Ukrainians in Rural Ireland Piece Together New Lives, Step by Step
ARRANMORE ISLAND, Ireland — There are two flags flying over the youth hostel on Arranmore Island, a speck of land off Ireland’s northwestern coast, visible from the ferry as it pulls into its tiny port: the Irish tricolor and the blue and yellow banner of Ukraine.
Yaroslava Risukhina, a refugee from Ukraine, remembers the joyous feeling that swept over her when she saw the flags fluttering above the village. “When we arrived by ferry, it was the evening, and it was beautiful,” she said, marveling at the view from the room her family shares at the hostel. “Here, everyone knows everyone, everyone says, ‘Good morning,’ and for us that’s unusual.”
Since the middle of this summer, she and her children have been among 25 Ukrainian refugees living on the remote island, where the population had been steadily dropping for decades.
They are among the countless Ukrainians grappling with the uncertainty of how the next chapter of their lives will unfold as the war with Russia enters its seventh month, making it clear that their temporary displacement could become long term. But the communities hosting them are also confronting the complexities of assimilating and providing for newcomers as they face their own economic and social challenges.
Across Donegal, the county containing Arranmore Island, at least 5,000 Ukrainians have been put up in hostels, hotels and other private accommodations, and more are arriving every day, according to the local authorities. The arrivals are placing their children in schools and seeking jobs and housing.
It makes for a strange and untested alchemy as Ireland works to accommodate the largest number of refugees the country has ever accepted, mixing Ukrainians fleeing war with locals in the largely homogeneous towns and villages of its more rural corners.
Ms. Risukhina and her son and daughter are from Sievierodonetsk, a city in Ukraine’s east that was largely destroyed this summer after it became a battleground. She doesn’t know if, or when, she will be able to return. For now she is focused on getting her children started at the small local school.
“But it’s like walking in the fog,” she said. “You just take it step by step.”
Some 50,000 Ukrainians have come to Ireland in the months since the nation announced visa-free travel and offered housing and support for the displaced in line with the European Union’s temporary protection directive.
The number hosted in Ireland is just a fraction of the more than seven million Ukrainian refugees that the United Nations has recorded across Europe since the start of the war in February. But it has proved to be a logistical challenge for a country with a population of only about five million, which is already experiencing a housing crisis and a shortage of doctors and teachers.
Newly arrived Ukrainians are taken to an emergency center in Dublin, which has increasingly been overwhelmed, before being sent to privately owned hotels and homes that the government has contracted with across the country. A number of departments in the Irish government involved in the program did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
For the Ukrainians in cities and larger towns, it is often easier to find work and get to shops and schools.
The State of the War
- Price Cap: Finance ministers from the Group of 7 nations agreed to form an international buyers’ cartel to cap the price of Russian oil, a move that could drain President Vladimir V. Putin’s war chest.
- U.N. Inspection: Amid fears of a possible nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia power plant, a United Nations team braved shelling to conduct an inspection of the Russian-controlled station.
- Russia’s Military Expansion: Though Mr. Putin ordered a sharp increase in the size of Russia’s armed forces, he seems reluctant to declare a draft. Here is why.
- Unusual Approaches: Ukrainian troops, facing strained supply lines, are turning to jury-rigged weapons and equipment bartering among units.
Artem Baranovskyi, 35, who has been living in a hotel in the center of Letterkenny, the largest town in Donegal, with hundreds of other Ukrainian families, already has two jobs — as an electrician and a health care worker — and is planning to move his family into an apartment and buy a car.
As he took his son to school one day, he said, “I keep reminding him how lucky we are to be here.”
But with the academic year restarting, some Ukrainians who had been put in student housing in cities have been relocated to rural communities. For now, much of the coordination happens at the local level, where many described a sometimes chaotic response, despite a great deal of good will.
Across Donegal, an initial outpouring of support has given way to a patchwork of local agencies, charities and volunteers left to find ways to settle and support the Ukrainians. They help the newcomers navigate the bureaucracy to register with scarce doctors, find places in schools and hunt for jobs in an area where work has historically been hard to find.
Two people vital to the efforts here are OksanaKrysyska and Switlana Pirch, who are both from Ukraine but have lived in Donegal for years. They now spend their days answering questions from the thousands of Ukrainians scattered across the county.
“I am just trying to do what I can,” said Ms. Krysyska, who has dedicated her time to this work since the war began.
Volunteers at first, the two now work with the Donegal Local Development Council, an organization supporting refugees, from their base in Letterkenny.
“There are so many traumatized people in these groups,” Ms. Krysyska, 38, said. “And the number of people coming is constantly growing, while the number of people helping them has stayed the same.”
Even on Arranmore, where the Ukrainians say life has been idyllic, the situation is not rosy for everyone.
Darragh Ward, 44, who grew up on the island, said he worried that the schools his children attend would be overwhelmed and pointed to Ireland’s broader housing crisis.
“I think it’s wrong, they should provide for their own first,” he said of the government as he had a drink in the local pub next to the hostel.
Aid groups and volunteers have called for better coordination and communication on the national level to calm the fears that have driven these pockets of discontent.
Fiona Hurley, the chief executive of Nasc, an Irish migrant and refugee rights center whose name means “link,” said it had been advocating for a national governmental lead to be appointed to coordinate the response.
“We need to really get away from emergency planning and into medium- and long-term planning,” Ms. Hurley said.
Paul Kernan, a community worker with the Donegal Intercultural Platform, an independent group in Letterkenny that promotes inclusion and equality, said that some resentment had built up because of a system “pitting the disadvantaged against each other” over limited resources as organizations scramble to provide for everyone.
“We’ve had posters put up: ‘Stand up. House the Irish,’ all the rest of it,” he said. “And not a word had been said by an agency or authority.”
His group is working with local partners to provide English conversation classes, among other services, but he worries about the lack of resources for needs like mental health care.
In many cases, those hosting the Ukrainians have gone above and beyond to offer help, many local groups say, as have volunteers.
Nataliia Zhukova, her husband and son are among 32 people living in a converted guesthouse in the Donegal village of Doochary, little more than a cluster of houses and a pub at a crossroads.
“I like it here,” Ms. Zhukova, 51, said as she praised her hosts. She misses her home, of course. “But the business we had, the house, those are not important,” she said. “The most important thing is our lives.”
Each week, the property’s manager drives them to the grocery store a few miles away and is in constant contact to see what they need. Neighbors have donated bikes for the families to explore the area.
Ms. Zhukova is trying to learn English and has taped small pieces of paper with Ukrainian words and translations around the house, where the scent of a large pot of simmering borscht wafted in the air.
Like Arranmore Island, Doochary is in the Gaeltacht, the area of Ireland where the Irish language is spoken, so some classes are taught in Irish. Ms. Zhukova said she was just happy to have her son back in a classroom after months of uncertainty.
Margaret Mulvaney, 78, and her husband, who live across the road, waved to their new neighbors as they tended flowers in front of their house.
“It has brought a bit of life back here,” she said with a smile, noting that the local shop had recently reopened and that enrollment at the village elementary school, once on the brink of closing, had more than doubled, to 15 students.
Farther south, the seaside town of Bundoran, normally a prime tourist destination, has also seen many of its hotels shift their businesses to host Ukrainians, attracted by the stability of a government contract even as European tourism revives. Alina Popova, who is from another seaside place, Odesa in Ukraine’s south, fled to Ireland with her 5-year-old son and is living in a hotel in the center of the town.
Life is a challenge for now. Ms. Popova, 30, is taking classes and has a job at a cafe but relies on sporadic public transportation. Or, when the weather is good, it’s an 80-minute walk each way.
Still, sometimes she is transported in other ways: “I close my eyes, and I can hear and smell the sea, and it feels like I am home.”