Ethnic Czechs from Ukraine mark first year in their old-new homeland

Photo: Filip Jandourek, Czech Radio

A year has now passed since the start of a government sponsored repatriation program for ethnic Czechs from Ukraine. In its initial stage over two hundred people asked to return to their old homeland over the unstable situation in the country and hundreds more want to take advantage of the opportunity to resettle in the Czech Republic. I spoke with Jarmila Lomozová from the Catholic Charity Caritas, which has been assisting their integration, to find out how they are faring a year on.

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
“Altogether there are more than 260 persons in the repatriation program and most of them have already fully integrated. 180 persons have already moved from the hotel where they were accommodated on arrival and now they have jobs and permanent accommodation.”

What assistance were they given from the state and from your organization Caritas?

“When they arrived they automatically received permanent residence, that was the most important thing for them – getting legal residence in this country. And then, for the first six months they could stay for free in a hotel owned by the Interior Ministry. During that time they got assistance from Caritas –at the outset we helped them to register in various systems, such as the health care system, got their children to start attending school, and most importantly, helped them find jobs and permanent accommodation.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
Getting a residence permit automatically is exceptional isn’t it?

“Yes, that was possible because of their Czech roots.”

Who are these people – I assume it is mostly families with children?

“Yes, mostly families with children, we also had several retired persons, but mostly people in their productive age so people in need of a job.”

Situation in Ukraine,  photo: ČT24
Where did they come from – why did they leave?

“These people have Czech ancestors and so now when the situation in Ukraine is politically not so stable they took advantage of this repatriation program offered by the Czech government and moved here. This program designed by the government is not only meant for Czechs in Ukraine but also for people with Czech roots in other parts of the world but so far people are coming mainly from Ukraine.”

Was there a problem with the language barrier?

“From our experience it is often the children who teach their parents Czech.”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest hurdles they face. The elderly people among them speak Czech, they remember Czech spoken in the family, but the younger generations only speak passive Czech and they need practice, so we organized Czech lessons for them and from our experience it is often their children who teach them Czech, because the children start school almost immediately – on the second, third day after their arrival and they pick up the language very fast so they come home and they teach their parents.”

The primary school in Milevsko,  photo: Official Facebook page of the 2.ZŠ J.A.Komenského Milevsko
You say they started school right away – how were they received? Did the teachers see this as a problem and were they able to give them the extra assistance needed?

“We have great cooperation with the primary school in Milevsko. Milevsko is the town closest to the hotel where they live and so at the outset all of the children go there. And the school is very cooperative. It is not easy, because they are accepting tens and tens of children who do not speak any Czech at the beginning, but within a matter of weeks they start picking up the language. As you said, they need more attention, but the school is really excellent and they are very cooperative.”

Jarmila Lomozová,  photo: ČT24
Did they have special classes for them at the outset or did they integrate into regular classes?

“They integrated right away.”

How did you go about finding jobs and housing for the families?

“There are two ways, the first, which we are grateful for, is that companies and even the local authorities send us offers and the other way is through job centers. So we try to offer as many options as possible and our compatriots select whatever is most suitable for them.”

And what kind of jobs did they get? Was it according to their qualifications or did they have to settle for less?

Illustrative photo: Kristýna Maková,  Czech Radio - Radio Prague
“Their qualifications are decisive, of course. There are many manual workers among them who find jobs in the industry, in warehouses, as drivers or mechanics. A good example, if I may be specific, is the Sersen family whom I met recently. Mr. Sersen found a job with a company near Brno, the second largest town in the Czech Republic, the company makes prefabricated buildings and Mr. Sersen works in a metal production unit. His wife found a job in a small company in Brno making salads. So both of them are working manually and they are very satisfied. Mr. Sersen told me that he is glad his colleagues accepted him and he made friends there. They have a daughter and she would like to continue in her studies. They say they are doing better than they did in Ukraine. Of course, the language is still a problem, they understand very well, but cannot speak Czech fluently. Certainly, they could not get a job in services where they would have to communicate with people face to face or in writing. So it will take some time.”

Slavkov,  photo: flightlog,  CC BY 2.0
I don’t know where all of them are from – but are they sticking together here as a community or have they all gone their own ways?

“Yes, in some cases, or I would say, in most cases. There are a couple of towns where they head because there is a smaller or bigger community of Volhynian Czechs there already. So for example the place where Mr. Sersen and his family moved –Slavkov –there are four or five families from the community who found work in the same company.”

And how were they received by the locals here?

“We didn’t have any negative experiences. Of course, sometimes there is some hesitation, for example sometimes the owners of flats are not very willing to rent them out to Ukrainian Czechs, but when we -as Caritas -enter the negotiations we are able to explain the situation and things can usually be settled positively.”

“It happens that they come with great expectations and when things do not proceed as well ,or as fast as they thought, they are disappointed.”

Did any of them ask to return home or move to another country? Was there any sign of disappointment on their part?

“They do not want to go back, that is not the case, but now you mention disappointment - usually when they come they come with great expectations and sometimes they find in the beginning that things do not proceed as well or as fast as they thought and then they are disappointed. But they overcome this phase and start adapting and accepting new circumstances.”

How long will they be given support for?

“The intensive phase of support that we provide lasts for a couple of months, it depends on how fast they are able to integrate, but we are in touch with them even after that first phase. Whenever they need advice in some situation they can contact us at any time or contact the local branch of Caritas because we operate around the country. For example I recall that a man called us because he got an amendment to his work contract and he did not understand it so he needed advice, he needed to consult the situation with someone.”

Do you know if there will be more Volhynian Czechs coming over?

“Yes, the Czech Embassy in Ukraine registers hundreds and hundreds of new applications for repatriation, so it is certain that the program will continue.”