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Job Market

In Kiev, Refugees From the Fighting Desperately Look for Work


Photograph by Sergii Kharchenko/Sipa via AP Photo


When Aleksandr Uvarov fled his home in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk in early July, he left behind his house and car and a garage filled with inflatable play pools, Hello Kitty nightlights, and piles of clothing—the inventory for his business, an online children’s store he ran with his wife, Valentina.

“The idea of taking a truckload of toys through countless rebel checkpoints and then through Ukrainian military block posts just didn’t seem realistic,” Uvarov says.

After Uvarov joined his wife and son in Kiev—they had left Lugansk a month earlier—he tried to figure out what would come next. He was financially unable to start a new business from scratch and tired of the uncertainty of when, or even if, he could go back to gather his toy inventory from Lugansk. Uvarov decided it was time to start looking for work.

With few contacts in town, the former toy salesman called several volunteer organizations that help people displaced by fighting, He was told to visit the Free People Employment Center, an organization ounded after Russia annexed Crimea in March to help displaced Crimeans find jobs in areas where they resettled. As tensions started to build along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, the employment center expanded in scope to help the new wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Now a team of over 60 volunteers runs the center’s database, which includes contacts at over 800 companies across Ukraine, as well as the résumés of more than 1,000 job seekers.

Late one afternoon, Uvarov sits in a training session at the group’s headquarters—an office space on loan from the Kyiv Advertising School—with about 15 job seekers and volunteers.

Elena Vertinksaya, a veteran human resources worker is giving a presentation about the best way to approach the job search. Pointing with her sparkly fingernails, Vertinksaya meticulously goes through a form she created that details all the aspects of a job, ranging from people’s preexisting skills to how far they can handle commuting. “Be as detailed as possible,” she says repeatedly, before moving on to the art of the résumé.

During the presentation, Nataliya Chekunova, an accountant who used to have a private practice in Donetsk, raises her hand.

“I’ve averaged nearly one job interview a day since I started my search nearly three weeks ago,” Chekunova says, dressed in a suit she wore to a job interview earlier. “In Donetsk, people used to call me, asking me to work for them. Now companies don’t even call me back after an interview.”

“That just doesn’t work here,” says Vertinskaya. The job market in Kiev is too squeezed right now to think that any job seeker would call around looking to hire someone. You just have to be persistent and have a little bit of patience, she says reassuringly.

While people often feel a sense of relief after they leave Donetsk or Lugansk, it is soon replaced by the fear of figuring out how to survive in a new city, says Elina Morozova, who has volunteered for several months at the Free People Employment Center. The cost of living in Kiev, one of the main hubs for Ukraine’s IDPs, is around twice as expensive as in Donetsk or Lugansk, and the job market can be much more competitive, Morozova says. Moreover, employers are sometimes hesitant to hire IDPs, unsure if they intend to return home after the fighting ends.

It is hard to estimate exactly how many people are looking for jobs as a result of being displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. According to estimates provided by the State Employment Office, approximately 2,500 people from the Donetsk and Lugansk regions have registered with the Ukrainian government as in search of employment outside their official place of residence. The figure does not specify whether the job seekers are IDPs or people who plan to stay away from their former homes.

In Ukraine, every person who works has a trudovaya kniga, or work book, that lists the conditions of every official place of employment and includes details about why the bearer left his or her previous place of employment. For individuals to officially be classified unemployed, a form needs to be filled out by both the former employer and the employee, confirming the termination of employment.

For those who left their homes in a rush and either forgot their work books or failed to officially terminate employment, registering as “unemployed” can prove to be difficult. Tracking down previous employers—who may also have fled the Donetsk or Lugansk regions—can prove nearly impossible. This means that some refugees can’t be officially employed at new jobs because they are still, on paper, working at others.

Officially unemployment statistics also leave out the number of individuals who were either self-employed, like Uvarov and Chekunova, or who unofficially worked for someone else.

Though all individuals who register with the Ukrainian as “temporarily displaced” from their homes due to ongoing fighting receive a card to verify their status, the card offers little beyond official recognition of the person’s transition status.

At the beginning of August, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner (UNHRC), estimated that the number of individuals displaced by fighting in the eastern Ukraine Donetsk and Lugansk regions was around 102,600.

After the resume session, both Chekunova and Uvarov both said they went home and redid their resumes. Chekunova had several more interviews, but no follow-ups, a great frustration, but Chekunova is determined. “I don’t want to go back to Donbas,” she told Businessweek. “My future is in Kiev now.”

Uvarov’s had less luck. His resume is up online, but so far, there haven’t been any promising leads. He has high hopes that things will quiet down in Luganks soon and he can go back to selling toys. However, his expectations are more in keeping with current events in the region: he plans to keep on searching for a job in Kiev.

Jacobsen is a contributor for Bloomberg Businessweek in Kiev.

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