New Walls

Female refugees struggle in Ukraine. Interview with Paula Palacios to KyivPost

Spanish film producer Paula Palacios is currently travelling through Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus as part of her multi-country documentary examining the daily life and plight of refugee women. “Women refugees: authentic heroines” was commissioned by Al-Jazeera television and is produced with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kyiv.

According to UNHCR’s latest statistics from April 2011, there were 754 recognized women refugees in Ukraine out of total 2,435 recognized refugees. This is the first time that refugee women living in Ukraine are the subject of such a film, according to UNHCR spokesman Maksym Butkevych.

Speaking to the Kyiv Post from the UNHCR office, Palacios discussed her project and what she had learnt from her time in Ukraine.

Kyiv Post: Why did you choose to come to Ukraine?

Paula Palacio: The geographical position of Ukraine in the world makes it a strategic place of passage [to Europe]. And that’s why Afghans and others, who pay on average $20,000 to people smugglers, arrive here. But they never arrive in Europe.
I just came back from Mukachevo [in western Ukraine] from where all the refugees crossing the border to Europe are sent back to Ukraine. There is a legal agreement between Europe and Ukraine that means when European nations find people who crossed through the Ukrainian border they are sent back to Ukraine. Normally, if they are refugees it is those European nations who should take care of them. But instead they are sent back to Ukrainian refugee camps. [According to Amnesty International’s 2011 annual report, between January and July 2011, 590 people were returned to Ukraine under this Readmission Agreement.]

KP: Why did you choose to focus on female refugees?

PP: Female refugees are the weakest of all; it’s the worst for them. They often travel with children and without men or without husbands. Especially with women from Afghanistan, often they are even fleeing from their husbands.
Generally, I am interested in women’s issues, human rights issues, and sexual abuse issues. My first documentary, called “Women without a Pause,” is about age and how women change their status as they age. For example, what does it mean to reach menopause in Japan when you will live to 85 or in Tanzania when you will probably die two years after menopause?

KP: What brings these refugee women to Ukraine?

PP: Most of them – all but one to whom I spoke – didn’t know they were coming to Ukraine. They didn’t want to come here.That’s what interests me – most women never wanted to be here.
They are brought here by people smugglers who promise them they will go to the U.K., Germany or Europe in general and then the women are left here.

KP: So they don’t want to stay here either?

PP: As a refugee, once you are here you are meant to stay here. But that’s the complication. Yes, these women want to be safe. “But your country [Ukraine] won’t give me anything,” they say. “I had a job back home.” Here it is very hard to get jobs.
So they pay people smugglers from here to go to Europe. But the problem is that they have spent all their money on arriving in Ukraine. So once in Ukraine they have to earn more money. The price right now is around $4,000 to cross the border from Mukachevo. But, like I said, they cannot get work.
And they will never know if they will be successful. Imagine gathering $4,000 and failing to reach Europe. But most of them have that, their arrival in Europe, in their minds – it is what gives them the strength to continue. They think that in Europe things will be better.

KP: What are some of the stories you have heard?

PP: I’m looking for human stories. Why these women left their country of origin, how they came here.
One case is from a woman from the Congo. She was picked up in Uganda, running away from war in Congo. She had gone across the Ugandan border, like all of them do. From there, she was put in a plane and passed through Cairo and then arrived in Moscow. In Moscow, she was left in a refugee camp. All of a sudden men began visiting. One spoke French and she was attracted to that. One day, that guy said, “Do you want documents?” She of course said yes. So he put her in a car, they drove to Kyiv, then put her in a house, locked the door and started bringing men who raped her for money. This man later released her after which she applied for refugee status and has been in the country ever since.
Another case involves a political refugee from Russia to whom the Ukrainian government has granted refugee status. She is the only one who chose to come to Ukraine. Well, she didn’t choose to come but she knew she was coming here, you know what I mean. She can basically never go back to her country because she has a pending court case. If she goes back, she would be imprisoned for five years. So she won’t go back unless the system changes and that’s unlikely.

KP: What do these women say is the hardest thing about living in Ukraine?

PP: First, they speak about racism. “If I am a refugee woman,” they say to me, “I cannot walk to a shop. I cannot walk with my children and can’t wear my veil. If I go to the shop, I want to buy milk, but I don’t know the Ukrainian word. But I don’t even dare ask the woman next to me because of the way she looks at me.”
I invited some of the women to a restaurant the other day and I felt bad myself. The restaurant staff didn’t treat us the same as it did others.
Even for the educated refugee woman, it’s impossible to integrate. When they go for a job, they know that if they look a little Arab or a little dark they will be refused. And it’s even worse for an Afghan woman because she wears a veil.

KP: When will your documentary be put to air?

PP: In December, I hope! Spanish director shot film about refugees in Ukraine

The premiere of the documentary New Walls directed by Paula Palacios took place on September 17 in Kyiv. The film depicts the lives of the female migrants who are trying to receive refugee status in Eastern Europe.

Women migrants from Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo tell their stories in the film. Each of them had to flee from her native country because of war, domestic violence, or political persecution of her family.

“Recently, a quarter of a million people were forced to flee from Syria due to the on-going war. Several hundreds of migrants applied for the asylum in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus – says UNHCR Regional Representative for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine Mr. Oldrich Andrysek. – If you would like to help them, first of all be tolerant and open-minded. “

The film is based on the interviews with women who reside in the accommodation and detention centres in Ukraine. They are waiting for either for positive decision on their application for refugee status or deportation. The film also includes comments of the staff of the centres, NGOs and embassies.

Olga Kudrina, one of the women-refugees in the film, is a member of the National Bolshevik Party of Russia banned in this country. In 2005, together with another member of the party, she hung a banner “Putin resign” on the Russia hotel in Moscow. For that she was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. She was forced to flee to Ukraine. In 2008 she received refugee status and lives with her family in Vinnitsa.

The film Director Paula Palacios arrived for the premiere in Kyiv. “The enlargement of the EU has created new walls, positioning non EU countries such as Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine on the front line of international migration. Though traditionally countries of emigration they have become countries of destination. “

In 2006, Palacios received several awards at the international film festivals for her film Women Without Pause. The documentary is dedicated to the differences in perception of menopause by women around the world.

Part of the information in the film is animated. It shows the itineraries of women when they flee. Several heroines in the film did not show or covered their faces. Families of several women are still persecuted in their homelands.

The film was narrated by American singer Barbara Hendricks. She has been cooperating with UNHCR for over twenty-five years and was nominated Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador in 2002.

Czech singer Iva Bittová provided her music for the sound track of New Walls. She is considered to be an alternative performer. Her music is rich in folk elements.

At the premiere Iva Bittová performed the song which is the film’s soundtrack. The premiere screening in Kyivv was also visited by four heroines of the film, including Olga Kudrina.

At the screening Paula Palacios addressed the audience: “Today many diplomats and influential people have gathered here. I ask you to help one of these women. She has not been recognized as a refugee yet.”

The New Walls documentary was filmed last year and produced by Aljazeera Documentary Channel with the supported of UNHCR, the Spanish Women and Health Foundation, the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Ukraine.

Olga Bogachevskaya