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‘They thought we were crazy’: Why millions of Ukrainian refugees are coming home

More than 9 million people have left Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Now the border traffic is moving in both directions.

“The end of March was the most pessimistic time: The Kyiv region hadn’t been liberated yet, more and more towns were getting occupied, and the West was not providing us arms fast enough,” the 24-year-old told Grid. “Russia’s narrative about nuclear weapons was also quite terrifying, and my dad persuaded me to leave, ‘so at least one of us can survive.’”

Grid spoke to several refugees who have chosen to return in recent months, all of whom pointed to a central motivation familiar to people everywhere: the yearning to be home. The shift in the war — from central Ukraine to the eastern provinces — has helped by providing them a chance to retrace their steps with a better chance at safety. None said they were returning because of trouble in their new host countries; they described warm welcomes received across Europe — in France, Italy, Germany, Croatia and beyond.

Despite the high numbers, the returnees are in the minority — many of their compatriots who fled in recent months remain reluctant to make the journey back, and they, too, have good reasons: The Kremlin’s campaign of terror continues, even if it is now focused largely on one slice of Ukraine. Surveys of refugees have found many who still fear Russian attacks, whether they live in the battle-scarred east or somewhere else. It may take an end to the hostilities to lure these people home.

The pull of home

Pavlenko told Grid she felt the urge to return almost from the start, even as she crossed Poland and made her way — first to France and then Italy — during the second month of the war.

At first, Paris seemed attractive — not only for the obvious reasons but also because of her profession; she already knew people in the fashion world there and hoped to find work. Her first stop: the home of an acquaintance near the Eiffel Tower that became, in the early days of the invasion, a mini camp for Ukrainian refugees. “It was a one-bedroom apartment, but there were four of us plus a dog,” she told Grid.

The welcome was warm — but Pavlenko, who had left her family and boyfriend behind, said memories of Kyiv made Paris “a place of pain.”

“The first few days were the worst,” she said. “I had huge support from my friends but also a huge hole in my heart. I was crying every time I heard my mom’s voice on the phone. Every time I saw photos from Kyiv. Every time anything reminded me of home, which I thought at the time I had lost.

“Back then, I did not have any information about whether my apartment was destroyed or not,” she told Grid. “I left it with one backpack and not a single hope to go back.”

Nor, initially, did Vladlena Averina, a dermatologist, who until the outbreak of war worked at her clinic in downtown Kyiv, in a quarter of the city that saw frequent Russian missile attacks in the first phase of the fighting. “We heard firearms and street fights. Then the rockets exploded near my house,” the 48-year-old told Grid. “A lot was going on. The situation was developing rapidly. The supermarket shelves were empty. No dairy, no meat, no fish, nothing, just canned food.”

She fled to Croatia in early March with her mother and two daughters; like Pavlenko’s boyfriend, Averina’s husband remained in Ukraine. The welcome in Croatia, she told Grid, was heartfelt: “The Croatians were so good to us, taking our pain personally. They had the same history of terror with the Serbian invasion [during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s].”

But — echoing Pavlenko and indeed refugees everywhere — the tug of home remained. “Before the war, we had a very comfortable life in Ukraine,” she said. “There is a great deal of difference in living like a refugee in Europe.”

There was also the paperwork she had to navigate, particularly when it came to making sure her family could use local public services in Croatia such as healthcare. “The system is very bureaucratic,” she said. “Everything is slow and problematic.”

She missed her husband and her patients. The latter was also true for Averina’s mother, who is also a doctor. “My patients kept messaging me with questions about their health. My mother also kept working as her patients kept calling her with questions,” she said.

Now back in Kyiv, Averina said her patients marked her return in May with “flowers and sweets.”

“My home is in Kyiv,” she said. “My husband is here. I don’t even want to think about evacuating my family again. Never.”

Pavlenko also spoke of the desire to return to her old life. After Paris, she moved to Italy to stay with her boyfriend’s relatives. She tried to work, looking for assignments via friends and acquaintances in Europe to keep herself busy and not think about the horrors unfolding in her homeland.

“But I felt useless in Italy,” she told Grid. “I tried to get myself together. But whenever I thought about what I really wanted, the answer was the same: to go back to Ukraine.”

The locals tried to help, she said — but their questions about the situation in her homeland, about what life there was like, only made her more homesick.

“Italians asked me if we have sushi or internet in Ukraine,” she said. “My refugee experience made me realize how beautiful was my life prewar. I had an apartment in the center of Kyiv, had a good income, all my friends and family were close and safe.”

Too worried to come home

Many other refugees have pined for the lives they left behind — but for a variety of reasons, they have stayed in their adopted countries.

Only about 16 percent said they planned to go back, and many among them said they intended to visit only briefly — to see relatives or to help those left behind escape from Ukraine.

The situation is utterly different in Kyiv, as several former refugees who have returned told Grid. Aspects of normal life have resumed, with cafes and restaurants open; nights spent in bunkers and bomb shelters are, for now, a thing of the past.

Still, the threat of war — or to be more precise, of a Russian missile — is ever present. That alone is enough to keep some refugees from coming home.

Did they come back too soon?

Worries about safety weighed on the minds of Darya Kovalenko and her family long after they escaped to Germany in the early days of the war. A Kyiv-based public relations professional, Kovalenko left with her 12-year-old brother, her mother and a friend, ending up, soon after the outbreak of hostilities, in the German village of Oberrotweil.

“The local mayor immediately found temporary housing for our family,” she told Grid. “For three weeks, we stayed with a German woman named Katrin.”

Kovalenko echoed other refugees in remarking on the generous reception she and her family received. “In Europe, the war was not forgotten,” she said. People went out of their way to assist them in their new lives as refugees, she added.

But the “news from home was always on our minds. And although you are physically safe, your soul is there, with relatives who stay at home,” said Kovalenko.

That ultimately brought her back at the beginning of June, despite concerns of a renewed Russian assault beyond the eastern provinces. “The Germans thought we were crazy for even thinking about returning to Kyiv,” she said. “We tried to tell them that the city is now calmer. But it is also true that it might have been too soon. The city is calmer, but things still get tense.”

Pavlenko is also mindful of the risk, so much so that she has taken up self-defense training since she returned to Kyiv.

But above all, she is grateful to be back. “I hope I won’t have to flee the war ever again,” she said. “I would not wish that experience on anyone.”

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