Ukrainians as a mirror of our society

Research into living conditions, with and for Ukrainian refugees

Oekraïners spiegel samenleving groep klein

In associate lector Martin Blaakman's office, a little girl is quietly making a drawing. Around her, researchers are discussing the launch of a survey. The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of one of the young Ukrainian researchers. ‘She's here for the first time,’ Martin explains. ‘There was no space in the day care centre today.’ According to Martin, the lack of certainty about childcare facilities is a typical example of the circumstances of many Ukrainians as they are trying to find work. ‘That's exactly what we are doing in this research project: mapping out the living conditions of Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands.’ Martin does not do this on his own: in addition to Jossian Zoutendijk, four Ukrainian women are contributing, through work experience positions at Inholland University of Applied Sciences.

The work experience position concept is not new at Inholland. In this way, graduates can gain research experience and receive guidance in finding their way on the labour market. According to Martin Blaakman, this research project is typical of Inholland's social engagement. ‘We all saw this huge influx of Ukrainian refugees when the war broke out. Here at the research group we felt the need to give substance to our shared sense of social responsibility, and this led to the idea of work experience positions.’

Inholland supported the plan and made funds available. ‘This has enabled us to help Ukrainian people in two ways. First, of course, by conducting research to map the extent to which Ukrainians who have been received in the Netherlands have access to basic facilities. And second, by showing the researchers how the Dutch labour market works.’ Martin mentions LinkedIn as an example. ‘That's a hugely important platform in this country, but in Ukraine hardly anyone uses it. So I've encouraged them to create a LinkedIn account. They are also free to use Inholland's extensive network.’ 

Citizen science
From within the Accessibility of the Law research group, Martin wanted to study the living conditions of the nearly one hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands. The focus is on access to basic facilities. ‘Part of the study is based on the concept of citizen science,’ says Martin. ‘This means that we’re asking members of the target group to carry out research themselves, even though they don't belong to any university. I'm a great advocate of this type of research, because these people have better access to that target group. It's not only a matter of language and culture, but also of trust. The in-depth interviews are so valuable because the women who conduct them are from Ukraine themselves and have experienced the war. They created an atmosphere of trust, which is extremely important for the type of research that I do.'

The in-depth interviews are so valuable because the women who conduct them are from Ukraine themselves and find themselves in the same situation. They understand the people they are interviewing, which helps to build trust.

Martin Blaakman

Space to settle down
Martin shakes his head. ‘Unfortunately, our research to date has already shown that there are lots of obstacles, despite the willingness to help. For example, many Ukrainians have no structural access to childcare or to a general practitioner.’ Other studies into Ukrainian refugees show similar issues, but according to Martin the research project at Inholland is distinctive and supplementary. ‘Our research consists of three parts: the forty in-depth interviews held by the Ukrainian researchers, a survey and a photo study. In order to be representative of Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands, we needed almost 400 respondents. Thanks in part to the Ukrainians in the Netherlands Foundation, which helped us disseminate the questionnaire, eventually we had over 900,’ Martin proudly confirms. ‘What's more, the foundation is also going to help us disseminate our photo study. In it, we call on Ukrainians to take pictures of their conditions at home and at work. This could be a picture of one's kitchen, or of the clothes one wears at work. It's very simple to take part in the photo study, so we hope to e able to reach other Ukrainians with it.’

The study is making good progress, although implementing it proved more complicated than originally thought. ‘In all, four women from Ukraine are collaborating in the study. They're extremely enthusiastic, they’re passionate and their fluency in English is quite reasonable. It did take some time though getting things started. For example, childcare is an issue, as is the place where people live. They have to advance travel expenses, but they're not always able to do so. And I also want to give them the space they need to settle down. I really take time to ask them how they're doing, what their experiences of the Netherlands are and what issues they're encountering. They also have lots of questions themselves that they now feel more at ease to ask. For example, how do I arrange a study grant or what do I need to do to get my child to a different school? Jossian and I also help them find they way in those kinds of issues.’

Martin is aware that there is a difference between Ukrainian refugees and refugees from other countries, such as Syria or Afghanistan. ‘Of course we see and hear the sad news reports about the reception centre in Ter Apel. I think we should definitely also study the living conditions of the people there. But we deliberately chose to do this particular project. This has to do with the EU directive that has now been declared applicable to Ukrainian refugees,’ Martin explains.

The result of that directive is that we now skip the asylum procedure, as it were. This is meant to relieve Member States dealing with a sudden huge influx of refugees. ‘From a legal perspective this is quite special, and it's also new,’ says Martin. ‘While asylum seekers face a procedure that takes years, people from Ukraine are allowed to look for work and housing independently as soon as they arrive here. In addition to that, we've noticed there is a solid support base in Dutch society for these refugees. That raises the question of the extent to which they actually have easy access to basic facilities such as healthcare or legal assistance.’

Basically, Ukrainians feel safe in the Netherlands. That's simply because there is no war here.

Lack of income keeps people hostage
The experiences of these four Ukrainian researchers are fairly consistent with the provisional results of the survey: no permanent housing; lack of privacy; difficulty finding employment, let alone a job commensurate with their skills, knowledge and experience; difficulty finding a place for their children in childcare and education; and, of course, worries about family and friends left behind in the war zone.

‘Language is one of the biggest obstacles,’ says Martin. ‘There are not enough language classes and they're often held during the day, but that's when many people are at work. At the same time, learning Dutch is essential for them to find a pleasant job at an appropriate level. But it takes time to learn a language, and they simply need work to be able to earn a living. An income provides access to housing and childcare and, more generally, puts them in a position to make choices. As long as they have no income, they're kept hostage.’ Still, the interviews also produced some positive stories. ‘Basically, Ukrainians feel safe. That's simply because there is no war here. There are no air-raid sirens, and it's safe to move around. People also find comfort in the Dutch landscape or in the museums they visit. So I'm happy to say it's not just doom and gloom.’

When asked whether he thinks Inholland has been able to help the four women, Martin pauses for a moment. ‘There's a lot they have to deal with. Some of them have another job in addition to the work they do for us. They have no stable housing, and two of them have young kids. I asked them if it is not too much for them to come to Inholland, but they all say they actually like doing that. Apparently they find a sense of peace here, a place for them to catch their breath. The idea that the research helps them contribute to the position of Ukrainians is another thing that motivates them.’

Enjoying a good life is not something we should take for granted. So in addition to doing research, I want us to be a part of the solution.

Vulnerable yet resilient
‘In Ukraine, these women led a pleasant life, but then due to this nasty war they suddenly find themselves at the bottom of society,’ Martin sighs. ‘You can see how vulnerable they are when they arrive in the Netherlands. And it's not just the Ukrainians; I noticed the same kind of vulnerability in asylum seekers when I worked at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. But there are also vulnerable people in our own society. People with low literacy levels, for example, or people who have a low income, can't find a house or can't afford childcare. In a way, Ukrainian refugees are a mirror that reflects all sorts of problems in our society.’

What this shows, says Martin, is that things are not properly arranged in the Netherlands. He is quite impressed by the resilience of the Ukrainian researchers, despite all their problems. ‘They are worried about their families in Ukraine, they are breadwinners, they help their fellow Ukrainians, they are busy looking for a pleasant job. And yet these women are far from dejected; on the contrary, they are strong, committed and independent people who never give up!’

Martin hopes to be able to present the full results of the studies by the end of the year. ‘I haven't yet decided in what form I will present those results, but what is certain is that we aim to get certain issues on the agenda and that we're going to make recommendations to help the government and other authorities take concrete steps to improve the living conditions of Ukrainian refugees.’ There is one important recommendation Martin is already certain he will make. ‘Under the temporary EU directive, Ukrainians can work here for three years. But what happens afterwards? We need to start thinking about that now.’

Being part of the solution
Another thing that is certain is that Martin will regret it when the project is finished, but he already has plans for new projects. ‘I'd very much like to carry out a similar type of study into the living conditions of asylum seekers and holders of a residence permit. And I'd also like to map out the situation that labour migrants find themselves in. Are we dealing with them in a decent manner? In addition to doing research and presenting results, I want us to be a part of the solution. That's because if there is anything I've learnt in my career, it is that while we may have a good life right now, it is not something we should take for granted.’

Want to know more about the research and the results?
Keep an eye on our channels for more personal stories of Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands. Would you like to know more about the results? Read here and request the research report in English, Ukrainian or Dutch. 

Please note: the research publication will be published in English, Ukrainian and Dutch soon. 

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