Svitlana Kotova held out as long as she could in her home in Mariupol, but when shrapnel from a Russian rocket left a hole in her kitchen in early April, she knew it was time to leave.
Ms. Kotova and her 16-year old son packed what they could and managed to drive to Russian-controlled Berdyansk. From there they got to Zaporizhia, thanks to an evacuation organized by the International Red Cross, and then across the border to Warsaw with the help of a Polish charity called HumanDoc.
Ms. Kotova left behind her husband, a soldier who was among the last remaining fighters in the sprawling Azovstal steel plant. He’s now being held by the Russian army and she worries about him constantly. She’s joined a group of soldiers’ wives who have been calling for the men to be released in a prisoner exchange.
And now that she is in Warsaw, she’s also joined a small team of women who are providing legal help to Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Ms. Kotova, who worked as an accountant in Mariupol, is helping to run the Centre for Legal and Professional Assistance. It offers free advice on a range of issues, such as divorce, immigration and employment matters, as well as how to seek compensation for property damage caused by the war.
The centre opened on June 8 and it’s staffed by four Ukrainian lawyers who are all refugees. It operates out of a brightly-lit office space in the Plac Unii shopping mall in central Warsaw. The clinic is supported financially by HumanDoc, Plan International and the mall’s owner.
“I think what we are doing here is so important,” said Ms. Kotova.
Alla Maievska, who has a doctorate in law from Ukraine and co-ordinates the centre, said around 20 to 30 people come in every day seeking help. Most are women and single mothers.
Some of the most common questions concern immigration, business startups and family law, she added. With so many families divided between Poland and Ukraine – adult men aged 18 to 60 can’t leave Ukraine – issues such as divorce, separation and child support can be difficult to sort out.
Employment law is also topical, and many refugees want to understand how they can protect themselves from unscrupulous employers. Most refugees in Poland have ended up in low-skilled jobs such as cleaners, factory workers and restaurant kitchen staff. Those areas can be open to abuse, and the centre helps ensure refugees have proper employment contracts.
Obtaining recognition in Poland for qualifications from Ukraine is another major issue. Ms. Kotova, for example, will have to spend two years taking courses to become a qualified accountant in Poland.
Ms. Maievska said research has shown that Ukrainian refugees in Poland are highly skilled and underemployed. Around 90 per cent have one university degree, and 38 per cent studied at the postgraduate level, she said. “We have people in Poland who have money and can work. The problem for them is the language barrier and confirmation of their professional qualifications.”
One of the lawyers, Yana, who did not want to give her surname, specialized in civil and commercial law in Kyiv for two years. She fled to Poland on her own in March and she still hopes to return to Ukraine to resume her career. Like her colleagues at the centre, Yana can only offer advice until she becomes qualified to practise law in Poland, but she has become familiar with the Polish legal system.
She has been dealing with questions about property and commercial interests in Ukraine, and how to file insurance claims for war damage. “We help to solve these problems. We try to show them how to close a business in Ukraine and open one in Poland,” she said.
Yana added that the Ukrainian government has started to develop regulations concerning compensation for lost property, but the process isn’t easy for someone living abroad. “You have to collect evidence that you owned the property and that it was clearly destroyed,” she said. “Last week we helped a client write a special document to the government for compensation.”
The lawyers have also helped refugees such as Ms. Kotova whose husbands have been taken prisoner by the Russian army. They help file documents to relevant organizations – the International Red Cross and others – to ensure the men receive whatever help is available.
Yana said that because all the lawyers at the clinic are refugees, they have a better understanding of the issues that face the women who seek help. “I know what it’s like to escape from bombs. I can relate,” she said. “This project has really inspired us to help Ukrainian people. It’s really important for us as lawyers and women. We’ve escaped the war, so now we can help.”
Not everyone has been enamoured with the service provided by the centre. Earlier this month, someone pelted the windows with eggs and bits of debris could still be seen on the window days later.
“We were in the kitchen eating when we heard this thud, thud,” said Ms. Maievska. “It’s not comfortable.”
She added that while she understands that some people in Poland have grown tired of the refugee crisis, the women in the office know the importance of their work. “It’s working,” she said. “I know people need us.”
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