A Ukrainian in Vlaardingen regularly receives the phone call: that her husband has been killed at the front.

Tetiana Zoria’s daughter (43) does not want to return to Ukraine. “She really grew up here,” says her mother. From the age of nine to eleven, those are important years, she thinks. They have been living together in an apartment in the Ukrainian district of Mrija in Vlaardingen for several months now. “We have a happy life here,” she says in the common room of the community center. “But today is a terrible day.”

This Saturday, the residents of the Ukrainian neighborhood of Mrija in Vlaardingen commemorated the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago. They sang the Ukrainian national anthem, held a minute of silence and Vlaardingen residential councilor Ivana Somers-Gardenier unveiled a monument in memory of the victims.

The municipality of Vlaardingen had almost four hundred flexible homes built to accommodate Ukrainian refugees. 1,024 Ukrainians currently live in Mrija. The district may remain in place until 2026 by the province of South Holland.

Ukrainian refugees were able to move to Mrija in phases from May last year. Initially, everyone kept the curtains closed, employees say. Residents were very fond of their privacy. Gradually, the curtains of several homes were left open more and more often. What remained the same is the stress that residents experience due to the war. A woman would regularly receive a telephone call to hear that her partner had died at the front.

Work below grade

Many residents of Mrija have jobs. For example, they work in greenhouses, technology, distribution, healthcare or in education. A number of them are in the process of having their diplomas revalued. The neighborhood includes a dentist, psychologist and a doctor who would also like to practice their profession in the Netherlands.

Zoria worked as an accountant in her former hometown of Kharkiv. Now she is location manager of Mrija and the Ukrainian point of contact for residents. She helps with administration, translates for Ukrainians who do not speak English and organizes activities for young and older residents such as movie nights, crafts or dance lessons.

34-year-old Saile Bespala from Kyiv previously worked as a producer for television. She lived in Crimea until 2014, but fled to the Ukrainian capital before the war. She regrets that she cannot practice her profession in the Netherlands. For that she would first have to learn the language. “I am now looking for a full-time job with a stable income,” she says. “But until now the offer has mainly been seasonal work.”

Bespala’s daughter (7) also wants to stay in the Netherlands, she says. She enjoys her time at the primary school in the neighborhood, especially for the Ukrainian children. Her eleven-year-old son misses Ukraine. “But he knows we can’t go back.”

Future uncertain

The neighborhood organization is conducting discussions with residents about their future during this period. What do they want it to look like? Most say they don’t know. Their status is uncertain: the European Temporary Protection Directive stipulates that they can stay in the Netherlands until March 4, 2025. Would the Netherlands still want them if that directive were to expire or if the war came to an end?

“People’s daily lives continue,” says councilor Somers-Gardenier. “But it is not possible to make plans for the future. They always take it day by day.”

The election results in which the PVV became the largest party are causing more concerns. On election day, Mrija employees received messages and phone calls. “Should we leave now?” was the question.

Many Ukrainians are still afraid that the new political climate puts them in danger, says a 40-year-old filmmaker from Kyiv. He does not want his name in the newspaper because adult men are officially not allowed to leave Ukraine; they must stay in the country to fight. “Dutch people who are not happy with the arrival of refugees look critically at men like me, who managed to leave Ukraine.”

The filmmaker thinks that he and other Ukrainians do not have to be afraid. “The right-wing parties have not yet managed to form a coalition,” he says. “We first have to see if that works.”

Zoria is also not afraid, she says. “The Netherlands is a democratic country. We cannot be sent away, because we cannot return to Ukraine.”

Saile Bespala.
Photo Hedayatullah Amid
Tetiana Zoria.
Photo Hedayatullah Amid
Photo Hedayatullah Amid

Not enough houses

Councilor Somers-Gardenier notices that support for the reception of Ukrainian refugees is decreasing. On the one hand, Vlaardingen residents are proud of the neighborhood, she says. “On the other hand, it also feels bad for many of them that their children have to continue living at home because there are not enough homes, while we are creating a neighborhood like this for the Ukrainians.”

The alderman understands that support is declining. “The government has not intervened in Ter Apel and does not tackle municipalities that do nothing to provide housing for status holders,” she says. “That’s why everything is full now.”

The filmmaker from Kyiv also understands the sentiment, he says. “Dutch people have their own daily problems.” The results of the elections therefore did not surprise him. “The Dutch government has a lot to solve for its own people.”

Now that the war has now lasted two years, anger among residents is increasing, employees see. Many of them did not think the war would last so long. But despite the changing course of the war and ammunition shortages on the Ukrainian side, Zoria has confidence in her country’s army. “They are going to win. They just have to.”

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After two years of war, much of Ukrainian optimism has evaporated

The filmmaker from Kyiv is less optimistic. “History shows that such large-scale wars do not pass quickly.”

Zoria turns on a video clip of a song by the Ukrainian singer Kazka. “It is almost impossible to understand what people in Ukraine are going through,” she says. “This video may give you an idea.” The video shows real images of the war and of Ukrainians holding a sign with the text I am not okay keep in the air. Zoria fills up, gets up and walks away.