The war between Russia and Ukraine has seen several phases since the initial invasion in February. A series of advances by the Ukraine armed forces in the Eastern part of the country in early September created the impression that the conflict might be near an end. Russian annexation of four provinces at the end of the month convinced others that the war is far from over.
What is not debatable, however, are the devastating effects that the war continues to have on those impacted by the conflict, particularly Ukrainian refugees who fled hundreds or thousands of miles to escape the turmoil and seek safety for themselves and their families. Since men were prohibited from fleeing the country, most refugees are women charged with caring for their children, parents and grandparents.
This is the second in a two-part series about female Ukrainian geologist refugees who fled their homeland and received assistance from colleagues living around the world. The first installment in the June EXPLORER profiled geoscientists who left Ukraine and received direct help from colleagues in Poland and financial support from geoscientists around the world who contributed to an online fundraising campaign.
This article shares the stories of other geoscientists who benefitted greatly from the funding but still struggle to find stability after having their world turned upside-down.
From Geologist to Volunteer
Natalia is a mother of two who lost her husband three years ago. She lived with her sons in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city near the Russian border, until the Russian invasion on Feb. 23.
“When air raids and shelling of the city began every day, we hid for a week with our neighbors in the basement of our nine-story building. On Feb. 26, our house and neighboring houses were heavily shelled, all the windows were left without glass, but we continued to stay in our apartment. On March 3, several sudden arrivals hit our house, destroying its structure. The fire, which started after the arrivals, claimed the lives of people, unfortunately, who did not have time to go down to the shelter. Burnt-out entrances and apartments represented a hell in which it was no longer possible to be. In the neighboring house, the facade of the house collapsed before our eyes,” she recounted.
Natalia and her youngest son grabbed a few belongings and boarded an evacuation train that took them from Eastern Ukraine to Lvov, in the Western part of the country.
“I arrived with my youngest son to Lviv. Here we were warmly welcomed by volunteers, everywhere there were tents with hot food. My son stayed in Lviv, with his friends. I left for Ternopil, where I have been here since March 4. My colleagues also left the city for various safe places. During the war we cannot work. But in communicating with them, I hear a great desire to return to my favorite work again,” she said.
Without the ability to work as a geologist, Natalia joined the volunteer movement, along with other refugee women in Ternopil. She receives clothes and food from city authorities and churches and depends on humanitarian aid coming from outside Ukraine.
“I can’t go back to Kharkiv right now, shelling continues there. My house is destroyed, and I don’t know what will happen to my life. But I believe in the victory of Ukraine!” she said.
Geologists Helping Geologists
In late July and August Natalia received support through Female Ukrainian Geoscientist Refugee Funds, a campaign started on GoFundMe by AAPG past presidents Roberta (Robbie) Gries, Randi Martinsen, Denise Cox and Gretchen Gillis.
Gries, who visited Ukraine during her term in 2001-02, manages the GoFundMe page and spends approximately 20 hours per week coordinating transfers and communicating with the geoscientists who request and receive support. She sends the funds to refugees identified and vetted by AAPG Members Piotr Kryzwiec, from Poland, and Alexander (Sasha) Kitchka, from Ukraine.
The campaign generated $79,000 in donations between April and October.
During that time, organizers distributed funding to 52 female geoscientists located in Poland, Hungary, Croatia and other countries throughout Europe.
Warm Climates, Limited Medical Access
Olena, a 61-year-old palynologist who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, is one of the Ukrainian refugees who benefit from the funding.
She and her retired husband currently live in Croatia, and the thought of returning to Ukraine terrifies them.
“It’s not so much the war that scares me, but the cold. We were warned that this winter would be very difficult. There will be no gas, and it will be cold in the apartments, and even more so at the institute. Before the war, our institute was poorly heated in winter, but now it will be cold all the time,” she said.
Cold weather worsens Olena’s condition, and she’s nervous about moving back to her 16-story building in Kyiv, where power outages are frequent, and her only source of heat is an electric stove.
For now, Olena enjoys Croatia, a place where she said both the climate and the people are warm. She works with a microscope and advises a graduate student while trying to take care of her health.
“Everything is good in Croatia, except for medicine,” she said. “I was booked to see a rheumatologist on Aug. 7, 2023, and this is the norm here.”
Olena tries to make the best of her time away, knowing that the relative calm she experiences is temporary.
“My husband goes to Croatian language courses and helps me in arranging my life. The news from Ukraine is very disturbing, there is no improvement in the situation there. We are very glad that we could live in peace for at least six months,” he said.
Finding Help for Diabetes
Julia, a Ukrainian university geology professor and mother of an 11-year-old daughter who is disabled and has type-1 diabetes, is another beneficiary of the help.
From March to June she received free housing and food but became responsible for covering all expenses starting in July.
“I work remotely, online at the university now. However, the salary will not be enough to pay for housing in the long term. The work situation is unstable – I can be sent on leave at my own expense at any time due to the situation in the country,” she said.
“We want to stay in Poland as long as possible to wait out the acute phase of the war and for reasons of securing ourselves from possible interruptions in the supply of insulin to Ukraine, sensors for monitoring sugar levels, etc., necessary for our daughter,” she added.
Frequent power outages in Ukraine affect storage of insulin, which must be refrigerated at low temperatures, and currency devaluation and supply-chain interruptions make diabetes care more expensive than ever.
Money received through the Female Ukrainian Geoscientist Refugee Funds allow Julia to stay in Poland and care for her daughter while they wait for the situation in Ukraine to stabilize.
Returning to Normal
Some of the recipients who received funding earlier in the year now are making the trip back home. Yuliia Demchuk, a petroleum geologist active in AAPG and the European Association of Geologists and Engineers, spent five months as a refugee in Western Ukraine and sent a message of appreciation to supporters in September.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and all the geological community for financial support. Thanks to your assistance, my family and I were able to return home to Kyiv. The situation in the city is very different. We want to believe that the war ended, but unfortunately, the war continues, and there is a threat of rocket attacks every day. But despite this, Ukraine lives and fights,” she said.
“Today is the ‘Day of Knowledge.’ Education begins all over Ukraine, both online and offline. Today, for the first time since Feb. 24, my son finally went happily to his kindergarten. Of course, kindergarten is within a shelter. I’m very worried about how he will be without me during the air raids in the shelter, but enough about this now.”
Demchuk concluded, “I am glad to inform you that thanks to your help and the help of other caring people, we are able to survive in the most difficult times of our lives, times of unemployment, brutal war and deep depression! We have provided ourselves with daily needs in such a difficult time and are buying all the necessary things for my child.”
How Donations Helped
Basic necessities, including housing, food and medical support, are the primary benefits that the Female Ukrainian Geoscientist Refugee Funds campaign provides to those displaced by the conflict.
Recipients sent thanks to Gries, who published them on the GoFundMe page.
Marina, a researcher and educator with numerous geology publications, sent the following message after receiving funding while living as a refugee in Croatia: “I am infinitely grateful to you and your colleagues who understand our problems, support us in these difficult times and help! This financial assistance is very timely and will help to solve our current problems. We will make a payment for the apartment for the next two months. Thank you very much!”
Tetiana, a petroleum geologist and expert on gas condensate and oil reserves, lived temporarily in Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine after escaping from Kharkiv, near the Russian border. She also expressed her gratitude for support received from colleagues: “I did not think that help from your organization would be provided so quickly. Back in March, I registered on the site of assistance to migrants from Ukraine, but so far I have not received anything. And here is a surprise from you! I’m very grateful to you. I always believed and knew that there are no random people in geology.”
“At the end of May, Kharkiv became much quieter from the explosions. We wanted to come back at the beginning of the summer when my daughter will finish her studies in the fifth grade. But, unfortunately, shelling of the city began again. Therefore, we are stuck in Western Ukraine for an indefinite period. Thanks again for your support. It is very pleasant to receive it from geologists,” she added.
Gries said that continued donations allow her to provide additional payments to people who received funding at the start of the campaign.
One of the repeat recipients is Maryna, a teacher and mineral deposits explorer who fled to Hungary with her three school-aged sons and month-old infant.
She wrote in May, thanking the supporters for their donation and offering her services as a geologist.
“I got the money. Everything is good. Thank you very much, the foundation, to your entire team. I am moved. Thank you very much again. If my experience in geology comes in handy, please contact me. I hope we will keep in touch,” she said.
After receiving a second transfer in May she wrote again.
“I am infinitely grateful to you. I will stay in touch. At the first opportunity I want to buy the children clothes and shoes. I will send you our photos,” she said.
The follow up message and promised photos came in July.
“We bought shoes for the boys, some clothes: shorts, socks, underwear, dresses, a shirt for me and the older children. Also, for the baby: clothes, a bottle and a pacifier, and a chair for feeding at the secondhand store. Thank you very much for your help,” she said.
Maryna sent another note in late August as she prepared to send her boys to school.
“I feel such strong support for the first time in my life. The geological community is a great force,” she said. “I’m staying in Hungary alone with my children. Therefore, your support is very important to us. Although words are difficult to describe the full extent of gratitude. May God protect you and everyone who donates money to your fund. Thank you for the kindness of your hearts,” she wrote.
Gries noted how an influx of funding in August and September enabled her to provide help to six newly identified geoscientists and to send funding to 30 refugees who had not received support since April or May.
“I am happy to hear that several have been able to return to Kyiv, but their jobs are now at 50-percent salary and expenses have increased,” she said. “A couple of refugees returned to Kharkiv in August and September, but recent shelling and loss of electricity has again made that city inhospitable.”
Falling Salaries and Rising Prices
Marina Krochak, a university professor who received funding after fleeing to Croatia, expressed thanks for support received while away.
“I’ve returned to Kyiv. It’s relatively safer here now than it was five months ago. But life has become very expensive. Our university has started teaching students online. Funding for the university was greatly reduced due to the war. I work with the same teaching load but with a salary of 50 percent of the pre-war. Therefore, your financial support for me is very timely,” she said.
Gries noted that while donations have provided significant help to geoscientists and their families, continued need exists.
A note from Lidiia, a petroleum geologist living in Italy, highlighted the ongoing struggle faced by geoscientists facing rising housing and energy prices and the worries they face as winter nears.
“Hello, thank you very much and thanks to the Association of geologists, yesterday I received a second transfer of $436 euros. The housing situation is not entirely clear how long they will allow us to live by paying only utilities. There are already signs that it won’t last long. And with the onset of autumn, we will not even be able to pay utility bills (very high gas prices). Then it will be necessary to move, it is not known where,” she wrote.
Gries noted that while the campaign intends to support refugees, she frequently receives requests from geoscientists inside Ukraine.
Olena, a professor of geochemistry, minerology and petrography, sent a message from the Brovary district in the northern part of the country, where she and her family have been stuck since the beginning of the war.
“During the battles near the Kyiv, I and my family could not evacuate and lived close to the war zone. People who evacuated from the temporary occupied territories also lived in our house for two months. Due to interrupted transport connection, it was not possible to get to place of work during that time,” she said.
“Now the situation has partially stabilized, and I have resumed work at the University, but our financial situation significantly worsened. My family consists of me, my retired mother, my son who is a student, my sister and my niece who is a graduate student at school this year. Our combined income for five is approximately $1,000. The heating season is approaching, prices are increasing but wages are decreasing … We need help,” she said.
Allocating limited funding to meet endless needs is a demanding and challenging task for Gries.
“I always want to help, but still will push the major funding to those that are refugees,” she said.
“I am spending some time checking up on our past recipients and finding out what their current needs might be. Most have received some additional funding. But they are smaller amounts and to the women who have the strongest needs. These determinations are not easy. It seems like everyone realizes that the war will go on for a lot longer, and most women are trying hard to upgrade their language skills (Polish, Hungarian, etc.) to get jobs,” she said.
Adapting to New Cultures and Languages
Anush shared her challenges of adapting to a new culture and learning Danish.
“I’m slowly integrating with my sister in Denmark. Now I am learning Danish, and I found a temporary job, of course, not in my specialty – my Ukrainian diploma of higher education and the experience of my many years of activity in Ukraine are useless here – but everything is in my hands. The sooner I learn Danish, the sooner I can re-certify my diploma here,” she said.
She tries to concentrate on her skills while managing the worry she feels for her family at home.
“In Ukraine every day, to our great pain, the situation is only getting worse. My Dad continues to live in our hometown of Kharkiv. Before the war started, my mom went to visit her sister in Russia and unfortunately, she still is there. She couldn’t get out ... it’s not safe!”
Anush expressed the multiple emotions that many Ukrainian refugees feel these days, concern for those left at home, uncertainty about their current situation in a new land, and a remarkable sense of optimism that the future will bring better news for all.
“I slowly started making money, and it’s wonderful. Step by step and everything will be fine. For me, the most important thing is that the war in my beautiful country will finally end and that everyone is alive and healthy; everything else is the little things in life!”
Bringing Out the Best in People
Kateryna wrote from Poland, where she lives in a hostel for refugees.
“The whole situation in our world is so horrible and incomprehensible that sometimes I think everything is just a horrible dream or a scary movie. But, you know, people are so changed for the better just because of this horror that’s going on in Ukraine!” she said.
She described an experience visiting a pavilion in Krakow where volunteers cooked food for Ukrainian refugees.
“There were volunteers from all over the world … different languages, different skin colors, different eyes! But they all smiled at me and asked me what I wanted to eat. They put everything on my plate. I couldn’t even say anything to them! I just sobbed and sobbed! It was so beautiful,” she said.
“All of us together. All of us! I can’t even tell you how happy I was in that moment! These people came from far away, spending their money, time and effort and working for free in difficult conditions just to help other people! This is something unbelievable! Once again, I want to thank you for the warmth and support that you give to people and to say what is very important to us! Thank you and all the people who are with us in this difficult situation!”
Supporting Professional Development
Geoscientists around the world are finding different opportunities to help their Ukrainian colleagues in the difficult situation.
AAPG Member Piotr Krzywiec, associate professor at the Institute of Geological Sciences, Polish Academy of Sciences, has been helping Ukrainians refugees since March. He and Ukrainian member Sasha Kitchka work with Gries to identify and vet applicants to receive support from the Female Ukrainian Geoscientist Refugee Funds campaign.
Krzywiec said identifying recipients continues to be a priority, but he is seeking additional avenues to support colleagues affected by the war. He is working with the AAPG Foundation to develop professional development opportunities for Ukrainian geoscientists who seek to new employment or to broaden their involvement in international projects.
Krzywiec worked with University of Silesia in Sosnowiec colleagues Anna Gumsley, Ashley Gumsley and Oleksandra Tsymbal to develop two courses, “Academic English for Ukrainian Geologists” and “Polish for Ukrainian Geologists,” and he reports more than 200 potential participants interested in enrolling. Courses will receive financial support from the AAPG Foundation and will be organized under the auspices of the Polish Geological Society, an AAPG affiliated society, where Krzywiec serves currently as board secretary.
“There are many options at the moment we’ve been considering,” he said. “It is really great that the AAPG Foundation is willing to support these activities; this is truly appreciated by our Ukrainian friends and colleagues.”
In addition to the basic language courses, Krzywiec plans specialized geological, geochemical and geophysical courses and workshops for Ukrainian students.
“We ask AAPG Members and all geoscientists to help in any way they can, whether it’s contributing to the GoFundMe campaign, paying dues for Ukrainian members or donating their time and expertise to help develop specialized courses for Ukrainian colleagues. For them it is also very important to see that international geo-community cares,” he said.
How to Help
To contribute to the GoFundMe Campaign visit GoFundMe.com and search “Female Ukrainian Geoscientist Refugee Funds.”
To contribute funds to cover AAPG dues for Ukrainian members, contact [email protected].
To provide talks for Ukrainian geoscientists or join the AAPG Foundation’s Professional development initiative contact Piotr Krzywiec at [email protected].