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New Despair For Ukrainian Refugees As Georgia Ends Program Housing Them In Hotels

Welcomed at first, Ukrainian refugees soon found themselves under the threat of once again becoming homeless when the hotel program ended at the beginning of August.
Welcomed at first, Ukrainian refugees soon found themselves under the threat of once again becoming homeless when the hotel program ended at the beginning of August.

TBILISI -- The distance between Kherson, Ukraine, and Tbilisi, Georgia, is not as much as you might think -- 1,500 kilometers, which could be covered in 24 hours by car.

But the road seems endless when you're going across hostile territory and are stopped at every Russian checkpoint. You never know who your next interrogators will be: a tired soldier who'll briefly check your papers, an aggressive one who'll smash your car window with his rifle butt, or a hungry one who'll take away your money and food. As refugees, you have little choice. You can only nod your head.

Speaking to Ukrainian refugees in Tbilisi who have fled Russia's unprovoked invasion of their country, you hear that same story again and again. After going through such an ordeal -- not to mention what they were fleeing -- Georgia was a safe port in a storm.

"As soon as we crossed into Georgia, the border guard told us: 'Come in, relax, you're in Georgia. Forget everything, you're in safe hands.' I will never forget that," said Svitlana Milanovich from a Tbilisi hotel. Milanovich was one of the first residents from the Russian-held Kherson to leave a few months ago, with her son and elderly mother. Living in the suburbs, she saw explosions out of her window and immediately packed her things.

Svitlana Milanovich
Svitlana Milanovich

But life has gotten a little harder recently for many of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians in Georgia after the government on August 1 ended a program offering free housing in hotels to refugees. Many of its grateful beneficiaries, their savings already drained, had to scrape around for a new place to stay.

Like Milanovich, many of the refugees in Tbilisi are from Kherson, a strategic port city that was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian forces after the start of the war in February. To get to Tbilisi, the only way was through Russian-occupied Crimea via the Kerch Bridge to Krasnodar on the Russian mainland, on to Vladikavkaz, and finally, through the Lars border crossing to Tbilisi.

After the government of Ukraine directly appealed to Kherson citizens to evacuate, many refugees arrived in Georgia only in June and July. Welcomed at first, they soon found themselves under the threat of once again becoming homeless when the hotel program ended at the beginning of August.

In March, the Georgian government introduced the hotel program for Ukrainian refugees. The program had no specific deadline and an estimated 2,400 Ukrainians who fled the war could stay and eat for free in hotels in the cities of Tbilisi and Batumi, and later, in Gonio and Kobuleti. While Tbilisi city hall told RFE/RL that the temporary nature of the program was "clearly communicated" to the refugees, many say otherwise: that not only didn't they know how long the hotels would shelter them, but they found out about the end of the program only two weeks ahead of the deadline, and not from the government but from acquaintances and in Telegram groups.

"When we came here, it was like a fairy tale, really. We suddenly had a home. [It's hard] when it's only you and your suitcase, when everything is left behind. So it's difficult for us to leave [the hotel] now, we don't know where we'll go," said Larisa Gulina, a week before leaving the Tbilisi hotel she had been staying at. The sound of loud cars or fireworks still frightened her after an explosion blasted out the windows in her home in Novaya Kakhovka, a city in the Kherson region.

Some families, unable to afford life in the capital, Tbilisi, have moved out to the regions.
Some families, unable to afford life in the capital, Tbilisi, have moved out to the regions.

When the Krutiyenko family of 12 found out they would be leaving their Tbilisi hotel, 75-year-old Zinayida fell ill. "She got stressed, and her blood pressure acted up," Iryna, her daughter, said. A few days before leaving the hotel, Iryna was the only one to stay with Zinayida -- all the others were out, trying to find jobs or places to stay, which in Tbilisi is no easy feat, especially with rental prices skyrocketing due to a new influx of Russian expats. Fleeing Ukrainian families, who have already suffered a few months of financially draining occupation and war, barely have enough money to support themselves.

"We are totally lost, we have to search for everything simultaneously. We're not sure whether to look for a job first, and to find a home next to it, or the other way round," Iryna said. "For us, the most important thing is to have a roof over our heads, not to sleep in a basement or train station, and we'll manage the rest somehow. We can clean the parks, wash the dishes. We are not ashamed of any work and we can do anything," she added.

Olena Klyuyeva with her son, Andriy
Olena Klyuyeva with her son, Andriy

The government of Georgia decided to substitute the shelter program with a three-month aid package: 300 laris ($110) for a family, plus 45 laris ($16) for every family member. International organizations, such as World Vision and the UNHCR, offer an additional 235 laris ($86) per person, but only to those who fall under the vulnerability criteria. The average price of a single bedroom apartment in the Tbilisi suburbs is now at 600-900 laris ($220-330) per month, two-three times higher than the amount a family would receive.

Many refugee families in Tbilisi also took their children to a Ukrainian school that had opened this year in the city center and felt that moving out of the capital would mean depriving them of their education.

That is why Natalya Zotova, a mother of five with two degrees, has been going around the houses close to her hotel and asking for a job as a cleaner or a nanny. "I'm very uncomfortable to be begging like this, especially because I'm so grateful to Georgia. It's just that we can't go anywhere on prolonged [validity] passports, except Germany, Austria, and Cyprus, and we don’t have enough money for any of them."

Passports are a major financial concern for many Ukrainian refugees. Some of them only have internal Ukrainian identity cards, which means they have to order new passports at the Ukrainian Embassy in Tbilisi, where the wait is at least three months and the cost 419 laris ($154) per passport. Renting a home today, for some, would mean losing a chance to move abroad in the future.

Volodymyr, Oksana, and Dasha about to embark on another journey in search of a home
Volodymyr, Oksana, and Dasha about to embark on another journey in search of a home

As the deadline for leaving the hotels neared, many refugees fell into despair. Volodymyr, Oksana, and 5-year-old Dasha stayed till the last checkout and then moved temporarily to a cheaper hotel to continue the search for a more permanent home. Their search for a flat had so far been unsuccessful. Volodymyr said that many apartment owners didn't want Ukrainians. "They either hang up once they hear we're from Ukraine, or ask for three or six months [rent] in advance," he said.

Olena Klyuyeva was lucky enough to find an apartment after a long search. "We are a risk to landlords [apparently]. They tell us that there have been cases when Ukrainian families stopped paying and the police couldn't evict them because they had refugee status," she said. "We didn't really know where we were going when we left, but everything was better than life under Russian occupation. It was worse than a prison."

Some, however, had no choice other than to return home. Olena, who wanted to remain anonymous and didn't want to be photographed, had decided to return to Mariupol together with her husband. "We don't have the finances to stay here, so we decided to go home. We are being told the bombardment has stopped there, but we don't know what awaits us. If it wasn't for the program ending, we would have stayed."

"I would like to go home, but my wife and sister are against it," said 69-year-old Viktor from Mariupol.
"I would like to go home, but my wife and sister are against it," said 69-year-old Viktor from Mariupol.

For others, returning home is not a choice. Yulia and Yevhen, an elderly couple with four children, have just escaped Mariupol. To return, they say, they would had to have given up their Ukrainian identity. Yulia says she has seen Russians throwing Ukrainian books out of school windows and the Ukrainian flag torn up. Now, she doesn't want to take her blue-and-yellow bracelet off. They say they are lucky, as the hotel decided to shelter them for free for longer since they had only arrived one week before the end of the program. "We couldn't find a flat in such a short time. Someone has to be with the children, and we barely know the city," Yulia said.

Yevhenia, the mother of 11-year-old Mark, has found another way out and accepted the proposal to live in a small boutique hotel in exchange for work. Now, she and another man from Ukraine are doing practically all the work around the premises, including cleaning, welcoming the guests -- sometimes in the middle of the night -- managing the garden, and cooking. The hotel pays them around 1,300 laris ($480) monthly, which they have to divide between themselves.

Yevhenia and Mark in the hotel garden
Yevhenia and Mark in the hotel garden

"It's hard work, but it's still better than just sitting in the hotel. Of course, I wish for more free time. Sometimes I want to take a rest, go somewhere -- we barely leave this place. We had only one day off in two months because someone always has to be here, even on the weekends," she said. "We have told the owner that the hotel needs a night manager, that we need to have a proper sleep. But it's convenient for him to keep things as they are and if we don't like it, we have to leave."

Yevhenia feels that she has no other options and just has to accept the terms. "Every day I remind myself that it might be long before the end of the war -- six months, maybe a year. I have no plan and I don't know anyone who has one."

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    Tamuna Chkareuli

    Tamuna Chkareuli is a Caucasus-based journalist and documentary photographer with a keen interest in social issues and urbanism. She's been reporting for RFE/RL since 2021.

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