ZOiS Spotlight 8/2023

Ukrainian Activists in Germany: Feeling Positive Despite Daily Challenges

by Kostiantyn Fedorenko 19/04/2023

In Germany, Ukrainian residents as well as refugees have taken up social activism as a consequence of Russia’s full scale invasion. From their motivations to everyday challenges and life satisfaction, interviews with individuals from both groups give insight into activists’ experiences abroad. 

In Berlin, people protest against Russia's war in Ukraine © IMAGO / Frank Ossenbrink

Russia’s war against Ukraine has prompted a rise in social activism among Ukrainians both at home and abroad. It is important to understand how Ukrainian activists abroad live: why they emigrated, how they feel in their new country, and what challenges they experience. To explore these issues, eight interviews were conducted with Ukrainian activists living in Germany. Three of the eight respondents were refugees, while the other five had arrived earlier for professional or educational reasons.

The respondents were engaged in different types of activism: helping refugees from Ukraine, attending demonstrations, organising events, raising awareness, sending donations, and fundraising. Most interviewees reported having been engaged in several of these types of action. One respondent, who was particularly engaged with helping refugees, was eventually employed by the local government; however, she saw her job as activism and said she would have left it if it were not for its social purpose.

Choosing Germany

The Ukrainian activists surveyed had various motivations for their choice of destination. Among the refugees, one, who is now employed as a family therapist, had a colleague in Germany who had invited her to come. Two had been staying in Poland but chose to move to Germany because they expected social payments that were not only short-term and were sufficient for the living expenses.

The non-refugee respondents moved mainly either for employment – two had German business partners who offered them positions in Germany – or for study. One respondent, who now works as a researcher for a German member of parliament, made her choice because of what she described as the German mentality of ‘decency, responsibility, and [the fact] that Germany acts as a kind of a mediator’, as well as the economic stability the country offers.

Migrant activists’ experiences

Only one respondent reported having been discriminated against in an activist context, as her neighbour took down an anti-war sign she had hung in her staircase. One refugee respondent reported encountering discrimination in a small town – not in the context of her activism, but because she did not speak German. While there was no direct conflict, she felt that she was being treated differently from the locals, particularly when she spoke Ukrainian to her child. Another interviewee had held a one-person counter-protest against a pro-Russian demonstration and received verbal attacks from the participants, although she said she felt protected by the police officers present.

Several respondents mentioned the need to adapt to a new mentality or make new contacts – but this was not cited as a complaint. One interviewee who works for a Crimea-related NGO viewed this difference as an opportunity to ‘work as a mediator or an interpreter of sorts between the Ukrainian and the German sides’.

Even when additional questions were asked to clarify whether the respondents had faced positive or negative experiences as foreigners in Germany, they tended to mention either positives or nothing at all. The refugee respondents all expressed their gratitude to Germany for helping them. One refugee criticised people who receive assistance from Germany and complain. Interestingly, she and two non-refugee activists also criticised refugees who move to Germany and live a private life without caring about Ukraine.

Feeling satisfied

The voluntary migrants showed high satisfaction levels with their lives in Germany. Interestingly, one non-refugee’s statement that she was satisfied apart from the war in Ukraine was very similar to that of a refugee. The latter might have been satisfied because she is employed in her own professional field.

One respondent, when explaining why she was happy in Germany, juxtaposed her life there with a perceived Ukrainian mentality: ‘Ukrainians are used to [corruption and not paying taxes]; I am not. [I have] very different views.’

One refugee respondent was much less satisfied with life in Germany. She felt alien in her town and reported differences between the German mentality and her own. In addition, she felt uncomfortable not being at home and needing to live off social security payments. However, she was very grateful to Germany for this social security assistance and viewed the country as one that ‘saves Ukrainian children’.

Language barrier

Almost all the interviewees reported issues with the language barrier, despite mostly living in cosmopolitan cities. As the NGO-employed respondent said, ‘It was a revelation to me how language is important for Germany, and [how it is important] that you share their values, you fit into their ecosystem. Because I did not think they were trying to Germanise you so much in Germany.’ Another respondent said, ‘I feel this community is quite closed’ – and she lives in Berlin. Yet another, also from Berlin, agreed: ‘When I was moving here, I thought I could communicate [in German] – no, I did not understand, I was not understood.’

However, there were also different views on the language issue; some interviewees mentioned it as a challenge they had overcome. For one refugee employed as a family therapist, it was a professional issue, as her work involves directing Ukrainian refugee patients to German mental health specialists, and translation presents an interpretation barrier.

For two other refugees, the language barrier was a source of negative emotions. One said, ‘When I encounter the language barrier […] I start being sad and, for a period of time, I lose the desire to do anything. […] For a day, I cannot find the energy to do [a task].’

Two more respondents mentioned bureaucracy as a challenge to their initial expectations. One non-refugee interviewee brought her mother to Germany after the full-scale war started, but for her mother, bureaucracy was one of the major reasons to leave Germany and return to Ukraine, even though the respondent herself did not approve of this decision.

Overall, none of the eight respondents claimed that they had been let down by their experience of life in Germany. All of them mentioned some fundamental positives; the general mood among the non-refugee respondents was that they had overcome initial challenges and now have a positive attitude to their situation. The non-refugee respondents seem likely to stay in Germany, while one refugee respondent might stay because of the quality of education received by her neurodivergent son.

It is, however, hard to evaluate whether the interviewees’ activism has continued. Some seem to be generally engaged with Ukraine-related issues and are therefore more likely to continue, while others have become more engaged in activism due to the full-scale invasion and might stop being active after it ends.

The study was conducted with the support of the Genshagen Foundation, in the framework of the EU Meets Europe project.

Kostiantyn Fedorenko is a social scientist, a doctoral candidate at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and a researcher at ZOiS.