Why these expats chose Ukraine

Odesa, March 2021. Photo by Alex Miskin via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group 

Opinion

Article by: Alya Shandra

What is better in Ukraine than in your home country? Hopefully and hesitantly, I posted my question in the Expats in Kyiv Facebook group. Hopefully, because if foreigners keep coming to Ukraine, then perhaps the Ukrainians who habitually complain that things in their country are getting worse and worse do suffer from a blind spot. And hesitantly, because what if all that expats like about Ukraine are the cheap prices and the Ukrainians emigrating in droves are right? The answers I found were perhaps over-optimistic, but they do offer a good outsider’s look at the least discovered country in Europe. They are illustrated with selected photos from the Ukrainian Street Photography Facebook group.

Ali Altug: a view from Turkey and a struggle against stereotypes

Ali Altug moved to Ukraine from Turkey in 2017 to open a restaurant. When that did not work out, he took up a job in IT. Although he loves cooking and food, especially Anatolian cuisine (“it’s like a well, you can dive in, go all the way, and still have new things to try”), he no longer wants to pursue the physically demanding career of a restaurant chef. Ali is now married and shares his perspectives on life in Ukraine and how different it is from Turkey.

What things are better in Ukraine than in Turkey?

Ali Altug with wife. Courtesy photo

The overall quality of life, and I don’t just mean the ability to burn more money or be able to buy better stuff. The general quality of life, because the overall mentality of people in the country is way different, the cultural difference is immense.

In my case, I grew up being outside of the societal norms in Turkey. I don’t look the societal norms, I don’t act according to them, I had more of an outcast’s life. For example, I was bullied because of my hair, having earrings, dressing… it’s a weird thing in Turkey. It’s amazingly modern for tourism purposes, but behind the curtain, it is much more conservative. And it was an amazing relief when I moved here; I can dress up however I want, I can look however I want, no one even bats an eye on the street.

I would say the freedom to be yourself is the #1 thing that is better. That contributes a lot to the general comfort. Peer pressure in Turkey is a very strong force. People try to shape their lives around that instead of living them as they want to. So, getting rid of that is a very big relief. I don’t have to care what people would think.

Kyiv, March 2021. Photo by Maxim Scherbina, via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

Are there any things that you miss, anything that was better in Turkey than here?

Hard to say. I would say the only thing I miss here sometimes is the cultural connection — not being able to laugh at the same things, feel the same kind of emotions that people here. It’s sometimes tiring, but not always. I’m trying to strip myself from that emotional connection also.

There are many young people who think their country is no good and want to emigrate anywhere at all and start a new life. But perhaps there are good things that Ukrainians do not notice about their country?

Ali doing his favorite thing – cooking. Courtesy photo

Essentially, it’s almost the same as any European country, I would say. Ukraine has a pretty much European standard of living. In my case, it’s those very little cultural differences that make a difference between the countries. I’m loving it here when I go out with friends late at night for example, and seeing at 4 AM a group of girls drunk out of their minds walking on the streets, singing songs, and having a great time. That is not possible in Turkey, for example. These kinds of small details. I believe Ukraine has a rich culture spanning thousands of years. The passage from traditional to modern I think is making the country struggle a little bit. That’s why the younger generation is having second thoughts about the country, aspiring to live in other countries. But Ukraine has amazing potential. And it’s a shame that the youth is failing to acknowledge that and trying to get away from the country.

Your advice for people who are thinking of visiting or living in Ukraine?

Try to be as objective as possible about everything. When I moved here, I knew that Ukraine is sort of a neighbor to Turkey, but I realized how little we actually know about each other. I was ashamed of that fact. I moved here and in the first six months, I discovered so many things that I had no idea about in this country. This is one of the ugly truths about Turkish people’s perspective on Ukraine: most of them think of Ukraine as a kind of open-air whore house.

Where does that stereotype come from?

I think, from what I learned while living here, the difference is that Ukrainian women have a strong sense of individuality. they can decide whether or not they want to be with that guy or not. And unfortunately, because of the toxic male ego of most Turkish men, they misinterpret this as most Ukrainian women being “easy.” So there is a very common stereotype in Turkey as Ukraine being the country you go to get laid, which is far from the truth, to be honest.

Kyiv, November 2020. Photo by Denis Perepelenko, via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

You’re going to scare away the Turkish tourists now, they’re not going to come to Ukraine anymore!

To be honest, I love living here, so I’d rather have the decent tourists come here that actually enjoy the country rather than the horny ones. Because there is a prejudice against Turkish people here, exactly for this reason. I’ve spent about 1.5 years here with the locals I’ve met, and the third sentence I got usually was “you’re not like the typical Turkish guys I’ve met.” Yes, not all the country is filled with horny guys. And I’m trying my best to change that Turkish guy image here, but I’m obviously only one guy, so I want to introduce more of those people to Ukraine, so in a very minor way, our relationship would get better.

Jez Meyers: a Manchester-Ukraine love story

Jez Meyers comes from Manchester. The story of his coming to Ukraine is worth a small novel, starting from randomly picking a weekend getaway flight destination to a place he never heard about – Lviv – to making best friends with the owners of the bar “Cantona” titled in honor of a famous Manchester United player to getting a season’s ticket for the games of the local football team Karpaty Lviv.

“And so, I ended up having 20-30 friends in Lviv, from coming to a place nobody has ever heard of to watch by all accounts a terrible football team. And now I have a season ticket to Karpaty Lviv. And I just kept going and going. I love it there. I speak to my friends from there every day.”

After many trips to Ukraine, he met his love, and is the process of fully relocating to Ukraine. But the move was brewing even before that: Jez started nurturing a special relationship with Ukraine from the first visits.

If you were to name the number one thing that’s better in Ukraine than in England, what would it be?

Jez on the Dnipro river in July 2021. Courtesy photo

That’s a tough one. I would say, the quality of local produce. Not only farmer’s markets; you can go to the supermarket and it’s better. Ukraine has incredibly fertile soil. This morning I went to my local supermarket and bought a pack of six tomatoes, and I know that most tomatoes in England would taste of absolutely nothing, because vegetables there are purchased primarily for their long shelf life, as opposed to their flavor. In Ukraine, I could go to the street market nearby or the market in Podil, or the supermarket, but as long as what I’m buying is from Ukraine and in season, it will be phenomenal.

The time I came earlier in the summer, I pretty much lived on a diet of cherries and strawberries. It was amazing! And then the time of apricots and peaches and plums are coming, and after that, it’s melon season.

To top that — beer markets. What an incredible idea. There are shops you can go into, and they have 20 different beers on tap. They are cheap, local, craft beers. |You choose which ones you want and fill up a bottle. If you go to your shops in England, all you can do is buy cans and bottles. But in Ukraine, you can get the equivalent of a pint of beer freshly carbonated, freshly poured in a bottle to take away. Again, all from local craft producers. It’s having that sense of keeping things local that works really well.

There are others of course, but for me, this stands out.

A market in Kyiv, 2021. Photo by Pietro Chekal, via via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

Any other things that you like in Ukraine?

If you talk to people, they will tell you “I love going to Ukraine, it’s really cheap.” And it is, especially outside of Kyiv, especially if you’re from a wealthy economy.

But when I think about Ukraine, the word that comes to me is “community” but in a very different sense of community. I do a large amount of community work in Manchester, and when the community comes together, it’s fantastic, but essentially, with the capitalism there, everybody is so focused on getting a bigger house, better car, or better clothes or whatever it is. And in Ukraine, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, for myriads of people, unless they’re working in IT, getting a bigger house or better car or a car at all is fantasy. And because they don’t have to focus on that, they focus their time on building connections, relationships, and friendships with people. And it’s a much nicer place to be.

Bakota, 2021. Photo by Hanna Arhirova, via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

What’s the #1 good thing from the UK that you miss while being in Ukraine?

What I miss about Manchester is the mild weather in the summer — while we were roasting in Kyiv, it was 19 degrees in Manchester. There are also certain food items you can’t easily or cheaply get in Ukraine, for instance, tinned tomatoes for making a quick pasta sauce, despite there being a huge tomato processing industry.

Also, Manchester is a hugely multicultural city… Last week when I was walking past a bar, I had to walk through a group of what I assume are a group of right-wing youth who were protesting against an event I later found out was attended by members of the LGBT community.

Jez at the Koroshyv quarry. Courtesy photo

Manchester is a phenomenally welcoming city. We have a huge Asian, Jewish, Black community. Multiculturalism brings ideas and cohesion and support. I don’t see that here. For me, it’s not OK to walk up to my apartment and in the entrance see stickers of Dynamo Kyiv saying “Kyiv without shit” with a picture of a Jewish person with a cross stuck through them. Or “1488” graffitied outside. This does not make people feel safe. In Manchester, we have a gay village. Interestingly, it’s shrinking in size because it’s so culturally accepted to be gay, we don’t need to have a specific safe space for gay people. So that’s what I miss — a sense of feeling safe as part of a wide community. And I’ve been to football matches and seen the racism. Fans chant racist and antisemitic stuff. I’ve seen Nazi symbolism used.

What good things do Ukrainians not notice about their country?

Opportunity. Head and shoulders above everything. Because the costs in Ukraine are comparatively low, the risk is also lower. I see and hear so many people who are going “I want to do X and Y and Z” so I can leave Ukraine and move to somewhere else, anywhere else. It follows with the ridiculous notion of Ukrainian women who want to meet someone so they can move to England or the US. Hilariously, it’s not that great. You know, it depends on your circumstances.

Ternopil, September 2021. Photo by Paul Bebrenki, via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

There are so many positive things going on in Ukraine that I feel people don’t necessarily embrace that, they are so busy looking for a way out of the country rather than looking at what they can bring to the table and how they can invest internally in their country, what they can bring to their community and do to improve their areas. I think that’s the big thing for them.

I would be lying if I didn’t mention the obscene and still ridiculous levels of corruption. You can’t spend any time in Ukraine and not know or understand there is corruption. T and that breeds mistrust and that means that people don’t want to be part of that, they want to do things the right way. But they’re also worried that if they do things the right way, at some stage something will happen and they will have to pay to make something go away. And morally, ethically, confidence-wise, it drags people back a bit.

Your advice for people who are planning to visit or live in Ukraine?

For visiting, it’s simple -just do it. Embrace the strangeness. Because it is, for English people, it is strange. But if you go beyond the “I’m coming for a weekend to hand around bars on Khreshchatyk,” you’ll find there is loads more. You will find fantastic communities, people, phenomenal areas. Step outside and realize there’s a lot more going on beyond the glossy facade designed for the tourists.

On a bus in Odesa, May 2021. Photo by Roman Bordun, via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

And for people moving there, if you can and you’re coming from England, retain your English job. It will be considerably better and easier for you than anything you can do in Ukraine.

Peter Cribley: a British-Ukrainian tale of Europeanness

Peter, also from the UK, found himself in Ukraine after agreeing to participate in an educational project in Kharkiv six years ago and staying, “whether out of stubbornness or love to Ukraine,” to open his own business after it ended. One of his main motivations was to “show that Ukraine was open to business, and you can do things quite legally and responsibly here.”

What is the #1 thing that’s better in Ukraine than in the UK?

Peter Cribley on the Dnipro river. Courtesy photo

People always seem surprised when I remark how Ukraine felt European to me, but it really does, honestly. I’ve traveled around Europe, and it feels like somewhere that is getting closer to Europe in its own way while maintaining its own identity. It feels like the UK is turning away from the rest of the world, and Ukraine is looking for more opportunities to engage with the world. One country seems to be going into isolation, and the other is actively fighting to get out of isolation.

I guess one of the main reasons why I want to stay in Ukraine is that is a sense that things are getting better here, at least in my view. There is a strong, youthful energy. There are people who are stepping up and playing an active role in shaping the kind of society they want to see. Most people in Britain generally have this attitude that things are getting worse. I’m not always sure it’s true, it’s part of the national psyche to moan about things, but Ukraine seems to be a country that is taking active steps to improve things.

And as someone who’s been here for 5-6 years, I can see the difference in terms of infrastructure, jobs, and opportunities. When I first came here, my role was to help IT companies communicate with clients and give private English tuitions to people who wanted to move to Canada. Now, those people who have moved me are contacting me on behalf of Canadian or US firms, asking if I can help work with Ukrainian staff who have no intention of moving, but of making a success of their business here.

One of the major ways Ukraine has improved since I got here is services going online, apps like Diya for example, making the experience of paying taxes and being a part of the Ukrainian state a lot easier. Even immigration matters: I was dead insistent on getting my residency permit through legal, perfectly normal means, which meant it took a long time and was quite a headache. Now, five years after I’ve started doing that, the process is a lot more straightforward, you can monitor the status of your application online.

Peter Cribley holds his Ukrainian residency permit. Courtesy photo

What are the things that you miss in Ukraine, that are better in the UK?

On a professional business level, there was a psychological problem I had to get over. An Englishman, his bank account and facilities are sancrosanct. No one is allowed to meddle in them, you talk to the government and you come to an arrangement, you pay your taxes, the fee for being in civilization. But my bank account here — I still can’t use it like a Ukrainian citizen here, as a foreigner. And the bank gets to have a look in there and gets to tell me what I can and can’t do.

There are still barriers to access and business that are not just nonexistent in the UK, but kind of unthinkable. It was a real culture shock for me. Just the idea that “you can’t use your bank account.” And the propiska [address of residence registration] regime is archaic, even Soviet to me. Now that I live in Kyiv, their lawyers won’t allow me to register where I really live officially, which is a really strange situation for me, because of the existing leftover bureaucracies.

Other things: sometimes there is a strange situation when you want to pay for a service and people in Ukraine will actively make it harder for you. I wanted to constantly ask “Why are you making it harder for me to give you money?” Like, restaurants wanting to look exclusive by putting fake “reserved” signs on them to the point where there was nowhere to sit. Or a situation where you want to pay someone to fix your air conditioning, and the guy would turn up and then say “Oh I don’t know if I need this job.” There was a reluctance to engage in standard business, maybe out of pride. In the UK, people are quite happy to sell you things. I want to put in the caveat that if you are working for money in the UK, British people are some of the slowest to pay you, whereas people in Ukraine pay for services fairly promptly.

You had the feeling that Ukraine was getting more European. What does that mean? What does Europeanness feel like?

A view on Kyiv’s Troieshchyna district, May 2017. Photo by Maxim Golubchikov, via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

Initially, when I first came here, I knew very little about Ukraine. It seemed like an important place to be at an important point in history. And it was something that I wanted to see and experience. My first impression when I arrived was that it felt like parts of Germany, like Poland prior to joining the EU. As a British person, we don’t often feel very European, which is unfortunate, we feel this difference when we come to Europe. It felt very similar here, at a personal gut reaction, that became more and more obvious to me as people became more cosmopolitan. For example, my neighbor whose clients were predominantly Russian and Ukrainian, switched his focus. he was doing business with Germany and Poland, traveling abroad to design elsewhere, and it was happening around 2014/15. The companies I worked with switched their strategy (not without a level of reluctance) from Russia.

Did you have any stereotypes about Ukraine?

I did expect there to be a much lower level of English, I did not expect people would be able to communicate with me. And that was not the case: I found people ready and able to engage in English, but their confidence was really low. Their educational system set them up to fail: they were desperate not to make mistakes. Ukrainians are certainly no worse in this regard than what I experienced in Spain or Portugal. I expected there to be a lot less communication. I expected people to be less friendly. People take time to warm to you, but once they have, they are fiercely loyal. If you make a friend in Ukraine, that’s a friend for life. It was a pleasant surprise.

Peter Cribley holding a conversational club in the Gender Culture Center in Kharkiv. Courtesy photo

Also, I had this bleak post-Soviet concept that persisted for a long time, because I didn’t travel at all through Ukraine in three years after starting my business, staying mostly in Kharkiv. Now I’ve finally been able to visit western Ukraine more and more, and culturally the difference is gigantic. I found more contrast in the country and more surprises and plenty more for me to learn.

There was an interesting moment for me when President Poroshenko prior to the election enacted martial law [at the time, there were fears that he would use this to derail the upcoming plebiscite – Ed]. But after a month, he stepped back and said “back to the election.” Ukraine elected a leader democratically in a landslide victory, and the existing leader said “I’ve been defeated, I will not stand in the way.”

I do not see that in the UK and USA right now. In fact, at that time, the UK hadn’t elected a Prime Minister in a majority for about three years. So, we were in no place to lecture anyone.

Kyiv, August 2021. Photo by Nick Tymchenko via Ukrainian Street Photography facebook group

On a more personal level, people would tell me every year that things were getting worse. We would walk through brand-new parks with fountains, next to people sitting on perfectly planted new grass outside of brand-new restaurants developed through work schemes and loans, and people would tell me how much worse it is since I got here.

We would walk on roads where all the potholes were filled in, past new monuments, renovated areas with new businesses and skyscrapers, and people would tell me how awful it was and how any day it was going to fail. And as somebody that could see the difference, I would see it was astonishing, you have to try and point out things like “look at what’s improved since I’ve got here”. More people were coming to Ukraine even for tourist purposes. I was surprised in Kharkiv when a bunch of students from the UK turned up at a local restaurant, and I asked them “why did you come here” and the response was “cheap flights and adventure,” which was the same way I visited Europe when I was their age.

People always feel their own country is getting worse, and it’s visible to me and some people who visit Ukraine, that even superficially and business-wise things are getting better.

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