Table of Contents
In 2019, the overall number of Ukrainian citizens in Greece was estimated at 20,000, with 90% being female. The Ukrainian ‘diaspora’ extends across Europe, North and South America and Australia.1 2 The years 1994-1998 seemed to be an important period of Ukrainian immigration to the European Union (EU). By 2000, Ukrainians already constituted a visible group, particularly in Greece, Italy, and Portugal. The great majority of Ukrainian migrants in Greece are ethnic Ukrainians and come from Western Ukraine (approximately 80%). This paper draws on oral testimony from two women of Ukrainian origin in Athens to illustrate the significant factor of gender in the migration process and thus the dynamic nature of gendered identity. Svetlana V., age 44 from Lviv Oblast, works as a house cleaner and Iryna Bykova, age 54 from the Kherson Oblast, works currently as an office cleaner. They came to Greece in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Their interviews played a fundamental role in the conduction of this survey, as their life experience provide critical information about the case of Ukrainian migrants in Greece.
Number of Ukrainians in Greece 3
Country 1991 1997 2001 2006 2011 2014
Ukraine 61 9,821 13,616 20,283 17,006 17,298
Chapter I: Life in Ukraine
Living in Ukraine, as part of the Soviet Union in the late-80s was not an easy experience for many families. The economic crisis was a major issue that worsened every aspect of
day life. Purchasing common goods was not a simple process. As Svetlana mentioned: “We had stores. They just were empty”. Big queues of people waiting outside grocery stores had become part of their routine. The economic crisis4 reached its peak after 1991, when Ukraine became an independent state on August 24. The Soviet ruble was then replaced by Ukraine’s national currency called “hryvnia”, which soon faced devaluation. The ongoing severe economic crisis that hit the country was the main factor for families to split and choose migration as a solution. Surprisingly, the common pattern shows that women migrated to other countries (mainly the Mediterranean ones 5 6), leaving their husbands and children back in Ukraine. Despite that, some men migrated to central and eastern European countries (e.g. Poland)7, where they could find jobs as miners. However, some families managed to stay together by finding jobs in the same household. The husband worked as a gardener, cook or driver, and the wife worked as a house cleaner, as Svetlana mentioned. But the most common pattern was for women to leave their families behind and go abroad to work.8 Thus, these women, besides being mothers and wives, got another active role: financial supporters. That role surpassed all others in most cases9 because Ukrainian women had been living miles away from their families for years. Most of them migrated in the ‘90s. The fact that women had to go separate ways from their families and leave their country, with the hope of a better future with better-paid jobs10, was common. It is critical to underline that it did not seem to them “abnormal” to proceed with such a life-changing decision. Maybe this can be explained by the need to migrate in order to support their families financially. Ukrainian women seemed to find easier jobs abroad than their husbands. Hence, it was mostly the women that took the decision to migrate.
Chapter II: Migration to Greece and Permanent Residence
Coming to Greece was for most Ukrainian women a challenging “voyage”, as they first attempted to enter the country illegally, not having the necessary legal documents (Visa). This process was organised by “tourist offices”, where these women paid a huge amount of money, in order to get their Visa Applications approved. It seems that those “tourist offices” were not very trustworthy, as their representatives vanished after the deal and it was not possible to communicate with them ever again. Hence, some Ukrainian women were not allowed to cross Greece’s borders. Being unable to reach the offices in a cry for help, they were sent back to Ukraine or some neighbouring country for a short time. Others were luckier and managed to get a type C Schengen Visa, used for tourism. That was the legal way to enter the country and stay in Greece as a tourist for some time. After the Visa expired, they continued to stay illegally in Greece.
Additionally, one major issue to take into consideration was the language. Not speaking neither Greek nor English, led to communication problems. Despite that, this did not prevent them from migrating to Greece. Some of them used Ukrainian-Greek or Russian-Greek dictionaries11 in the beginning, while some others chose to try speaking with the locals and learn the Greek language by practising it in their everyday life.
Ukrainian women were mostly left alone, without their husbands –if married- or children, and stayed with relatives living in Greece or with the new acquaintances they made during their voyage.12 It is being said that there existed some kind of networks that would assist them in finding a house and a job. Those networks were not always legal and trustworthy though. Some of them were connected with trafficking13. Unfortunately, this could be an explanation for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian migrants being women: 90% of Ukrainian migrants during the 1990s were females.14 As that sensible issue was not covered or mentioned by my interviewees, the paper at hand will focus on other typical jobs those women found in Greece.
A significant point of great interest is the distance in social status between their previous work position back in Ukraine and their current job in Greece. Most Ukrainian women in Greece are employed as cleaners at houses, hotels, offices and shops.
Some of them even worked as caregivers of the elderly. In Ukraine, the same women were studying in universities or schools in order to be certificated professionals in their fields.15 For instance, Iryna Bykova was working in “male-dominated” working spaces for over a decade. She is a technical engineer. Better said: “was”. She used past tense, as she can only find “woman-oriented” jobs, such as cleaner or baker, ever since she came to Greece. Coming to Greece she used to work two jobs, 14 hours a day. She mentioned that she even had been running a restaurant of Ukrainian fast food for five years with her Greek husband. Svetlana used to study in Ukraine to become a tailor, like her mother. She quit studying, in order to live with her mother in Athens, who had left Ukraine some years before her. Ever since she has been working as a cleaner in Greece. She has almost 26- years of experience in cleaning.
It has to be underlined that those women do not identify any problem with the fact that Ukrainian women were hired at low-budget, or even low-prestige working positions. It seems normal to them that most of these jobs were destined for women coming from East-European countries (Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, etc.), or the Balkans (Albania, Bulgaria, Romania). The main factor is social-political and cultural. The referred countries had a low influence on the international political scene and, thus, weak economies. Therefore, it was easy for employers to take advantage of those women in financial need. It must be also taken into consideration that many Ukrainian migrants did not have a Visa for permanent residence. As mentioned above, some of them had Type C Schengen Visas, supposedly for tourism, with a few months’ validity. After it expired, they were considered illegal migrants in Greece. Others did not have that Type C Visa at all or they were given fake ones by those “tourist offices”. So they were forced into “illegal” jobs. As Iryna said: “When you have your documents, it is easier for you to find a job. You don’t go out for illegal jobs. You go out for normal ones.”. Iryna also illustrated her experience having legal documents and provided some important insights. When she first came to Greece, she got a Visa for 2 years. She then renewed it every 2, 5 and 10 years. After she married her Greek husband, she could have her Visa lasting for 10 years. She mentioned that when you get married, this process is usually much easier, without that being the case for her. Ukrainian and Russian women often get accused of marrying Greek men, to get residence permits, as she reports. Being married to a Greek man facilitates the process of applying for the Greek ID pass.
Another factor, maybe more controversial, is the different facial and physical characteristics those women have. In Greece, for instance, women coming from those countries are considered attractive and exotic. Attractiveness and beauty were key to them finding jobs easily. But that kinds of jobs were, in most cases, not the ones they were aiming at. Surely, lack of communication in languages other than their native ones was also a factor that led them to those jobs.
Most of the Ukrainian migrants were absorbed in the tourism industry. Svetlana’s mother worked on a Greek island when she first came to Greece. Their experience at jobs, such as cleaners, was not always pleasant. “The work (as a hotel cleaner) was very hard. We went to work crying and came home crying again.”, Iryna recalls.
The category of jobs Ukrainian women were hired at was, apart from “woman-oriented”, narrow too: tourism, cleaning and caregiving to the elderly. Other “woman-oriented” occupational sectors were not easily penetrated. For instance, Svetlana and her mother were both tailors. But, they never worked in that field in Greece. It derives from the interviews that neither Iryna nor Svetlana are satisfied with their jobs, but try to get used to them, as they need that salary to cope with their everyday expenses. Especially Iryna needed money to provide her daughter in Ukraine the opportunity to study at a University.16 They work long hours and are tired because of the inevitable continuous standing involved, as they are asked to clean all great surfaces. Svetlana complained about health problems resulting from her tiredness. But they cannot quit their jobs, as cleaning is the only job they can find. Iryna found her job as a waitress amusing back when she was in her 30s. She mentioned that she was told by some employers, that after the age of 50, no one is accepted to work as a waiter. Now she is an office cleaner at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic.
Initially, their migration to Greece made it difficult for those women to keep in touch with their families, due to technological barriers that existed at the time. The only way to communicate was through call centres or neighbours’ phones. And that did not happen very often. They could not maintain deep relationships with their loved ones that way. Things meliorated thanks to the internet.
Living in Greece, Ukrainian women caught up with contacts in their social hubs and befriended other Ukrainian and Russian ladies, who came to Greece the same way and worked mostly as cleaners too. Ukrainian and Russians were always very supportive of each other, especially when being migrants in the same country. The Crimea crisis in 201417 made their relationship difficult, as each one supported their homeland. The ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia (2022) worsened their already tense relationship. Now the old friends barely speak to each other.
Chapter III: Thoughts and Ambitions living in Greece
Both interviewees underlined that they would not have left their homeland if not necessary. But after all these years, Greece has become their new homeland and they do not complain about having left their country of origin. They feel like strangers now every time they visit Ukraine. Their main family lives with them in Greece, so they do not have strong bonds with anyone, who would be waiting for them to return. However, they feel homesick and miss the country they grew up. But when being questioned about returning there if possible, they both responded negatively. Greece seems appealing to them not only because of their better financial status, but also because of the country’s different landmarks and landscapes. The mild weather is also a factor that counts positively. Of course, the most preventing factor now is the ongoing war making it dangerous and almost impossible to return even if they wanted to.
As far as their experience in Greece is concerned, neither Iryna nor Svetlana mentioned any racist behaviour towards them. Svetlana expressed a touching point of view. The only time she was mocked was not because she was a Ukrainian woman living in Greece. It was because she speaks Russian. After all, she was raised by her Russian mother. Other Ukrainians found it inappropriate that she did not speak Ukrainian in her everyday life. She feels being home in Greece, after living there for 26 years and her children being born there. But she does not feel Greek. She feels human.
Financial problems have always played the most significant role in someone’s decision to migrate. For women in Ukraine, it seems to be their duty to support their family financially even if that means moving to another country without speaking other languages or having previous contacts. Hence, migration seems to be a “female-oriented” process in Ukraine. Gender is here the determinant reason for a person to migrate. Mediterranean countries, such as Greece, receive mostly female migrants coming from east-European countries for various reasons. Ukrainian women consider it normal that they are only absorbed in work positions, such as cleaners. They do not believe that a man could ever be hired as a cleaner. The “tourism offices” play a key role in their migration and the social hubs that these women gravitate towards are often connected with them. They seem to administer Ukrainian women’s migration experience, pushing them to South Europe. Women are often more “welcome” in such countries, as employers may easily exploit them by paying them less. The stereotypic factor of the West Eurasian often referred to as “Caucasian” attractiveness should also be taken into consideration. In conclusion, migration and gender are closely intertwined in the Ukrainian case. From the conducted interviews, identity is a fluid issue, not clearly determined, and is interpreted through one’s personal view. Gender plays a significant role in the migration process in leading to the creation of the dynamic nature of gendered identity. Identity is a deeply personal matter, as it can not always be determined by state documents. It has to do more with feelings and, especially when examining gendered identity, the feeling to be seen as a specific kind of person in society because of their gender is key.
Kambouri, Eleni, (2007) Gender and Immigration, Volume II: The everyday life of female immigrants from Albania and Ukraine, Athens: Gutenberg. (in Greek)
Kaurinkosi, Kira, (2021) “From Labour Migrants to a Diaspora Community? The Case of Ukrainian Migrants in Greece”, Balkanologie vol. 16.1.
Graham Smith and Peter Jackson, (1999) “Narrating the nation: the ‘imagined community’ of Ukrainians in Bradford”, Journal of Historical Geography vol. 25.3.
Statistical Data about Ukrainians in Greece, Ministry of Public Order, Greek Statistical Service; Ministry of the Interior, Greece, (Accessed on 07.06.2022)
“Why is Ukraine’s economy in such a mess?”, The Economist (05.03.2014) https://www.economist.com/free-exchange/2014/03/05/why-is-ukraines-economy-in-such-a-mess (Accessed on 07.06.2022)
“The crisis in Crimea and eastern Ukraine”, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/flag-of-Ukraine (Accessed on 07.06.2022)
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Lviv Oblast image by Wikipedia.com, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lviv_Oblast (Accessed on 21.07.2022)
Kherson Oblast image by Wikipedia.com, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kherson_Oblast (Accessed on 21.07.2022)
Schengen Visa image by Schengen Visa News, https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/news/greece-accelerates-schengen-visa-processing-in-india/ (Accessed on 19.07.2022)
Gender and Migration image by Flying Dutchman, https://flying-dutchman.net/three-cultural-shocks/, (Accessed on 21.07.2022)
- Kaurinkosi, Kira, (2021) “From Labour Migrants to a Diaspora Community? The Case of Ukrainian Migrants in Greece”, Balkanologie, vol. 16.1, pp. 1-7.
- Graham Smith and Peter Jackson, (1999) “Narrating the nation: the ‘imagined community’ of Ukrainians in Bradford”, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 25.3, p. 367.
- Statistical Data about Ukrainians in Greece, Ministry of Public Order, Greek Statistical Service; Ministry of the Interior, Greece.
- “Why is Ukraine’s economy in such a mess?”, The Economist (5 March 2014).
- Iryna said that her cousin-in-law migrated to Italy and another cousin of hers, who migrated to Greece, worked as a cleaner on cruises.
- Kaurinkosi, “Labour Migrants”, p. 4.
- Kambouri, Eleni, (2007) Gender and Immigration, Volume II: The everyday life of female immigrants from Albania and Ukraine, Athens: Gutenberg, p. 356. (in Greek)
- Ibid, p. 560.
- Ibid, p. 555.
- Ibid, p. 364.
- Ibid, p. 365.
- Kaurinkosi, “Labour Migrants”, p. 6.
- Ibid, p. 7.
- Kambouri, Gender and Immigration, p. 361.
- Universities in Ukraine are not state-owned. They are private and students have to pay tuition fees. Kaurinkosi, “Labour Migrants”, p. 8.
- “The crisis in Crimea and eastern Ukraine”, Britannica Encyclopedia, (2022).