Caritas helping ethnic Czechs from Ukraine build a new life in their old country

Photo: Filip Jandourek

The repatriation of ethnic Czechs from Ukraine who asked to return to their old homeland over the unstable situation in their country began earlier this year. Close to one hundred people, mostly from Ukraine’s Volhynia region, are building a new life in the Czech Republic with another 150 more expected to follow. The Catholic Charity Caritas has been assisting their integration within a government sponsored program. I met with Jarmila Lomozová of Caritas to find out how the repatriation process is going.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“They arrived at the beginning of March, the first group came by bus and then in mid-March a second group arrived on a government plane. Altogether there are now 86 compatriots and we are assisting their integration into Czech society. ”

How many are you helping now and where are they?

“It is now more than two months since their arrival and we have been quite successful with the integration process because more than half of them have already moved from the hotel where they were accommodated at the outset and now have jobs and permanent accommodation. So they are settled in.”

So when they come over – I assume it is whole families, in most cases – they are placed in a hotel paid for by the Czech government and what kind of help do they get in this initial phase?

“Yes, we should explain the whole repatriation program. It was designed by the Czech government and it is really quite generous. The Ukrainian Czechs automatically receive (fast track) permanent residence which gives them the same rights as Czech citizens have, except the right to vote. Then they receive financial aid (50,000 crowns per person, 20,000 per child) and during their first six months in the Czech Republic they can be accommodated in a hotel owned by the Interior Ministry for free. And during these six months they are helped by our Caritas, they get assistance from our social workers and the extent of that assistance is considerable. We helped to register them in various systems such as the health care system, in schools, they were registered in job centers etc. When the paperwork was done we organized Czech lessons for them and gathered and are still gathering offers from Czechs to employ them or offers of accommodation coming to us from all over the Czech Republic. People have responded really well, business people and local authorities are offering to give these people jobs. ”

“The youngest of the group is a baby to be born in September”

I suppose they are people of all ages ...

“Yes, the youngest is actually a baby to be born in September. We have four or five elderly people, so there are couples, couples with children and elderly people as well.”

And what kind of qualifications do they have – is it easy for them to get a job, because the language barrier must still present a problem?

“The qualifications also vary. There are people who worked in agriculture, manual workers, mechanics, drivers, people from cities - a policeman, a nurse or a businessman. So very different backgrounds, education and experience. Not all of them want to continue working in the same field, it also depends on their language skills. Generally the older ones have retained some of their Czech from their early years but in general all of them are picking up the language and improving very fast.”

What about the children?

“The children started school here immediately, on the second or third day after their arrival the children started attending primary school, there are close to ten schoolchildren and they had the leas problems with integration, I would say. They made friends and learnt Czech so quickly that some of the families tell me they have started speaking Czech even at home. So they are helping their parents to learn the language as well.”

When you say they spend six months in a hotel, that keeps them fairly in isolation –do they have contacts with the local community and where do they move to from the hotel? How do you find accommodation for them, do you get offers from the locals to house them?

Jarmila Lomozová,  photo: archive of Jarmila Lomozová
“In our view the initial period in the hotel should be as short as possible. We do not want them to remain in the hotel for the full six months if there are other options, since at the hotel they are really quite isolated. It is situated in a village in the South Bohemian region, it is a recreational facility owned by the Interior Ministry. They have some contacts with the locals but the isolation is there. So it is in their best interest to find a job as quickly as possible, move to a permanent residence and start a new life.”

So how do you help them find accommodation –and do they want to live in a city or in the country?

“It differs. Some of them have relatives in the Czech Republic so naturally their wish is to move somewhere close-by. Others have no idea and no preference, so the most important thing is to help them find a job and then find accommodation for them in the vicinity. With accommodation we sometimes struggle to overcome prejudices, we sometimes come up against a negative attitude with some flat owners refusing to accept foreigners. Though the Ukrainian Czechs have Czech roots and are descendants of Czechs some people here still perceive them as foreigners and they may face distrust sometimes, so we have to help them to find accommodation and jobs and generally we are successful.”

Do they get some kind of psychological support because it is not easy to pack up and leave your home for whatever reason….and move to what for many of them may be a foreign country. What is their relationship to the Czech Republic and do they need psychological help in settling down?

“No, we have not offered them psychological help and it seems it is not needed. These people are happy to be in the Czech Republic. They have no fears, it is just the opposite, because they are very happy that they could leave Ukraine where the situation is unstable and maybe was even dangerous for them. So they are relieved and grateful for this opportunity to return to the country of their ancestors and live in a place that is calm and secure. ”

“They know a lot about the Czech Republic. My impression is that they feel like they have come home.”

I was thinking about an unexpected bout of nostalgia for the place they called home…is there a support network of some kind that they can turn to or do they simply rely on each other?

“They are in daily contact with our social workers. Initially our social workers stayed in the hotel with them, now they commute daily, but they are always on hand to help with whatever is needed. And it is very touching when you meet these people to see that they do have a relationship to the Czech Republic. They remember folksongs, they sing Czech folksongs and they know a lot about the Czech Republic from their parents and grandparents –my impression is that they feel like they have come home. ”