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For countless Ukrainian refugees, leaving home has meant giving up almost everything they’ve worked for

Valentinya Melnyk used to conduct choirs and teach music at a university in Ukraine. Now she volunteers as a cleaner at Ukrainian House in Przemysl, Poland.

Before the Russian bombs started falling and before the tanks, guns and bullets drove her family from their home in Ukraine, Valentinya Melnyk’s life was filled with music.

She’d spent more than 30 years conducting choirs and teaching theory at the Lutsk Pedagogical College in western Ukraine. Even after she retired three years ago at the age of 62, Ms. Melnyk continued as a private music teacher and actively participated in the city’s cultural scene. Her husband, Yuriy, is also a prominent conductor in Ukraine and their son, Mykhailo, produces hip-hop artists.

But now instead of arranging compositions or helping singers hit new notes, much of Ms. Melnyk’s daily life consists of sweeping floors and cleaning rooms.

She and her family have been living just across the Ukrainian border in Przemysl, Poland, since last spring. Her lack of Polish has made it difficult to return to teaching or conducting, and so she spends her days as a volunteer at Ukraine House, a cultural centre that runs a shelter for refugees. She’s happy to help and believes she’s making a contribution, but music has always been her true calling. “If the opportunity comes up, yes I would like to teach,” Ms. Melnyk said wistfully before starting another round of cleaning. “I would love to teach children.”

For her and countless other Ukrainian refugees, leaving home has meant giving up almost everything they’ve worked for. Their experiences, skills, diplomas and certifications often mean little in a foreign land, especially if they can’t speak the language.

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Lali Dmitrieva at the HumanDoc Relief House, which opened to shelter families fleeing Mariupol, in Babice Nowe, a suburb of Warsaw.

Lali Dmitrieva used to think she could survive and thrive almost anywhere. She once managed three Georgian restaurants in Mariupol and Kyiv, juggling kitchen staffs, chefs and the demands of owners. The Red Army had already driven her out of Abkhazia in 2008 and from Crimea in 2015. So when Russia’s latest invasion reached her home in Mariupol in April, she pulled up stakes once more and headed to Warsaw with her teenage son, Mikhail.

She arrived with dreams of opening a Georgian restaurant or going to Canada to bring her delicacies there. “It will be really amazing,” she said excitedly during her first week in the Polish capital. But reality quickly set in. Unable to speak Polish, Ms. Dmitrieva had to scrounge for kitchen work. When she finally found a job, the pay was so minuscule it wasn’t worth the 90-minute commute. In July, she and her son left for Dublin determined to start again.

Studies of Ukrainian refugees show that a majority end up in low-skilled jobs regardless of their previous experience. Research by Poland’s Institute of Labour Economics has found that around two-thirds of the refugees in that country work as cleaners, housekeepers, kitchen staff or in other similar occupations.

Piotr Lewandowski, an economist at the institute, said refugees have filled critical gaps in Poland’s labour market, but there are concerns about highly skilled people remaining under-employed. “Poland is not realizing their potential, which, from an economic point of view, is bad news both for Poland and for these people,” he said. What is still more worrying, he added, is that “these people will suffer depression or burn out.

“You end up in a foreign country, you end up being an Uber driver or in child-care or cleaning. It’s more likely, I think, that you will end up with a really concerning mental state,” he said.

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Yelyzaveta Varshno used to be deputy head of a pension fund in Ukraine. Now she runs the kitchen as a volunteer at a refugee shelter on Woloska street in Warsaw.

Yelyzaveta Varshno, 62, didn’t have much choice about leaving central Ukraine and walking away from a high-powered career in finance. She used to be the deputy head of a pension fund and she managed a staff of 600 people.

She came to Poland in early March with her daughter and two grandchildren, who were so scared from the shelling they wouldn’t speak for weeks.

Now she lives in a refugee shelter in Warsaw and manages the kitchen, which feeds roughly 400 people a day.

Like so many others at the shelter, Ms. Varshno doesn’t speak Polish, and while she would love to get back into the investment world, she knows that’s unlikely.

She takes comfort from her volunteer work and she’s grateful that her family is close by. But she hesitated when asked what she feels about the career she gave up.

“It’s hard,” she said as she looked out across the empty dining room. “But it’s okay.”

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Maiia Horelkina, a refugee from Kyiv, used to be an executive at an information technology company. Now she volunteers washing dishes at Ukrainian House in Przemysl, Poland.

Maiia Horelkina, 39, used to travel throughout much of Ukraine helping financial firms and manufacturers address their IT needs. She held a high-ranking position at a technology company called AM Integrator and spent time at its offices in Donetsk, Mariupol and Kyiv.

But as the fighting escalated in March, AMI started shutting branches and Ms. Horelkina felt she had no choice but to head to safety in Poland with her daughter. The IT world seems like a distant memory for her now. She’s washing dishes as a volunteer at Ukraine House in Przemysl.

“You do what you have to do,” she said with a shrug as she wiped soapy water from her hands.

Even refugees who speak multiple languages and have impressive résumés often struggle.

A recent study by Britain’s Office for National Statistics involving 3,400 Ukrainians refugees living in the U.K. found that, among those who had professional degrees or certifications, 43 per cent said employers didn’t recognize their qualifications. Only 25 per cent said their qualifications were recognized and the remainder didn’t know.

More than 60 per cent of those surveyed by the ONS said they were not working in the same field as they did in Ukraine and almost half said they were employed in retail, food service and manufacturing.

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Zhana, a civil and commercial lawyer in Ukraine, now provides free legal counselling to refugees in Warsaw.

Zhana spent 10 years clerking for a judge and then another 10 years building a commercial law practice in Rivne. By the time the war started, she had 50 clients across Ukraine and took on some of the country’s biggest corporate cases. She was so well-known in legal circles that judges and prosecutors would ask her to represent them in disputes over working conditions. “I adore the law,” she said.

She gave up the practice when the fighting intensified and moved to Warsaw with her 16-year-old daughter. Zhana is still doing legal work, but from a tiny desk in an office set up by a charity where she dispenses free advice to Ukrainian refugees. The Globe and Mail is not using her surname because of security issues in her current situation.

Zhana can’t do much more in Poland without a licence, and that could take years. Maybe she’ll return to the cut and thrust of legal arguments one day, but for now she’s found meaning in helping others. “Now I’m working for my soul,” she said. “Not just to make money.”

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Milana Pakhomova worked as a lecturer at universities in Donetsk and Kyiv before the war started. She has been doing volunteer work since arriving in Warsaw in mid-March.

Milana Pakhomova, 49, has three degrees from Ukrainian universities and she used to work 10-hours days helping improve the efficiency of local governments – first in Donbas and then later around Kyiv. She’d already been forced out of Donetsk in 2014 because of Russian-backed rebels there. Then in March she left Kyiv for Warsaw at the urging of her daughter who lived in Poland.

Ms. Pakhomova can speak Polish, Russian and English, but when she arrived in Warsaw, she was deeply unhappy and couldn’t find work. She said that she didn’t want to leave Ukraine “because I thought that I would feel like a traitor.”

Even as her daughter begged her to stop hiding in bomb shelters and get out of the city, Ms. Pakhomova demurred and made herself borscht one night. “I longed to eat it,” she said. Something in the soothing nourishment gave her the strength to go. “After eating, I started packing.”

Once in Warsaw, she began volunteering with refugees as a way of coping with her own trauma. “It’s rehabilitation for me because then I feel needed,” she said. But without a steady job, money is tight and she can only afford to rent a small bedsit. “I haven’t earned anything in Poland yet. I am waiting for my first salary,” she said.

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The war in Ukraine halted Katertyna Skrypko's professional career as an actress. In Poland, she cannot work in her profession due to the language barrier.

For others the war has not only stunted promising careers, it has left them in a creative vacuum and struggling to start over.

Kateryna Skrypko got her big break in acting just before the war began. She’d landed a starring role in a police drama on Ukrainian television and there were plans to shoot a second season. The invasion cut short the production and Ms. Skrypko headed to Poland with her mother and sister-in-law. One of her fellow actors died in the fighting around Kyiv last March and another colleague is serving on the front line in southern Ukraine.

Ms. Skrypko, who speaks English but not Polish, tried to find acting work in Warsaw without much success so she has moved to London. “I just started to have this break in my career in Ukraine, which I was fighting for for years. And now I have nothing,” she said. If acting jobs don’t materialize, she might teach dance.

She has wrestled with depression and she harbours so much anger that she’s blocked Russian culture from her life: from Chekhov to Tchaikovsky.

Ukrainians “are so full of anger to everything that is Russian right now,” she said. “For us the word Russian just sounds like an insult for now.”

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Nadya Mitskevitch was an illustrator of books, including provocative works that drew attention to domestic violence. She’s slowly returned to drawing and hopes to pick up freelance work.

Nadya Mitskevitch nearly lost all her creative energy because of the war.

She’d grown up in Moscow with deep roots in Ukraine, the birthplace of both her parents. She became so disenchanted with Russia’s political direction that she left for Ukraine in 2014, after a popular uprising in Kyiv led to the ouster of the pro-Russian government. Ms. Mitskevitch, 45, felt liberated and she soon won acclaim for her book illustrations and her arresting artwork that focused on domestic violence. But then the war came crashing down and she moved to Warsaw with her cousin in early March.

“When I came here I couldn’t draw completely. I lost my creativity,” she recalled. Even listening to music brought her to tears. “Because it remind me of normal life and home.”

With the help of friends and volunteers, she slowly emerged from her darkness and returned to drawing. The ideas and creativity have started to flow once more and freelance opportunities have surfaced.

She’s developed a new outlook on life, something she repeats to herself to keep going: “Here is another situation, another life. I should construct it from the beginning. Not rebuild my old life but build something new and do not be afraid of it.”

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