Ukraine: Life in displacement for a Roma family in Kiev: a double bind of poverty and discrimination

Since the outbreak of conflict in 2014 in the east of the country, thousands of Ukrainians have been uprooted from their homes. Now controlled by armed militias, with Russian support, these areas remain off limits due to the devastation left by the fighting and ongoing human rights abuses. As a result, many have been forced to relocate to Kiev and other cities in the relative security of western Ukraine – a situation that has created a large population of IDPs who, more than three years on, still struggle with poverty, exclusion and an uncertain future. However, for Roma families displaced by the conflict, a new life in a strange city is especially difficult because of the marginalization and discrimination they face on a daily basis as members of one of the country’s most stigmatized communities.

After having to flee the war in the east, Tamara, a Roma woman in her early 40s, now lives with seven other members of her close family, including her two-year-old and her elderly disabled mother, in a one-bedroom flat in a low-income neighbourhood on the edge of the capital city Kiev. Before being displaced, the family lived in Novotroitske in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, integrated in a mixed neighbourhood where they owned their own house. Tamara, who is educated up to secondary level, made a modest but decent living selling goods in the local market.

However, the conflict that erupted in eastern Ukraine after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula in March 2014 changed everything. The family soon found themselves in the heart of the battle – their house was on the street that formed the frontline between Ukrainian and rebel forces. Her brother’s house on the same street was occupied and commandeered by the Ukrainian army at such short notice that he was forced to leave without even having the time to grab his family’s documents, including the ID cards and birth certificates essential to accessing services as an IDP.

Tamara meanwhile gave birth to her daughter Yana during this period, in a birth centre that was by that point converted to a military hospital. She was so stressed that her milk dried up and she was unable to breastfeed tiny Yana, who was born with a deformity in one of her legs and problems with her lungs that need costly treatment. Soon after that, Tamara decided the family should flee the conflict zone. She made her way to Kiev with one-month- old Yana to try to find somewhere to live for her and the rest of the family. She eventually managed to find a house and sent for the family.

However, once in Kiev, Tamara and her family found that themselves on a different frontline – the entrenched discrimination that Roma have long faced in Ukraine. As both Roma and IDPs, they struggled to find landlords willing to rent them housing. And in addition to their struggle to access essential services such as healthcare or earn a living, they have regularly been on the receiving end of racism and hate speech since they were forced to move to Kiev.

In the district they live in, locals are particularly aggressive towards Roma. Her brother, who lives nearby, has an eleven-year-old son who was attending the local school but was so badly bullied he has stopped attending. Her brother himself was also attacked at the market when they found out he was Roma and from the East. Their neighbours, too, are hostile towards Roma and have called the police on numerous occasions to complain about the sounds coming from Tamara’s flat – though not, as Tamara was anxious to point out, of ‘fighting or drinking’ but the inevitable noise from a family of eight with three young children living in just one room. Yet every time the police come, they threaten the family with eviction unless they ‘quieten down’ – even though this would be completely illegal.

As for their hope for the future, return to Novotroitske seems an impossibility. While they have tried to go back a number of times, it is extremely difficult to get the necessary permission from the army without the right documents and the house itself, which Tamara managed to visit once, was irrevocably damaged: the roof has been all but completely destroyed and all of the windows have been broken. She thinks it is unlikely that they will ever get the house back, and while there are potential avenues for compensation, she has no idea how to access those services. In the meantime, with three generations to support, Tamara and her family continue to suffer the uncertainties of displacement in a city where, like other Roma, they still battle discrimination on a daily basis. 

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement 

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Date: 13/12/2017




Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech

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