It is late when Natalia and her three children enter the arrival hall of Kyiv Boryspil airport, exhausted after their long journey from Damascus, but safe. Natalia is one of a hundred Ukrainians whom IOM has helped to escape the conflict in Syria as of September 2012. She and her kids, aged seven, nine and eleven, underwent a traumatic experience and will need time to recover.
Natalia’s family used to live in the suburbs of the city of Deir ez-Zor. A few years ago her Syrian husband went to study in Ukraine and when the conflict in Syria began, found himself unable to return home.
When the violence reached their neighborhood, Natalia decided to go back to Ukraine. But her first attempt to get to the Ukrainian Embassy in Damascus nearly ended tragically, when a bomb exploded less than 100 metres from their car.
At their second attempt, the family managed to get to Damascus, but on their way back, armed men stopped their taxi and threatened to kill Natalia and her kids because of suspicions about other passengers. When recalling this incident, Natalia needs a couple of minutes to calm down: “I was so scared! So scared because of the kids! Only by God’s will we have survived. I will never go back there until it all stops,” she says.
At the end of June 2012, the Ukrainian Embassy in Damascus approached IOM to help Natalia and her children. “They were among the first Ukrainians referred to us. When embassies ask us to help vulnerable stranded migrants to return to their countries of origin from Syria, we work with the local authorities to make it happen,” says IOM Syria Chief of Mission Maria Rumman. As of September 2012, IOM was resettling refugees and repatriating vulnerable foreigners from Syria despite periodic airport and road closures and intermittent fighting in Damascus.
Natalia says she is grateful to the Ukrainian Consul in Damascus who did his best to help her family and to IOM. “Our return also wouldn’t be possible without IOM,” she says. According to Natalia, many Ukrainian women live in Deir ez-Zor and are married to Syrians who studied in Ukrainian universities.
“Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing its best to assist those who are willing to return, and is grateful to IOM for its help in moving Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian women, out of Syria,” says Head of the MFA Directorate General for Information Policy Oleh Voloshyn. As of September 2012, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs alone evacuated over 230 Ukrainian citizens from Syria.
“After the successful evacuation of a number of Ukrainians from Libya last year, IOM will continue to help Ukraine evacuate vulnerable Ukrainian citizens who want to leave Syria.” — Manfred Profazi, IOM Ukraine Chief of Mission
As of September 2012, IOM assisted to relocate about 1,000 third-country nationals. Ukrainians were ranking fourth in this list. Among those who received IOM assistance in their return to Ukraine, some were particularly vulnerable, including a pregnant lady and an 81-year-old paralyzed woman.
The violence in Syria that started in 2011 has already taken more than 20,000 lives according to UN estimates. Over 230,000 Syrians have become refugees. IOM response to the crisis includes evacuation assistance to third country nationals and support to Syrian refugees.