Freiberg, 24 February 2023 – Tetiana holds a single piece of paper in her hands. After nine years, it is a little frayed around the edges. The print has begun to fade. But she’s holding onto it tightly, not just because it reminds her of home, but also because it represents her long journey to safety.

Growing up, Tetiana always dreamed of returning to the place she was born. But she never imagined that she would do so as a refugee.

Born in 1975 to Ukrainian parents in Dresden, Germany, she moved to Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, aged five, with her family.

Tetiana’s story of displacement begins in 2014. As the conflict in Donetsk erupted, she realized she had no option but to flee. In April of that year, armed groups in Donetsk began to seize buildings. Things came to a head when armed men burst into her office and seized her travel agency at gunpoint. That afternoon she bought a train ticket and fled to Kyiv.

Five years later, this piece of paper remains the one item that reminds her of home and of her struggle to find safety for herself and her family. Kyiv became a respite from the engulfing conflict in eastern Ukraine, but not for long. On 22 March last year, she was once again forced to flee – this time across borders. Now living in Freiberg, she cries as she unfolds the same train ticket that has remained with her since the beginning of the full-scale war and along her journey.

"When we were travelling on the train from Kyiv to Uzhhorod, I looked at my old train ticket and realized I was once again leaving to start my life from scratch.” Photo: Jorge Galindo/IOM 2023

In Kyiv, Tetiana received a livelihood grant from IOM with support from the Government of Germany through the KfW Development Bank. As an Economics graduate and a savvy entrepreneur, Tetiana used the grant to build a thriving business selling wedding dresses.

“Life had slowly become normal again. The shop was doing well in Kyiv. I loved the city, it was vibrant. But like everyone else, we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the demand for our dresses dropped. We had to find new ways to survive.”

When the full-scale war in Ukraine started, she and her young son Volodymyr found safety with neighbours who had converted their basement into a bomb shelter. “But a basement is no place for a small child,” says Tetiana. “Volodymyr began getting ill.”

She decided to flee Kyiv with her son and 75-year-old mother, first to the western Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod. There, she saw firsthand the outpouring of support from her fellow Ukrainians, people who gave their homes and food to the newly displaced. But Tetiana wanted to live, not merely survive.

“Volodymyr is what moves me forward.” Photo: Jorge Galindo/IOM 2023

IOM estimates 5.4 million people remain internally displaced within Ukraine with 58 per cent of all IDPs being displaced for six months or longer. As the war drags on, over 5.5 million people have now returned to their homes. Yet, 75 per cent of returnees said many people in their area are unable to earn money due to the war and 65 per cent say housing is damaged in their home areas.

Where to go?

Looking for a new place to rebuild her life, she heeded the sign on her passport. “I loved Kyiv but I knew I couldn’t go back. I opened my passport and saw ‘Dresden’ under ‘place of birth’. And so the choice was made.” She decided to return to Germany, hoping it would welcome her the way it welcomed her parents. Through word of mouth, she learned of available support in Freiberg, a town of 40,000 inhabitants not far from her birthplace.

Since the start of the full-scale war, Lower Saxony has welcomed nearly 105,000 Ukrainian refugees, mainly women and children. “This is a small city, but the support we receive is immense. I do not regret coming here,” Tetiana explains.

“Freiberg is very comfortable and there is a lot of support for refugees. Many Ukrainians arrived here nearly ten years ago, and they mobilized to support us newcomers. The Freiberg public library even has shelves filled with Ukrainian books for children and adults.”

Tetiana stands in front of a collage showing the nationalities of people attending integration courses in Freiberg – among them a cut-out of the airport in Kyiv. Photo: Jorge Galindo/IOM 2023

Tetiana spends most of her time trying to integrate into German society. As early as June last year, she enrolled in introduction courses where she learns German, as well as the country’s history, culture, and politics. The courses take place three hours a day, four days a week. She is part of a group of 16 students, including four other Ukrainians, but also people from India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. German lessons are going well, but she is mindful of the many dialects in the country. “I fear that if I ever travel elsewhere in the country no one will understand my Lower Saxony accent,” she laughs.

She is slowly getting used to the customs of her new neighbours, their food, the sanctity of Sundays when everything is ‘geschlossen’ (closed) and her nostalgia for bustling Kyiv, still her favourite city.

Faces of resilience: Tetiana shares her classroom with four other Ukrainians, all of whom arrived in Germany last year. Photo: Jorge Galindo/IOM 2023

Tetiana has received support with housing, education, and other services from the German government. Her apartment is small, but the family, except for her husband who had to stay in Ukraine, stays together.

Since the start of the full-scale war, over 1 million people from Ukraine have fled to Germany and 881,399 have registered for temporary protection, Germany being second among countries hosting people registered for temporary protection or similar national protection schemes (UNHCR as of 31 January 2023). Nearly 8.1 million refugees from Ukraine were recorded across Europe (as of 21 February 2023). IOM Germany, in close cooperation with civil society and other UN agencies has reached around 450,000 persons both on and offline with information materials on a range of issues including the dangers of trafficking, gender-based violence, labour exploitation, psychosocial support, among others as well as training for first responders and state and civil society workers.

As for her future, there is little time for business dreams in Freiberg. Tetiana is focused on learning German. After completing her course, she will be able to sign up at the job centre in Freiberg. “I always dreamt of coming back to Germany, but not like this. Now that I’m here, I would like to stay, find a job, and give back to Germany what they have given me.”

Old home, new home. At home Tetiana helps acclimate her son and mother to their new country, while keeping Ukraine close. Photo: Jorge Galindo/IOM 2023

Back home, life in Kyiv continues. In an attempt at normalcy, she decided to leave the wedding dresses in the shop windows. “All my colleagues also left, but we decided to leave our products on display as a small symbol that life goes on.”

Tetiana does not hesitate when asked where she finds her strength. “My son… No one really knows how to cope, but for me just the wish to give him a real childhood, to go to school without hearing the air raid alarms, is what keeps me going.”


This story was written by Jorge Galindo, Communications Officer with IOM's Global Data Institute,