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Seeking refuge in distant Portugal

As the war in eastern Ukraine reached its peak in 2014, 157 of the 442 people seeking refuge in Portugal were Ukrainian. In 2015 at least 368 Ukrainians followed suit, making up around 42.4 per cent of all asylum requests in Portugal that year. Only a few of them are granted refugee status, but almost all receive at least some humanitarian protection. Emine Shykhametova was one of them. This is her story.

August 8, 2016 - Cátia Bruno - Articles and Commentary


It was around 11pm when Emine Shykhametova left her home in Yalta, southern Crimea, never to return. The 29-year old Ukrainian got inside her car with her husband Oleksii and 10-month old baby Masha and drove to Kyiv. They were leaving behind months of persecution, calls in the middle of the night telling them that they were “traitors” and a pervasive fear that one of them might someday “disappear”, just as Emine’s cousin had.

Emine tells her story with her almond shaped eyes focused on the same table where the tea she has just prepared is getting cold. Black eyeliner accentuates her Asian-like features, which used to catch the eye of passers-by back in Crimea. Her Tatar origins did not go unnoticed, and in the final few months she spent in her country, many made a point of insulting her on the street.

This was what Emine was leaving behind when she got inside that car, back in July 2014. After a 12-hour ride to Kyiv, some friends in the capital opened their doors so that the runaway family could take a bath and get some rest. “After that, we went to McDonald’s, because we missed it”, she says with a small laugh. Their next stop was the Maidan square, to buy souvenirs like bracelets and traditional vyshyvanka shirts, anything they could get their hands on that could help Emine remember home and the reason she was leaving her whole life behind.

More than enough reasons

“Then we went to the airport, but I could not get through the boarding area. I did not have a return ticket, but because I had a tourist visa, I had to buy one, even though I knew perfectly well that I had no intention of returning.” Her plan was simple: get on a plane to Lisbon, Portugal, along with Masha, and make an asylum request upon arrival. After purchasing two return tickets, she was left with only 100 US dollars in her pocket.

Saying goodbye to Oleksii would have been easy if it was not for all the luggage she was carrying, not to mention a crying baby. Only after passing through the first security check did she find a second to lean in and kiss her husband goodbye. Without knowing a single word of Portuguese, Emine hopped on a plane to Lisbon with her daughter sitting on her lap. She cried throughout the whole flight.

As soon as she stepped off the plane at Portela Airport in Lisbon, Emine went straight to the first police officer she saw. Speaking a mix of Russian and a few English words she knew, she told him she wanted to make an asylum request. It was late in the evening and the Immigration and Borders Service (SEF, in Portuguese) office was already closed. With no plans beyond waiting it out, Emine had to look for an airport bench where she and Masha could sleep for the night.

Early in the morning, she met with the SEF officers. No one spoke Ukrainian or Russian, or was able to find Crimea on a map, so they took her to the Portuguese Council of Refugees (CPR, Portugal’s only UNHCR-affiliated NGO), where she received help with her paperwork. On that night, more than 72 hours after leaving Yalta, Emine and Masha slept in a new, foreign bed at the CPR building.

A year and a half later, the situation at Lisbon airport is very different. Now, almost everyone in SEF and CPR knows where Crimea is and Russian and Ukrainian speaking interpreters are a phone call away. Emine was a pioneer, the first from the peninsula to seek asylum in Portugal, but after her, many more came, including a former schoolmate of hers.

Refugees arriving from Crimea and Donbas are the largest group of asylum seekers in Portugal. In 2014, as the war in eastern Ukraine reached its peak, 157 of the 442 people seeking refuge in Portugal were Ukrainian. In 2015 at least 368 Ukrainians followed suit, making up around 42.4 per cent of all requests, according to Teresa Tito de Morais, the president of CPR. Only a few of them are granted refugee status, but almost all receive at least some humanitarian protection.

“Those who live in eastern Ukraine or Crimea faced either a very intense war or significant human rights violations. There are more than enough reasons for them to ask for international protection”, says Tito de Morais.

Emine was one of them. “Those who were not pro-Russia were being discriminated against, so you can imagine how it was for those of us who have different facial features,” she says, referring to her Tatar origins. In Crimea, more than ten per cent of the population is Tatar. However, this has not prevented them from being harassed. In October 2014 Human Rights Watch reported on a “disturbing trend of abductions and threats to Crimean Tatars.”

In Emine’s case, friends were turning their backs on her and Oleksii. Some called to verbally abuse them and other people threw things at her on the street. Oleksii faced laughter and disgust from his friends, who called him a “traitor” for being married to a Tatar. Emine did not have a job and Oleksii was close to losing his as a taxi driver. Eventually, the local authorities tried to convince them to become Russian citizens. They refused. That is when they were told that if they became unemployed, their daughter could be taken from them, a gesture made much easier by the fact that they had the “wrong” nationality. In the meantime, Emine’s cousin disappeared after leaving for work one day, never to be seen again.

Portugal by chance

“People became like zombies. Suddenly, the Russian flag appeared in every window,” Emine says. A 29-year old student of law, she says that she never gave much thought to politics or the news, but admits that the EuroMaidan Revolution politicised her. “We started following the events closely when the first protester was killed,” she recalls. “After that point, we kept watching the news on independent TV channels.” Her mobile phone illustrates her patriotism towards Ukraine, as our conversation is interrupted by the Ukrainian national anthem, which she has set as her ringtone.

 “There were never any issues with becoming part of Russia before,” she continues. “People with an education understood it was all propaganda, but everybody else believed it. They thought a plumber would make as much money as a doctor and that they would start to receive pensions as large as those in Soviet times.”

None of this would have been much of a problem to Emine and her family were it not for the persecution they started feeling in their daily lives. On March 16th 2014, when the referendum result was announced, she and Oleksii understood that things were going to change for the worse. That is when they began thinking about leaving, something that eventually happened four months later.

Emine’s family chose to come to Portugal almost by chance. They wanted to go someplace far away, but still in Europe. Ideally, the climate would be similar to Crimea’s, the country would be open and tolerant towards refugees, and it would also be a NATO member, where the family would feel safe. They took all of this into consideration and ended up choosing Portugal, a small Mediterranean country with 10.5 million inhabitants on the other side of Europe, crammed between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean.

“Many asylum seekers from Ukraine chose Portugal because it is a European country, but smaller and with more integration potential”, says Teresa Tito de Morais. Although this was not Emine’s case, the CPR president notes another factor: the struggle to get refugee status in countries closer to Ukraine. “Poland, for instance, has a completely different policy from Portugal.”

The numbers support this theory. According to data from the Polish Office for Foreigners, since 2013, only two Ukrainians have received refugee status in the country and only 24 received subsidiary protection, out of approximately 3,000 requests per year. Poland already deals with a large influx of Ukrainians who receive short-term work visas (it is estimated that more than 500,000 are currently in the country), but this makes life much harder for those who are trying to get humanitarian protection. Polish authorities invoke the “internal flight alternative”, saying that most Ukrainians could relocate to other areas of their country that are not affected by the war. As a result, many decide to request asylum in more distant countries, such as Portugal.


Another factor comes into play when analysing refugees’ motivations. Teresa Tito de Morais estimates that around 30 to 40 per cent of these asylum seekers are familiar with Portugal. They either have friends of family living there or may even have worked there in the past. At the beginning of the 2000s, many Ukrainians came to Portugal to work, mainly looking for jobs in the then booming construction business. Between 2001 and 2003, nearly 65,000 residential permits were granted to Ukrainians in Portugal, a large number that does not include those who may have entered the country illegally.

José Carlos Marques, a researcher from the Social Studies Centre of Coimbra University, was one of the few who studied the Ukrainian immigration phenomenon in Portugal. Noting that many of these immigrants have since returned to Ukraine, Marques thinks a set of different circumstances helps explain how this immigrant community was created. “It is related to the frail economic conditions in Ukraine, as well as the employment opportunities in Portugal,” he concludes. However, there are also other factors to consider, such as the ease of getting a short-term visa, the Schengen area and the actions of criminal networks disguised as travel agencies that scammed many Ukrainians with the promise of guaranteed work.

Most of these immigrants came from the western part of Ukraine, although there was also a large flow of people who came from the Donetsk region. Marques does not remember political issues being discussed by these migrants back in 2003, but small details haunt him today when he looks at the current situation. “I remember that when we carried out this study back then, some of the people that were born in Ukrainian territory were already claiming to be Russian.”

In fact, many of the Ukrainians that arrive in Portugal do not have as strong of an anti-Russian feeling as Emine. Those who do usually get in contact with the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal, an organisation responsible for organising events in support of the Ukrainian soldiers, as well as sending them clothes and food. However, co-habitation with refugees that have a more pro-Russian stance is difficult, as Emine readily admits.

 This is visible at the Church of All Saints, one of the largest Orthodox communities in Lisbon. It would be a natural gathering point for many in the Ukrainian community, but its ties to the Moscow Patriarchate leave some feeling excluded.

“Our church is absolutely open for everyone, no matter the nationality,” says Jorge Divisa. This Russian man, who makes a point of adapting his name to a more Portuguese sounding version (“Jorge” is the equivalent of “Yuri” in Portuguese), has been living in Portugal for the past 15 years and is currently one of the leaders in the All Saints community. When he realised after a Sunday mass that a journalist was there to ask whether Ukrainian refugees were a part of this religious community, he was a little startled and insisted that he should be the one doing the talking on such a subject.

After initially stating that no Ukrainian refugees had contacted them, Jorge later corrects this statement. Until that day, only two people from Donbas had come asking for help in the past two years. He even briefly introduced  me to one of them, a shy and skinny young man in his early 20s, who stuttered as he said “hello”. Yet once again, Jorge is conducting the conversation, pushing the boy away and closing the door, while saying that if people with different political views arrive on the church’s doorstep, they will be welcomed with open arms. “We leave all of that outside the church, the church is for peace. We just pray that things get better,” he assures me.

Sensitive issues

Teresa Tito de Morais sometimes sees these political differences reflected back in Portugal. “People who were friends yesterday can be enemies today. This is very delicate and even while the country is convulsing, a post-conflict reconciliation has to be prepared.” Despite this, overall, from what she sees at CPR’s reception centre, Teresa feels that the Ukrainian refugees will adapt quickly to life in Portugal. “They are Europeans and they come with the purpose of integrating and making themselves useful. I think this is a community with more integration potential than many others.”

Emine thinks the same way. Apart from the Portuguese habit of arriving late, the Ukrainian feels content with most things in her new country. In the meantime, her husband joined the family and found a job in construction, while she stays at home taking care of their second-child Yulia, who was born in Portugal in September 2015. They are living in an apartment on the outskirts of Lisbon and both Oleksii and their oldest daughter Masha already speak fluent Portuguese. Masha insists on being called Maria (the Portuguese equivalent) and speaks Portuguese around the house with her father.

Although she is a fierce Ukrainian nationalist, speaking Russian (her mother tongue) is one of the few things that connects Emine to her homeland, Crimea, where she moved with her parents and two siblings from Uzbekistan when she was two-years old, back in 1988. Back then, they were welcomed with the same insult of “traitors” that she heard on the phone and in the streets in 2014. Eventually, things got easier with time and her parents felt that they were coming back to their promised land, which made everything more bearable.

Today, Emine’s parents refuse to leave the Crimean peninsula. Their decision conflicts Emine; on the one hand, she is trying to move on with her life in a new country, but on the other, she is still tied to her past when her thoughts helplessly drift back to Crimea. She cannot help but to compare her parents’ story with that night in July 2014 when she had to leave her home. “I felt like I was going through the same ordeal as my parents, leaving with my daughter in my arms and selling everything to get enough money for the trip.”

She chokes up, with tears streaming down from her eyes, as she takes a deep breath to sum it all up in one sentence: “The difference between me and my parents is that instead of arriving home, I was running away from home.”

Cátia Bruno is a journalist based in Lisbon. She writes mainly for Expresso.

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