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Life in exile — a report on Belarusian women abroad

The political events of 2020 in Belarus have fundamentally changed the dynamics of Belarusian emigration. Although the Belarusian exodus has not yet ceased, the Russian war in Ukraine has resulted in a second great wave. For many, it was the last straw, a powerful trigger, the point of no return.

May 31, 2022 - Volha Kavalskaya - Articles and Commentary

Volha Kavalskaya Photo: Xenia Podstennaya

I am Volha Kavalskaya. I have not lived in Belarus for three and a half years and have not been able to visit my home country since August 2020. During this time, I lived in four countries, each for a more or less prolonged period. I have been helping refugees — from Belarus at first and after that from Ukraine. From my own experience and from the people I meet, I know how difficult emigration can be, especially as a forced move. The idea of a report on Belarusian women in exile was born out of my wish for everyone to remember, now more than ever, about the Belarusians forced into emigration and scattered all over the world.

That being said, women represent one of the most vulnerable migrant groups. Working in the NGO sector and being engaged in civic activism abroad, I see many initiatives and projects focusing on Belarusian women. At the same time, I feel that sometimes we forget or do not have time to ask our target audience what they need. It is only by determining their actual needs that we can truly support Belarusian women abroad. To do so, I have spoken to six women and collected survey answers from a total of 284 Belarusian women living abroad, aged between 18 and 56 years old.

Fear of repression, psychological problems and the war in Ukraine

Almost 80 per cent of the women surveyed left Belarus following the events of August 2020, while nearly 200 have indicated that it was a forced move. In other words, the woman has not had time to plan for it, has not fully researched the destination, and has often ended up with no job or means to provide for her costs of living.

Among the reasons for moving, the most frequent answer was political (198 responses). However, this is often connected with other motivations, such as economic emigration, the desire to try life in another country, psychological problems, etc. Out of all respondents, 87 women moved alone. When it comes to destinations, the most common were Poland, Georgia and Ukraine. One answer simply said, “No country yet”.

Yulia was detained in January 2021 and put in detention for 15 days. She has been residing in Georgia for about a month now. The war caught her on vacation in Istanbul, but three months prior to it she lived in Kyiv and loved the city very much.

VOLHA: And now you don’t regret moving?

YULIA: No. Of course, I miss Belarus dearly, I want to go there so much. Though even if I knew everything that was to happen, I would still move to Kyiv. I fell in love with the city and I want to come back.

Do you know what you are going to do next?

I don’t know yet. Just yesterday we talked to our landlord in Kyiv, and we told him in unison that we want to return. He himself is very optimistic. He says, “Just a little more time, and you can come back.”

Homesickness, health issues, discrimination

“The hardest thing about being forced to move is that you’re leaving not to, but from. Your plan ends the moment you cross the border, the task is accomplished. And then life begins. Which you didn’t really want, which you weren’t prepared for. Without friends, family, a job and means of living. This is how a forced move is fundamentally different to a conscious relocation by choice.”

When asked about the difficulties encountered while relocating abroad, the women interviewed pointed out troubles with finding a job (94), learning a local language (144), socialisation (146), legalisation (146), homesickness (175), financial difficulties (79), health issues (68) and difficulties in finding a day care/school for a child (12). Also, five women noted problems with finding housing, four noted psychological difficulties and three noted survivor’s guilt. One answered, “I can’t love this country, I want to go home, but I’m afraid.” Ten women said they faced no difficulties.

Women shared their stories of relocation, the state of their mental and physical condition, etc. The first difficulties were social in nature: loneliness, the inability to return to Belarus even for compelling reasons (e.g., funerals), co-dependent relationships and financial dependence on a partner, discrimination based on gender and origin, difficulty establishing social connections, feeling “alien”, homesickness, pressure from locals and the language barrier.

“I love my homeland very much. I’m not native to Minsk, so when I moved there, I missed my hometown a lot. Later, when I moved to Kyiv, I missed the people, the feeling of Belarus and Belarusians — when you walk in the city and you know that there are Belarusians around you. It was difficult to build a life from scratch. Even though the countries are similar, the everyday routine is completely different, and you adjust to it from zero and start developing new habits. For the first month and a half, I was homesick for Minsk, I wanted to go back so badly it made me cry. Gradually, by February, I had the feeling that I already knew something about my new home. All in all, it was hard to build everything from nothing, to learn and search, to yearn for the feeling of home,” Yulia says about her feelings at the time.

In November 2021, Lena was just going to live in Georgia for three months. Then, in December, when the regime started to come for election observers, they searched her house. Lena never returned to Belarus.

“The hardest thing for me is admitting the fact that I’m an emigrant. When all this happened, I was not planning on moving — I was just going away for the winter. When the home search happened, I was still in denial about being away from home, I thought I could still go back. The fact that I can’t visit my loved ones, some of whom are having a hard time, too; the fact that I’m far away and I don’t know when I’ll get there. That I miss and compare… I miss some things and compare many of them to Minsk. It’s also the uncertainty that makes it hard. Like, what to do next? To be anchored somewhere or not to be? Where to live, where to go? Where to keep my stuff? So many unanswered questions.” 

Many women also indicated serious health problems and difficulties accessing healthcare. This includes finding a good doctor, the problem of getting a medical appointment, the language barrier, expensive healthcare and the bureaucracy of free medicine, insecurity and the inability to have an abortion in Poland. Lingering depression, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and panic attacks account for the most common mental health problems.

In Poland, the most popular destination according to the survey, women face difficulties related to the legalisation of their stay: refusals to issue a temporary residence permit, the lack of information, long consulate queues and lengthy processes in Poland, especially following the outbreak of war. For political reasons, it has become more difficult to open a bank account in Georgia. Finally, women who moved because of the war do not have the documents required for legalisation because they fled Kyiv with nothing.

Most women mention financial difficulties: a long job search, inability to access their profession without language knowledge, a lower social status, physical work for a lower wage, their partner’s job difficulties and shared financial issues, illegal work, blocked Belarusian cards, housing challenges due to the influx of immigrants and discrimination based on nationality.

Nastia and her husband encountered several cases of discrimination in Poland.

VOLHA: Do you communicate often with Poles? How do they treat you?

NASTIA: Well, before the war, everything was great, Poles treated us well. In general, they treat us very well. It was only once that we had a very unpleasant experience, and it was quite extensive. We were looking for a job, and a large number of people, recruiters, from different nationalities — Ukrainians, Poles — they just rejected us because we are Belarusians. There was one specific recruiter who went out of their way to be horrible by recording a two-minute-long voice note as part of a very uncomfortable text. Of course, it made me feel a little bit more stressed. I’m just very afraid, I’m in no condition to encounter any more aggression when there is already so much of it in the world, I’m not mentally prepared for it.

In general though, I go out in the streets now and I communicate. Normal people understand that the Belarusians are not Lukashenka. There are also those who have not followed the situation — everyone has their own life to follow — and they’re harder to speak with. Just today, I met a family from Ukraine. They asked for the translation of a word in English, so I helped them. They asked me where I’m from, and I said I am from Belarus. They told me, “We hate Belarusians.” I understand that they just did not have time to learn that we are not all Lukashenka. I didn’t explain anything, I just understood everything, but yes, it gets emotional. How else are you going to act? Your house is being taken away. The mayor of Gdańsk recently came out in our defence, saying something like “here are Belarusians, and if anyone thinks they are Lukashenka, they are not Lukashenka. We support you, we are with you.”

Support from diaspora, locals and authorities

“Vulnerability is the most accurate description of forced emigration. You depend on yourself and it is important not to lose yourself at this time. To endure.”

When asked where did you receive and continue to receive support, most women named family, friends or acquaintances. A smaller number named their host country, workplace, foundations or scholarship programmes, and the Belarusian diaspora. Overall, 184 women thought there was enough support, while 80 said there was not enough. Seventeen said it was “hard to say” and two respondents simply did not need it. The vast majority of women, all in all, rely on their own efforts and the help of their families. Despite the large number of charitable foundations and organisations, as well as the strong Belarusian diaspora in many cities, women do not dare to ask for help, or they simply cannot get it because of the high number of those in need.

Zhanna recalled her time living in Kraków and even cried following the overwhelming generosity shown by the local diaspora:

“I’m incredibly happy that we came to this city, because we met such great people here. I still remember that time with such gratitude, because, first of all, it was a very scary and very difficult time — those train stations, trains, everyone felt tired. Volunteers helped us to find accommodation, helped us to negotiate. We lived in Kraków for four months. We had problems with finding a job — the law was changing then, and it was not clear if you could get a job with a humanitarian visa. Plus, there was a lockdown and a lot of Ukrainians; the labour market was overcrowded. I had a baby to take care of, I couldn’t go out to work; everything fell on my husband’s shoulders. We used the money from the sale of our car to rent a place to live, but volunteers also helped us a lot. Blankets, linens, dishes, a food basket. For two weeks, “Martha’s Hostel” on the water provided us with lunches — I remember sharing it with the other guys who had to flee because there was so much food. The kids didn’t eat much, and we wanted to share the gifts we had been receiving from the Belarusians and Poles. Then, at one of the rallies, the mayor of Bydgoszcz said that he would assist two Belarusian families with housing. Polish volunteers started searching for those who needed it most. The girls from Kraków put in a good word for us. Two months later, we moved to Bydgoszcz and started to build a new life.”

Still, getting an apartment from the Polish government for a Belarusian family is an exceptional case. Without funding from foundations, the diaspora is not able to help everyone in need. Rather, it is the local volunteers who help with resources and they already help quite a lot. However, given the scale of Belarusian emigration in recent years, this problem requires more systematic solutions.

When asked what kind of support is missing, Zhanna mentioned that language courses are absolutely necessary when moving to Poland. Language knowledge opens access to the labour market, otherwise a woman can only count on the lowest paid jobs.

Freedom, friends, the future

“I’ve seen how free life can be.”

One of the questions in the survey asked women to share positive things that happened to them during emigration. The overwhelming number of responses named the feeling of safety, peace of mind and improved psychological well-being. Despite the psychological difficulties of a forced move, many women appreciated the absence of a direct threat to their life and freedom, which they constantly felt in Belarus. They said things like “I saw how free life could be,” or “I could breathe more freely.” This suggests that the basic human need for security is violated in Belarus, and this is often a decisive factor in relocation.

Ksenia went to graduate school in Kraków in 2019. Afterwards, she went back to Belarus in 2020 to attend protests and later got involved in social activism in Poland. Now she, like many, cannot go home. She talked about the changes in her life:

“I’ve changed a lot as a person during my emigration. I think I matured in many respects, not least due to the separation — not only with my parents, but also with the regime, the unhealthy Belarusian society, the learned helplessness and unpreparedness of people to change something. For me, emigration turned out to be important even before all the events in Belarus, because I returned to Belarus to attend the protests exactly because I had left before. It is something along the lines of “To love our Belarus, you have to live in different parts of the world” [a quote in Belarusian — translator’s note]. I felt the importance of my country directly because of the fact that I’ve been far away and saw how others love their land.”

Three women say they realised “how much they love their country” and started speaking Belarusian more often.

Community, guides, healthcare, psychological support

Many of the respondents (91) think that women in emigration need a sense of community, support and social projects.

Yulia tells me, “We looked for Belarusians, especially in the beginning. We found a bar run by Belarusians and went there. They recommended more places. […] So, you get used to the routine a little bit, and you start searching for your people. It’s such a good memory. And if I see a white-red-white flag somewhere, I immediately shout, “Oh, look!” — just as if someone had surprised me with ice cream.”

Others noted that they lacked reliable information and points of contact in the destination country. This involves issues related to legalisation, jobs, schools and day care, cultural life, etc. These things can make emigration easier by speeding up adaptation.

“In the context of the war, in the beginning there was very little information about what to do for Belarusians who escaped Ukraine. I really needed it, but I understand that it’s very difficult to structure things when everything collapses so abruptly. In general, a lot of things have been done, yet it was a problem in Ukraine, too,” Yulia continues.

Free language courses would give women access to the job market and facilitate integration into a new society. Women also recalled that psychological support, health insurance, financial assistance especially for those in need, and the opportunity to learn a new profession were very important.

Ksenia believes that it is important to draw the attention of Belarusian women to their reproductive rights:

“It’s hard for me personally to judge, because I haven’t been in this situation, it’s not my personal experience, but being in Poland, I think it would be great if there was an initiative helping women control their reproductive rights in a country where those are restricted. […] This is a very important area, and even knowing the language, I still have questions about it.”

What we need to do to help

“Only women can help women.”

Forced emigration en masse has caused many women to experience a state of unpreparedness and insecurity. Belarusian women tend to face difficulties in adaptation due to the lack of a financial cushion, a job, medical insurance, as well as the linguistic and cultural barriers in the host country — all combined with a heavy psychological condition and loneliness. In these circumstances, it is difficult for a woman to take care of herself at a time when she also has to think about her children and other family members who are moving with her.

Feminist, human rights and other organisations do a great deal to help women overcome various kinds of difficulties, but research has shown that current resources are not enough and that women often do not dare to ask for help. The Belarusian diaspora, as well as initiative groups and volunteers, can also do more to make it easier for women to adapt to the new realities.

There is a need for communities where emigrant women can ask for advice, connect with others and feel engaged, as well as ready-made guides related to practical matters in the host country. Psychological support groups, free language courses, assistance in finding housing and employment, a mentoring system, financial and medical assistance, integration activities — all of these points are as relevant today as they can be, and the current situation suggests that they will remain so for a long time.

In the end, as the author of the study, I would like to add that my experience of living and building a community in emigration has shown that helping others makes a difference. I also believe that everyone can do it — sometimes people just do not know how. Our task as activists is to show everyone how to address the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable groups, organise the required processes and involve others. That way we can help more people find their safe place, which is our main goal.

Translated by Anastasia Starchenko.

Volha Kavalskaya is a Belarusian activist, event and art manager, and co-founder of the Belarusian community in Kraków. She is currently based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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