Borinya, Ukraine — Abdurrahman swept a small pile of breadcrumbs into his hand. Then he picked up the blanket that serves as prayer rug, dinner table and playground, shook it out at the window, and laid it again in the dorm room. He straightened the corners, readying it for the evening prayers he would soon perform with his son and two friends with whom he had settled with in western Ukraine after fleeing Crimea in March.
The men, recent converts to a devout practice of Sunni Islam, live with their wives and children in some rooms at a boarding school in the village of Borinya, deep in the Carpathian Mountains, near Ukraine’s border with Poland — and the European Union.
With their bushy beards and wives in headscarves, they stand out in the tiny village, but the mostly Catholic farmers here have accepted the refugees from Russia's annexation of Crimea, allowing them to settle and start new lives.
“People cannot tell me how to live, here. If people tell me how to live, I’ll pick up my suitcases with my two hands and keep walking until I find a place where I am allowed to practice my beliefs,” Abdurrahman tells Al Jazeera, sitting in his cramped kitchen, drinking strong Tatar coffee the next morning. “The only difficulty comes when people tell others how to live.”
So far, he has not had to think about moving.
Currently, there are nearly 473,000 internally displaced people in Ukraine, up from 275,000 just two months ago, the UNHCR reported on November 21.
Of that number, around 19,400 come from Crimea, which people fled after Russia annexed the peninsula in March. Unlike the new arrivals in Ukraine’s war-torn east that have mostly fled the violence, those in Crimea are escaping repression under the pro-Russian government.
“In the past eight months, the de facto authorities in Crimea have limited free expression, restricted peaceful assembly, and intimidated and harassed those who have opposed Russia’s actions in Crimea,” reads Human Rights Watch’s November report on Crimea.
Ghettoized, but sheltered
Abdurrahman and his friends and their wives and children left their homes and most of their belongings in their village in Crimea on the last day of March. They found a new place to live with the help of Crimea SOS, an organization started to aid the waves of people displaced by Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian autonomous province — and now aiding those fleeing fighting in the east.
The group was resettled in Borinya, after asking if a place could be found for them in a village.
Crimea SOS found the six adults and nine children small rooms in a boarding school teaching Carpathian woodworking and other skills, and littered with engravings of Ukrainian national heroes such as Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko.
In a hallway on the first floor, a janitor has hung a memorial honoring the Heavenly Hundred — the activists killed by government forces during the pro-EU Maidan protests earlier this year.
Svitlana Kopach, the librarian, says, “They came here in the spring and they didn’t have any money for food, so we helped them out as best we could. You can’t just have people come here and not help them out.” Abdur Rahman and his family and friends are now stared at less and less on the street and they all say they have been greeted warmly, but the difference in beliefs and cultures is still striking.
Oleksandra Sorokopud has spent months crisscrossing the region for Crimea SOS, working to address some of these concerns. One of the key issues is a lack of integration between the IDPs and their host communities she says. Driving out to visit people from the Donetsk and Lugansk provinces now living in an aging Soviet health resort in the village of Morshin, she says many families from the east are being ghettoized into these crumbling holiday buildings.
“Its not healthy,” she says. “And you see it happening all over,” but says it is better than people living in tents.
She says that new legislation has made things a bit better. “At the beginning of the crisis, the government wasn’t so interested, but a few weeks ago, with the passage of these resolutions, the government has gotten more involved,” she says.
'We want to go home'
So far, the government has done little.
Only in October did parliament pass legislation calling for the registration of IDPs independent of social welfare benefits lists, which is how they were previously counted.
“The first important steps were taken only a month ago for the central registration of IDPs,” laments Oldrich Andrysek, the UNHCR’s regional representative.
“In general, the situation is getting worse in view of numbers. The winter will complicate matters further,” he says. “The government is under pressure to provide assistance, which it hasn’t been capable of doing.”
“The government was obviously not prepared for such a large wave of internally displaced people. Budgets did not exist. All of these needs must be financed from emergency reserves, which is far from easy when there are competing priorities,” he says. With the government still lacking a central authority to address the issue of nearly a half million IDPs scattered throughout the country, people from Crimea and the east are slowly falling into poverty, unmoored from their communities, with few prospects for employment.
“Inactive IDPs risk being marginalized because the host population, which also suffers economic hardship, do not always understand that the newly arrived can’t help themselves. There may be increasing animosity against those who were forced to flee,” says Andrysek. “We have to help these people get on their own two feet. Otherwise they will be perceived as eating from the common pie but not contributing anything back.”
At a clothing distribution center in Lviv, many IDPs are at a loss. “I feel like I’m floating at sea with no land in sight,” says Aleksandr, a former restaurant manager from Donetsk, as he looked through piles of sweaters, trying to find warm clothes for his wife and two kids. “Of course its hard. We want to go home. But I don’t think that will happen any time soon.”
Dreading the future
Abdurrahman and his group have so far been lucky, but they know they will never go home.
“We miss home of course, but we have a roof over our heads here. We can’t complain. We see some have it better but lots have it worse,” says his friend Abdullah, a former geography teacher, who, like the rest of the men converted to devout Sunni beliefs and practice only four years ago.
“So far we haven’t had any problems in the village. On the contrary, people have said that if we have any problem just give us a call,” he says.
Indeed, a local councilman is selling a nearby cottage to Abdurrahman at a big discount as part of a pilot program funded by UNHCR to get people out of temporary housing and into homes. And he has also found the men work at a nearby gardening center and nursery.
They miss Crimea, although their pious lifestyle and large beards had made life there difficult even before the Russians took over. Now the situation is worse.
“In the past eight months, the de facto authorities in Crimea have limited free expression, restricted peaceful assembly, and intimidated and harassed those who have opposed Russia’s actions in Crimea,” wrote Human Rights Watch.
“In particular the authorities have targeted the Crimean Tatar community, a Muslim ethnic minority that is native to the Crimean peninsula and that has openly opposed Russia’s occupation.”
Abdurrahman says persecution of the Tatars in Crimea will be similar to that experienced by Muslim minorities in Russia’s North Caucasus.
“It was bad before and then when the Russians came to Crimea it became even worse to be like us,” he says.
The Human Rights Watch report adds that Russia’s “vaguely worded and overly broad anti-extremism legislation” has been used to censure the local legislature, ban mass public gatherings by Tatars, and carry out warantless raids on mosques, Islamic schools and homes by masked and armed men.
“The process is already starting in places in Crimea, like it already has in Dagestan,” says Abdurrahman, speaking of the crackdowns.
“We aren’t terrorists but they are starting to arrest guys like us. In Crimea everything is calm but the people can feel something is looming on the horizon.”