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Orysya Bila

Safe Haven Fellowship

Project title

The New Ukrainian Diaspora in the Netherlands and Its Potential for Civil and Political Activism

Project description

According to Statistics Netherlands (CBS), by the end of May 2022 due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the Netherlands have received over 64 thousand Ukrainians. 1/3 of this number are children and 80% of the adult refugees are women who are their caretakers. The specifics of this rather large group of refugees is their primary motivation to leave their home country. It is not an extreme poverty or a search for better employment opportunities that forced them to depart, but a direct danger of the war brought by the neighbouring country.

This motivation to leave their home country has a significant impact on their self-identification as an immigrant group within their new country of residence (in this case the Netherlands). The new Ukrainian diaspora displays a high level of loyalty and emotional attachment to their ancestral homeland and their larger imagined community which results in its strong political engagement. While walking in the residential areas of many Dutch cities one can spot Ukrainian flags displayed on the house flagpoles, balconies and windows. The flags mark not so much the refugee living places as they become marker symbols of the distinctive civil attitude and self-positioning of the Ukrainian newcomers. The  same Ukrainian refugees are main initiators and participants of the pro-Ukraine rallies that take place in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam and other big cities of the Netherlands.

The paradox is that for many of them this active identification of themselves as the Ukrainian citizens is a recent development that has come as a result of the Russian war in Ukraine: while barely engaged with the political agenda in the past, now they are forced into taking an active political/civil stance.

In her paper Evaluating `Diaspora’: Beyond Ethnicity? (1998), Floya Antias suggests that concept of ‘diaspora’ implicates something more than just a term to identify a group of displaced people with a common collective identity rooted in their ethnic and/or religious background. While researching various aspects of the diaspora phenomenon one has to keep in mind its dynamic nature: thus, the diaspora also becomes a social condition and societal process of self-transformation and transformation of the ‘host’ society.

The female face of the new Ukrainian diaspora in the Netherlands makes it rather a unique subject of the diaspora research. Appearing in the new living conditions and being in charge of their own children and grandchildren, Ukrainian women civil activists play an important role in spreading message about Ukraine to the fellow Dutch citizens and politicians. They might also become a powerful driving force for raising civil awareness and activism among the younger generation of Ukrainians. The sense of personal responsibility, of the necessity of moral political speech and action, is closely related to Hanna Arendt’s descriptions of refugees as vanguards. At this moment, one might only guess what outcomes it will create in future. I find it extremely interesting to observe and conceptualise this exceptional character of the new Ukrainian diaspora in the Netherlands.

The research that I plan to do will consist of two parts. The first will outline the theoretical background of the diasporic political communities. For this I will employ theoretical developments of Hanna Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Gilroy, Judith Butler, Rima Berns-McGown and others. The second part will explore the links between civil/political engagement and the life stories of the new diaspora members in the Netherlands. This part of the work will build on insights gained from in-depth ethnographic work and life-history research with Ukrainian refugees in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Den Haag. Based on qualitative data analysis which I plan to do in a cooperation with my colleague Ruud Meij, the emeritus professor of the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht) and the member of the working group on empirical ethics, I will explore themes such as ‘motivations for political action’, ‘understandings of responsibility’ and ‘perspectives on creating change’.