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A long road to Ukraine

Safi sought refuge in Ukraine together with her children following the Kivu Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The process of legalising her family’s residence was challenging, but made easier thanks to a helpful migrant community.

December 8, 2020 - Eric Fritz Valeriia Mykhalko - Articles and Commentary

Safi. Photo: Private

The United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are about 6,000 asylum seekers currently awaiting a decision in Ukraine. These decisions will determine whether or not they can live and work in the country. Ukraine’s State Migration Service disputes this number and says it’s closer to 2,400. In any case, throughout the history of independent Ukraine, only about 6,000 asylum seekers have ever been granted long-term status. It’s a long and difficult road getting refugee or complementary protective status in Ukraine, and few can do it.

Safi came to Ukraine nine years ago with her second husband, Petro. Since then, Petro passed away and Safi remarried. Now, her and her third husband, Luckman, are raising their six children in a uniquely global household — one influenced by an array of African, Muslim and Ukrainian traditions. At home, Safi speaks French and Lingala because she wants the children to be familiar with her homeland, but Luckman and the children speak mostly in Russian. They practice Islam, but they eat Ukrainian food every day. “Petro taught me to cook borscht back in Congo,” Safi remembers. She loves Ukrainian food, especially borscht and blini, but she also notes that African ingredients aren’t cheap or easy to source in Kyiv. 

It’s common to have big families in Africa. On average, African women have about 4.5 children, which is three times the European average. But in Safi’s case, it’s also a result of her circumstance — she has been married three times, and each husband wanted children. Safi’s two eldest are from her first marriage, her middle three are from her marriage with Petro and the youngest is from her marriage with Luckman. Safi herself, however, was an only child — something that was deemed a bad omen back in Congo. 

Safi was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the bustling capital of Kinshasa. Kinshasa is a huge city, with a population of over 12.5 million people crowded along the southern bank of the Congo River. In broad terms, Kinshasa is considered to be the far west of the country, yet it is still some 500 kilometers inland from where the river meets the ocean. In other words — the DRC is massive. 

When Safi was just three years old, she and her parents left the big city and moved to Bukavu. She says they took a series of buses to get there, and following along Congo’s notoriously decrepit road systems, it was a journey of about 2,250 kilometers — the equivalent of moving from Kyiv to Yekaterinburg. Bukavu sits at the edge of Lake Kivu in the far east, right up against the border with Rwanda. Safi says it’s Congo’s Odessa. 

Safi has fond memories of her childhood. She remembers they lived in a shared apartment, and that the bathroom and shower stalls were outside, shared by more than a dozen people. She remembers having a plantain tree out front, and remembers cooking with her mother in little fires that they’d make on the side of the road. Everything was simple, she says, and —precipitating a common question — “Yes, I walked a lot.” 

Safi met her first husband, Cabeza, when she was 23, and less than a year later gave birth to her first son. A few years later, when Safi was pregnant with her second child, the Kivu Conflict began. 

The Kivu Conflict started in 2004 when ethnic Tutsi rebel forces occupied Bukavu for eight days in June. The war was a continuation of the same ethnic tensions which led to the earlier Congo wars, as well as the infamous Rwandan Genocide. The rebels claimed they were trying to prevent a genocide, but they committed atrocities of their own. The Kivu Conflict is still unresolved today, but it has been 16 years since it took Safi’s whole family from her. Her mother was killed and her dad just disappeared — she never found out what happened to him. 

Safi says she sees herself in the people of Donetsk and Luhansk, especially in those people who have been displaced. After her mother was killed, Safi, Cabeza and the children fled to Kinshasa. There, Cabeza abandoned her for another woman. 

At 27 years old, Safi was a single mother of two small children, and she was alone. She went to work for the first time in her life so that they wouldn’t starve. She got a job stocking produce at a fruit and vegetable shop. 

It was at the produce shop that Safi met Petro. Petro was a businessman from Konotor, and he was on business in Kinshasa when he first met her. Safi says Petro fell in love at first sight, but she was more reluctant due to his age and their different backgrounds. But Petro was persistent, and over the following six months, he continued to return to Kinshasa and stop by her little produce market. Some six months after they met, Petro rented Safi and the children a house in a wealthy neighborhood and hired them a nanny. Then Safi and Petro got married, and in the coming years they had three children together. 

At one point they travelled to Ukraine. They visited Kyiv and took a brief trip to Ismail and Kremenchuk. Safi remembers thinking it was beautiful there, but also hot. She says most people expect Congo to be hot, but that’s a misconception — it’s considered unusually hot if it gets above 33 degrees. 

Their problems started when they returned to Kinshasa from Ukraine. Safi says that after their return, she was repeatedly confronted by men who claimed to work for the Congolese secret service. They told her Petro was smuggling weapons; Safi says she knew nothing about that. A few months after she gave birth to her fifth child, the police came and arrested them both. 

When Safi was detained, she became very ill. They treated her horribly and they barely fed her. They kept her locked up for over a month without a trial and without access to her children. But for Petro it was even worse. Petro was beaten badly, and regularly. He had a heart condition before he went into the prison, and Safi worried their harsh treatment might kill him. She sold everything they had to hire a lawyer to get Petro out. He was finally released after three months, and the family spent the last of their money fleeing Congo for Ukraine. Safi says Petro’s health never recovered after that ordeal. He died a year later in Kyiv of a massive heart attack. 

When Petro died, Safi faced the threat of having to leave Ukraine. She did not have permanent residency, and without Petro she wasn’t sure she could remain. She was terrified of going back to Congo because she didn’t know what the authorities might do to her, so Safi filed for asylum in 2011. 

Safi says the refugee and asylum community got her through the next few years. As an asylum seeker, she was permitted to remain in the country while her claim was pending, but she couldn’t work, so she had to rely on charity. Migrant communities have to stick together in Ukraine — there aren’t many of them, and there are no government services for them, so it becomes necessary to find a support network. This is how Safi met Luckman. Luckman is originally from Angola and he manages a mosque and a local NGO called Assistance to Muslims. The two of them got married in 2014 — right around the same time Safi secured her complementary protection status and the right to remain in Ukraine. 

Today, Safi works at a market in Kyiv stocking produce. She says the job has really helped her improve her Russian and Ukrainian language skills, and it’s made her feel more a part of the community. She says she wishes she had been able to go to work sooner — to become a part of the community sooner. But things are pretty good now and she’s grateful for that, because it certainly wasn’t easy getting here…

Eric Fritz is the Peacebuilding Program Coordinator with Right to Protection in Kyiv. He received his LL.M in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Germany in 2018, and he regularly writes about human rights and democracy issues in Europe and Asia. 

Valeriia Mykhalko is a Business Development Specialist  of “Innovating Pathways to Integration of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Ukraine” project for CF “Right to Protection”

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