In 2014, Tatjana and her three children – 23, 15 and 11 years old now – moved from Crimea to the city of Kropyvnytskyi to escape from the Russian invasion. When the Bucha massacre came to light last March, her son, a Ukrainian army officer, advised her to leave, this time to another country.
“I was not thinking about Poland because many people migrated there at that time,” Tatjana explains. However, “Latvia was familiar to me from my childhood. We used to rent a house in Yuma, located 20 kilometres from Riga, during summer. I know about the language barrier, but I also knew how much my hands were worth. I would find a job here,” she says.
Selected for the job
In one week, Tatjana organised the move, found a flat and had three interviews to work as a restaurant cook. Only a few days before her departure, the phone rang. “We have a project called Borsch,” somebody said over the phone. “We invite you to be a chief cook in this project.”
Girts Slavins is a Latvian businessman who initiated the social project Borsch to help Ukrainians seeking a job. Tatjana arrived in Riga on 7 April 2022 at 6 o’clock, and one hour later, she was already working at Borsch. Now, she teaches newcomers how to cook in a restaurant, whose name comes from a sour soup typical in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia.
I know about the language barrier, but I also knew how much my hands were worth. I would find a job here
“This job is a great opportunity not to think all the time about what’s happening there, not to watch the news and not to cry, because you need to concentrate. If not, you could go crazy. We really appreciate this. We will be thankful until the end of our lives,” she concludes.
Indeed, the psychological consequences of leaving their country of origin due to an armed conflict are incalculable. In her team, women’s experiences in Ukraine are different – some were under fire, some hid in basements – but they are close to each other and help improve their psychological situation. “We’re like a family, and we stand for each other,” Tatjana adds.
Tatjana and other women employed at Borsch donate part of their salaries to the Ukrainian army. “This is how we can support our sons,” she says. “We can not be with them, and this is the way of providing a little bit of security.” Besides helping with their own money, the workers collect donations and provide food to newcomers.
This job is a great opportunity not to think all the time about what's happening there, not to watch the news and not to cry
“We appreciate and thank Latvia and its people, who allowed us to escape from this hell, and keep children away from it,” she adds. Gratitude is a common feeling among those fleeing Ukraine. On her way to Riga, Tatjana passed by a refugee centre in Warsaw that acted like a hub. She was impressed by the organisation, the logistics and the cleanliness even though the centre was receiving 25,000 refugees per day to be hosted or sent to other countries.
“We appreciate all the help,” she says, in tears. “All the countries’ support. It’s fantastic how everybody united.”
The coin and the wish
Anna came from Kremenchuk to Riga thanks to hockey, the sport her 10-year-old daughter plays. A few years ago, the little one played a match in Riga, where she threw a coin to the Baltic Sea, wishing to return.
Last year, Anna received a call. Latvia’s junior hockey team invited her and her daughter to live in the city so the little one could play on the team. “When the mass attack started, many sports teams from different countries started to invite Ukrainian sports people,” Anna explains. “We were not planning to escape, but they would arrange all the accommodations and the opportunity for my daughter to play hockey here.”
The Ukrainian flag hung from the city council building one week before the war started
Meanwhile, Anna teaches maths to Ukrainian children after school in Riga, but also works for Ukrainian companies remotely. Her daughter feels integrated and motivated in the Latvian junior hockey team but misses her father, currently fighting in the Ukrainian army, and their cat. Anna really wants to come back home.
The first time she wanted to return to Ukraine was last summer but decided it was safer to stay. Not long ago, mother and daughter planned to be back for New Year, but there is currently no electricity in their hometown. Anna hopes to have an opportunity to go back soon. That’s why she did not register her daughter in the Latvian education system in autumn. Instead, the 10-year-old studies online.
Still, Anna’s feeling of gratitude towards Riga’s welcome is irrefutable. “Many people have the opportunity to go back and to come back. The visa Latvia issues allows people to visit their families and come back, which is very positive because it’s not like this in all countries,” she explains, dreaming of using it soon.
A friendship that saves lives
Anastasija moved to Latvia with her mother and daughter ten months ago. One year before the war started, she met a Latvian couple on a trip to Turkey, and along with her husband, they all became friends. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Latvian family offered accommodation in their house.
In the beginning, Anastasija had refused to leave Ukraine because of her career as a singer and musician. “The first half of the year, we were living at their house in anger,” she explains. Anastasija did not want to leave good friends that helped her in the past. Also, her daughter was attending school in Ukraine. However, she eventually said goodbye to everyone and left with her daughter and mother while her father and husband joined the army.
Cities are the ones welcoming and hosting
“And then I got a job,” she says, “as a choir teacher in Riga Classical Gymnasium” after leaving messages in several Facebook groups. But Anastasija works in two more places, in a restaurant and giving concerts. She also works with local musicians who “are helping a lot to Ukrainian artists,” she says. For example, they help Ukrainian artists write and record their songs.
Like Anna, Anastasija would like to return to Ukraine and reunite with her husband. Meanwhile, she admits to being amazed by how much support Ukrainians have received from Latvians. Citizens, volunteers and the municipality have joined efforts to offer the best welcome and to ensure the integration of women like her into the labour market.
Helping from the beginning
There are thousands of stories of the integration of women welcomed by Riga’s open arms. Riga’s hospitals welcomed several doctors, nurses and other medical specialists to their services. Nataliya works as a doctor at Riga’s main hospital, Valentyna is a nurse at Riga’s second hospital, Olha works as a doctor at Riga Maternity Hospital, and Iryna is an otolaryngologist at Riga Health Center.
Riga municipality owns Riga Health Center, which operates six branches in the largest surrounding areas of the city. Its primary function is to guarantee every person access to healthcare. The otolaryngologist Irina, the sports medicine specialist Oksana and the nurse Marina joined the specialist team last year.
In the city, the discussions on how to help Ukrainians started the same day as the beginning of the invasion, on 24 February 2022. “The Ukrainian flag hung from the city council building one week before the war started,” says Galina Bukovska, Head of International cooperation division at Riga City Council. “We knew people were coming, and we did not want to leave them on the streets.”
We wanted to support Ukrainian for as long as it takes but with the resources we have available
After two weeks of preparation, the Ukrainian Support Centre opened as a one-stop agency for information on registrations and visas. The centre became the place Ukranians were supported and businesses advertised their open positions.
“Cities like Riga are key players in integration and public-private partnerships are necessary,” says Peteris Grube, the centre’s director. “Cities are the ones welcoming and hosting.”
The municipality offered open positions during job fairs that the centre has been organising regularly. The success brought more interest from the private sector. 10,000 people were registered during the first month. According to Grube, the cooperation between the private sector, NGOs and citizens has been essential for the success of the regular integration of women into the labour market.
We’re like a family, and we stand for each other
20,000 have been registered so far, and 17,000 are still living in the Latvian capital. In winter, the centre moved to a smaller building that is easier to heat. “We wanted to support Ukrainian for as long as it takes but with the resources we have available,” says Edite Matusevica, who works at the centre.
Beyond finding a job – child education
The centre also received advice from other municipalities, while businesses from those cities employed people and offered accommodation. “We’re not trying to attract people to Riga but to offer help,” states Grube.
However, to employ women with children, looking beyond mere employment is needed. Riga City cooperates with private schools and kindergartens to tackle the lack of available spaces for children so the employment of their mothers becomes feasible.
“We signed contracts with private kindergartens and we subsidised €300 per month per child so that parents can enter the employment market,” explains Lasma Lancmane, administrative manager at Riga City’s education, sports and culture department.
“We did this also with refugees from Ukraine. We asked our partners how many available places they have, and how many children from Ukraine they can take. They gave us numbers, and addresses for when refugees came to our centre and asked for places.”
We appreciate and thank Latvia and its people, who allowed us to escape from this hell, and keep children away from it
That €300 does not fully cover the cost of the expenses, so usually, the private institutions pay an additional €100 for locals, which they cancel for Ukrainians.
Riga knows that once children can be cared for, women can better integrate into the labour market. Fairs continue to take place in the refugee centre, which will welcome Ukrainians until there is no more need to remain open.
Other cities have flocked to Latvia through Eurocities to engage with Riga’s promising integration strategy for refugee women. The mutual learning ‘Labour market integration of vulnerable women’ which served as the basis for this article took place in Riga in December 2022.
This event brought together cities across Eurocities’ network to critically engage with the challenges vulnerable women with migrant and refugee backgrounds face when trying to reach and thrive in the labour market.