TBILISI — The distance between Kherson, Ukraine, and Tbilisi, Georgia, is not as great as one might think — 1,500 kilometers, which could be covered in 24 hours by car.
But the road seems endless as you traverse hostile territory and are stopped at every Russian checkpoint. You never know who your next interrogators will be: a tired soldier who will briefly check your papers, an aggressive one who will smash your car window with his rifle butt, or a hungry one who will take your money and food. As refugees, you have little choice. You can only nod your head.
Speaking to Ukrainian refugees in Tbilisi who fled Russia’s unprovoked invasion of their country, you hear the same story over and over. After going through such an ordeal – not to mention what they were fleeing from – Georgia was a safe harbor in a storm.
“As soon as we crossed into Georgia, the border guard told us, ‘Come in, relax, you’re in Georgia. Forget everything, you’re in good hands.’ I will never forget that,” Svitlana Milanovich said from a hotel in Tbilisi. Milanovich was one of the first residents of Russian-controlled Kherson to leave a few months ago, along with his son and elderly mother. Living in the suburbs, she saw explosions through her window and immediately packed up her things.
But life has gotten a little tougher recently for many of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians in Georgia after the government on Aug. 1 ended a program offering free hotel accommodation to refugees. Many of its grateful beneficiaries, their savings already depleted, had to seek a new place to stay.
Like Milanovich, many of the refugees in Tbilisi come from Kherson, a strategic port city that was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian forces after the war began in February. To get to Tbilisi, the only way was to cross Russian-occupied Crimea via the Kerch Bridge to Krasnodar on the Russian mainland, to Vladikavkaz, and finally, through the Lars border crossing to Tbilisi. .
After the Ukrainian government directly called on the citizens of Kherson to evacuate, many refugees arrived in Georgia only in June and July. Initially welcomed, they quickly found themselves under threat of becoming homeless again when the hotel program ended in early August.
In March, the Georgian government introduced the hotel program for Ukrainian refugees. The program had no specific deadline and an estimated 2,400 Ukrainians who fled the war could stay and eat for free in hotels in the cities of Tbilisi and Batumi, and later in Gonio and Kobuleti. While Tbilisi City Hall told RFE/RL that the temporary nature of the program was “clearly communicated” to refugees, many are saying the opposite: that not only did they not know how long the hotels were going to house them, but they discovered the end of the program only two weeks before the deadline, and not from the government but from acquaintances and Telegram groups.
“When we came here it was like a fairy tale, really. We suddenly had a home. [It’s hard] when it’s just you and your suitcase, when everything’s left behind. So it’s hard for us to leave [the hotel] now we don’t know where we will go,” said Larisa Gulina, a week before leaving the hotel in Tbilisi where she had stayed. The sound of loud cars or fireworks still frightened her after an explosion blew through her bedroom windows. house in Novaya Kakhovka, a city in the Kherson region.
When the Krutiyenko family of 12 learned they would be leaving their hotel in Tbilisi, 75-year-old Zinayida fell ill. “She was stressed and her blood pressure went up,” said Iryna, her daughter. A few days before leaving the hotel, Iryna was the only one staying with Zinayida – everyone else was out, trying to find a job or accommodation, which in Tbilisi is no small feat, especially with soaring rental prices due to a new influx of Russian expatriates. Ukrainian families on the run, who have already endured a financially draining few months of occupation and war, have barely enough money to support themselves.
“We are totally lost, we have to look for everything at the same time. We don’t know whether to look for a job first and find a house nearby, or the other way around,” Iryna said. “For us, the most important thing is to have a roof over our heads, not to sleep in a basement or a train station, and we will take care of the rest one way or another. We can clean the parks, do the dishes. We are not ashamed of any job and we can do anything,” she added.
The Georgian government has decided to replace the accommodation program with a three-month assistance program: 300 laris ($110) for a family, plus 45 laris ($16) for each family member. International organizations, such as World Vision and UNHCR, are offering an additional 235 laris ($86) per person, but only to those who meet vulnerability criteria. The average price of a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Tbilisi is now 600 to 900 lari ($220 to $330) per month, two to three times more than the amount a family would receive.
Many refugee families in Tbilisi also took their children to a Ukrainian school that had opened in the city center this year and felt that leaving the capital would mean depriving them of their education.
That’s why Natalya Zotova, a mother of five with two degrees, goes around the houses near her hotel and asks for a job as a housekeeper or nanny. “I’m very uncomfortable begging like this, especially because I’m so grateful to Georgia. It’s just that we can’t go anywhere for a long time. [validity] passports, except for Germany, Austria and Cyprus, and we don’t have enough money for any of them.”
Passports are a major financial concern for many Ukrainian refugees. Some of them only have internal Ukrainian identity cards, which means that they have to order new passports at the Ukrainian embassy in Tbilisi, where the wait is at least three months and costs 419 laris ($154) per passport. Renting a house today, for some, would mean losing a chance to move abroad in the future.
As the deadline for leaving hotels approached, many refugees fell into despair. Five-year-old Volodymyr, Oksana and Dasha stayed until the final departure, then temporarily moved to a cheaper hotel to continue the search for more permanent accommodation. Their search for an apartment had so far been unsuccessful. Volodymyr said that many apartment owners do not want Ukrainians. “They hang up as soon as they hear we’re from Ukraine, or ask for three or six months [rent] in advance,” he said.
Olena Klyuyeva was lucky to find an apartment after a long search. “We are a risk for the owners [apparently]. They tell us there were cases where Ukrainian families stopped paying and the police couldn’t deport them because they had refugee status,” she said. “We didn’t really know where we were going when we left, but everything was fine. than life under Russian occupation. It was worse than a prison.”
Some, however, had no choice but to return home. Olena, who wanted to remain anonymous and did not want to be photographed, decided to return to Mariupol with her husband. “We can’t afford to stay here, so we’ve decided to go home. We’re told the bombardment ended there, but we don’t know what awaits us. If it wasn’t the end of the program, we would have stayed.”
For others, returning home is not a choice. Yulia and Yevhen, an elderly couple with four children, have just escaped from Mariupol. To return, they say, they would have had to give up their Ukrainian identity. Yulia says she saw Russians throwing Ukrainian books out of school windows and the Ukrainian flag torn. Now she doesn’t want to take off her blue and yellow bracelet. They say they are lucky, because the hotel decided to accommodate them for free longer since they had only arrived a week before the end of the program. “We couldn’t find an apartment in such a short time. Someone has to be with the kids, and we barely know the city,” Yulia said.
Yevhenia, the mother of 11-year-old Mark, found another way out and accepted the offer to live in a small boutique hotel in exchange for a job. Now she and another Ukrainian do practically all the work around the premises, including cleaning, welcoming guests – sometimes in the middle of the night – managing the garden and cooking. The hotel pays them around 1,300 laris ($480) a month, which they have to divide among themselves.
“It’s hard work, but it’s still better than sitting in a hotel. Of course, I wish I had more free time. Sometimes I want to rest, go somewhere – we hardly leave this place. We only had one day off in two months because someone always has to be there, even on weekends,” she said. “We told the owner that the hotel needed a night manager, we had to sleep well. But it’s convenient for him to keep things as they are and if we don’t like it, we have to leave.”
Yevhenia feels she has no other choice and just has to agree to the terms. “Every day I am reminded that it may be a long wait before the end of the war – six months, maybe a year. I don’t have a plan and I don’t know anyone who does.”