"Lost Everything Again”: A Twice-Displaced Ukrainian Rebuilds in Japan
Olga, 38, became displaced for a second time when she fled Ukraine after the invasion in February 2022, and settled in Japan. The first time was in 2014, when conflict broke out in Luhansk, her hometown in the Donbas region. Now, for the second time, she has to rebuild her life in a foreign country by herself, separated from her family.
“I feel guilty,” was the first phrase she uttered when asked how she feels about her life in Japan. “Some people say they feel sorry for me but I am having a much better life here.”
After she fled from Luhansk in 2014, she started her new life in the capital Kyiv. Using her Japanese language skills, she got a job as a Japanese teacher until she had to flee again.
“For eight years, I worked hard to build my life from zero, and then lost everything again,” said Olga.
She spent about a week sheltering in a subway station with other Ukrainians when the invasion started. With the unceasing sirens, she felt her life was in danger, and decided to flee from Ukraine carrying only one backpack. After half a day on a tightly packed train, with no room to sit, she finally arrived at Lviv in the western part of Ukraine.
“Until the war started, I didn’t have a chance to really think about my country,” said Olga, emphasizing that she could not have survived in the subway station nor fled from Ukraine without help from others. “Now, away from my home, I strongly realize that I really love my country and my people.”
Olga has relatives living in Russia and Belarus but she could not ask them for help. “We were very close relatives, but now, they think of us as an enemy. I never imagined propaganda can change people’s minds so easily.”
As a result, she decided to rely on her friend who fled from Luhansk in 2014 and was now living in Portugal. She first moved to Poland to take a bus for Ukrainians that was packed with women, children, and their pets. After going through Germany, France and Spain, she was finally able to arrive in Portugal. “I did not feel tired at all because of the tremendous stress,” she reflected.
Being twice-displaced, first within Ukraine and then fleeing the country, Olga’s story of repeated new beginnings is familiar one to many people on the move.
She started to think about moving to Japan while staying in Portugal. She got a message from her former Japanese college professor who offered to help. With his advice, she got a job offer from Japan International Cooperation Center. A friend of the professor acted as her guarantor, and she began living in a shared house owned by the guarantor and working from July 2022.
She now teaches Japanese to other foreigners, helping out those seeking jobs, and assisting Ukrainians in getting support in Japan. “It is hard for Ukrainians to find jobs, all the more a job that they want. Without the professor’s help, I could not even apply for my current job, and I really appreciate it.”
Olga, who also cooperates with IOM’s research on the integration of Ukrainians in Japanese society, said Japan did not initially come to her mind as a place to move to because she thought it was expensive and not open to displaced people. “After I actually arrived here, I had help from individuals, supporting organizations and the government,” Olga said.
Even though she feels safe now, her heart is never far from Ukraine. She starts her day by reading news and watching programmes in Ukrainian.
Olga talks to her mother in Luhansk everyday online but keeps her concerns about the war to herself. “I know my mother is feeling pain, so we do not talk about the war,” she said. “She is just happy that I now have a safe life in Japan.”
“It is my dream to bring my parents to Japan, but it is not realistic considering their age and work. I am glad that many people believe Ukraine is going to have peace, but what will happen if it doesn’t? Ukraine already lost so much. I try to think about my future, but cannot come up with any plans for now.”