – I teach children computer science; my wife has also recently started working. It’s difficult to get an official employment, because we are not citizens. The reason is trivial – bureaucracy, a lot of paperwork, bosses do not want to get involved.”

Vika

At the end of 2018, Ilya went home – he took the Abkhaz delegation of observers to the elections in the Luhansk People's Republic. There he met his future wife Vika. They got married in the summer of 2019, in the fall Vika and her daughter Sasha reunited with Ilya in Abkhazia.

Vika

Unlike Ilya, the war caught Vika in Lugansk.

“The first shots were in early May 2014. Gradually the shelling became more intense, we boarded up the windows, and Sasha was only two years old. You can't explain to your child why she can't go outside – she was capricious, she wanted to walk. My brother was in the militia and when they helped the wives of the militiamen flee, he put us in the list, so in July I left with my daughter and mother for Krasnodar. A year later, the fighting more or less subsided, and we returned home."

Since 2000, Vika worked in the Luhansk regional hospital as a nurse, and then as a paramedic in the Ministry of Emergencies.

"In Abkhazia, I had difficulty to find a job at first. Usually there are not enough doctors everywhere, but since there is a medical school, there are a lot of junior medical staff. I think the reason why they accepted me in the ambulatory department was that the head physician appreciated my work experience – I have the highest qualifications. I'm still interning, getting used to it, but tomorrow is already the first shift. The schedule is a day in three."

Vika and Ilya in Sukhum

Many went back

In 2018, when Russia announced that citizens of the LPR and DPR would be able to obtain Russian passports, all international organizations stopped financial support, says Ilya.

"They said: We’re sorry, Ilya, now let Putin help you."

At the same time began a massive outflow of refugees back to their homeland. Active hostilities were over, it became safer, some LPR authorities restored housing, someone went to get a passport and received a lucrative job offer. "Overall, many have left. There are about 90 families left, but these are unlikely to leave."

Despite the fact that Abkhazia does not officially recognize the independence of the LPR and DPR, the regime of entry into Abkhazia for their residents is simplified. For example, tourists with Luhansk and Donetsk residence permits are allowed to enter without a passport and visa; upon arrival, they just need to register with the police at their place of residence, and it could be that no one even asks them when they are going to leave. And if people want to stay for a long time, then they need a work visa (it is issued for a maximum of a year) and a work permit. All together it costs about 13-15,000 rubles (160-190 dollars).

Ilya fought for a long time for the citizens of the LPR and DPR to be issued a temporary residence permit for up to 4 years. But since there are no diplomatic relations between Abkhazia and the LPR / DPR, this could not be achieved.

Vika at work

Sasha

Since January 2020, Ilya’s stepdaughter Alexandra has been attending a Russian school in Sukhumi. The programs coincide; she didn't have to catch up. She made friends quickly too, so she no longer misses Luhansk. It is convenient that Sukhum School #2 is located right across the street from the SUES, where Ilya works. At lunchtime, he takes his daughter, and they go home for a meal.

If mom is at work or Ilya has urgent business, they go to the office, where Sasha will always find something to do with herself. At five o'clock, if the weather permits, the whole family travels to the Makhadzhirov Embankment, where Sasha goes rollerblading, and mom and dad drink coffee. So far, Sasha likes the weather the most in Abkhazia. The girl loves to draw and does hip-hop.

Sasha on the embankment

“Of course, there are difficulties,” Vika says, “a foreign country, strangers. But there are also a lot of advantages. Sasha has problems with her thyroid gland, she’s better off living by the sea. All kinds of children's circles also – in Lugansk now almost all classes are indoors, and here there isn’t even a proper winter, so you can walk outside every single day. At home she went to dances and to the pool. Here there is no pool, but the sea from May to October – it's even better. She loves roller skates and here she has plenty of space, while in Lugansk there’s barely any flat road left – it is impossible to drive a car, let alone rollerblade. When we moved here, Sasha said several times: Mom, it’s so good that we brought the rollers, now I’ll finally get enough of it."

Author: Nadezhda Borovikova, Sukhum

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