Lviv - Zera, Lerane and Amed are examples of the resilience and unity of the Crimean Tatar community - one of the many groups that comprise a diverse landscape of people affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With roots in the Crimean Peninsula, these three people have forged a path to preserve their cultural heritage and share it with the local community in Lviv where they have been displaced to. Forced to leave their homes due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, they now share their inspiring stories of how they have found solace and strength through sharing their traditions, culinary skills and artistic expressions with the local communities in Lviv, with the assistance of organizations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Zera, born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, spent most of her life in Crimea, where her family had returned after the Soviet Union's forced deportation of Crimean Tatars in the 1940s. In the late 1980s, her parents decided to go back to their homeland, leaving behind their established life. Zera hopes to return one day as well. She had to leave in 2014 when the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
According to recent data from IOM, people displaced in Lviv region reported a higher average length of displacement compared to those displaced in other regions - one year or more on average. However, issues with adjusting to life in the receiving community were prominent among all displaced people in Lviv region, where 37 per cent of them reported difficulties with integrating into local communities.
Prolonged displacement can have significant implications for the mental health of the displaced people. Being uprooted from their homes and communities can lead to feelings of uncertainty, stress and anxiety. Moreover, the added challenges of integrating into new communities can further undermine the psychosocial wellbeing of displaced people. Addressing these issues and providing the needed psychosocial support is crucial to facilitating successful integration of the displaced Ukrainians into their receiving communities.
"Collaborative engagement with the Crimean Tatar community in Lviv is defined by inclusivity, unity and a rich cultural diversity. The Crimean Tatar people in Lviv region have consistently taken the lead not only by participating in our events, but also actively enhancing them through voluntary contributions,” shares IOM social worker Alina Mykolayenko.
Zera sought a new life in Lviv, along with her husband and daughter. Adapting to this sudden change was not easy, but she says she persevered and found a sense of belonging by connecting with other internally displaced people in Lviv, including Lerane. The two met at an English-speaking club organized with the support of the IOM. Activities like language clubs serve as essential platforms for fostering social connections and facilitating a sense of belonging and normalcy for displaced people, while providing a new skill.
Lerane’s story is similar to Zera’s. Before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lerane owned a cafe called "Crimean Courtyard" in Irpin, Kyiv region, where she had relocated after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, during the early stages of the 2022 Russian invasion, her cafe was tragically destroyed in the attack on Irpin, forcing her to face displacement for the second time.
“I thought to myself that I am a Crimean Tatar and I have to find the strength and resources to move forward," shares Lerane.
Undeterred, she continues to preserve and share her heritage with the local community by organizing events in Lviv that showcase Crimean Tatar culture, cuisine and history with the support of organizations like the IOM and the Ukrainian Catholic University.
"Such events are like a collective therapy session where through creativity and discussions about the culture and history of Crimean Tatars, you do not forget your roots,” says Lerane.
Amed, who also had to leave Crimea, and now resides in Lviv, found solace in art during these difficult times. Together with his daughter, he delved into the traditional Crimean Tatar paper-cutting art known as "vytynanky," using his masterclasses to share his heritage and bridge the cultures of Ukraine and Crimea through his artworks.
"I really enjoy finding common ground between the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar peoples and combining our symbols together. Here are the birds: the Ukrainian coat of arms with the stork and the Crimean Tatar swallow. And they circle together side by side," says Amir while showing his drawing.
"The swallow is our symbol. Starting from 1783, my people have constantly been forced to leave Crimea, but just like swallows, we always return," shares Amed.
Amed says that just like his father who had been deported from Crimea by the Soviet Government in the 1940s, he is deeply connected to Crimea, and dreams of returning one day.
"My father was born in Crimea in 1939. He was only five years old when he was deported with his family to Uzbekistan. My father waited for the opportunity to return to Crimea for 60 years, and thankfully, he passed away in Crimea. In 2014, when my family was forced to leave Crimea, my daughter was also five years old. It felt like a historical deja vu. My dream is to return to my homeland someday, walk into the Black Sea and finally die at home," shares Amed Bekir.
As the stories of Zera, Lerane and Amed illuminate the indomitable spirit of the Crimean Tatar community, their experiences resonate with countless others who have faced displacement and upheaval because of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Their commitment to preserving their cultural identity and fostering unity with the receiving communities through art, culinary arts and community engagement serves as a testament to the power of resilience and cultural heritage.
IOM stands alongside them and many other internally displaced people in their journey, recognizing the importance of preserving cultural heritage and fostering inclusive communities. Through collaboration and support, IOM strives to empower those who have been forced to leave their homes, helping them find purpose in the face of adversity, as well as cherish and celebrate their cultural heritage.
This story was written by Tetiana Astakhova and Anna Tsybko from the IOM Ukraine team.