How can Ukrainians integrate into society without losing their own identity?


Dmytro Milashchuk, founder of the thEUkrainian platform (, co-author of the podcast "Was it possible like that?"

In the first episode of our podcast, we talk with Anna Humenna, a personal growth coach and participant in our #coachtheukrainian project, about the peculiarities of Ukrainians' integration in Switzerland.

Anna arrived in Switzerland in March 2022, changed her profession, and after a challenging path of finding her place in the new field, she found a job. Anna's example and integration experience are very interesting and helpful for all Ukrainians who ended up abroad due to the war. Therefore, I offer a summary of our conversation, the full version of which you can click to listen.

One of the main questions that Ukrainians ask themselves, especially those who left for other countries after the start of the full-scale war, relates to the necessity of integration, as many of them plan to return to Ukraine at the first opportunity. Why should Ukrainians integrate into the Swiss or any other country's community? What can help them, and how can they support themselves on this path?

Why is it worthwhile for Ukrainians to integrate?

Regardless of how long we plan to stay in the country that has welcomed us in difficult times, we should show ourselves from the best side. Even if it's just because we, as Ukrainians, are educated and knowledgeable, we can dedicate some time to learning about the culture and history of the country that has sheltered us and getting to know the cities, communities, and people nearby. Understanding how they live and what their lives are like. Analyzing, for example, why Switzerland is considered the best country to live in, finding what was good in Ukraine and what is good here.

We can bring this knowledge and experience back to Ukraine when we return. Or we can apply it to our future life here if we decide to stay. Moreover, many things in Ukraine are lacking in Switzerland; thus, we can be useful here.

How quickly can integration take place?

The period of adaptation varies for everyone. It all depends on how a person was mentally prepared from the very beginning, their emotional state, their surroundings, and their overall behavior. Over time, everyone in a new city discovers their favorite places, social circles, and moments of enjoyment from being here and now. The path to such moments can take one month to a year or even two.

Anna shared her personal story, which, I'm sure, can be helpful for those experiencing challenging times in a foreign country.

"Integration, of course, began on the first day," Anna said. "Slowly. It's important to note that I traveled a lot in my previous job, but no matter where I went or what I saw, I always wanted to come back home. I didn't aspire to leave Ukraine. And if I were to imagine contemplating it, I wouldn't have chosen a German-speaking country. However, I ended up in Zurich, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Initially, I had a negative attitude, even a certain level of shock. But even then, I was curious to explore the place I found myself in. So, I joined guided tours of Zurich, which were conducted for us by a local guide. He shared fascinating stories about the country's history and the city itself. Such things are always important for integration. And then, I started gradually learning German, attending various gatherings, and getting to know different people. Those were the first steps. I only became friends with Zurich after 10-11 months of being here. At first, many things about it irritated me. It's a very small city, almost like a village unlike Kyiv, which is big and beautiful. Here, there's no room to spread out. Initially, it also bothered me that people here are too carefree and don't even consider that something might happen to their country. It is indeed a very safe country. The tranquility and carefreeness of the Swiss annoyed me a lot. But there are many positive aspects in Zurich and throughout Switzerland, and I really wanted to notice them. So, I remember that moment when I said to myself, 'Alright, Zurich, let's become friends.' That was about 11 months after arriving.

I felt so terrible in September of last year that I wanted to return to Ukraine. I understood there were no prospects, opportunities, or work for me there. Nevertheless, I had the urge to throw away everything I had already done here and go back. It was my emotional low point. And then I allowed myself, so to speak, to sink to push off from the bottom and resurface. And then, after this turning point, I found a job, an apartment, and everything started falling into place."

In general, the adaptation duration for forced emigrants differs from the time needed for those who consciously took this step, who prepared and mentally prepared themselves. But it's worth remembering that that sense of enjoyment and closeness comes to everyone sooner or later.

What are the typical mistakes Ukrainians make when they find themselves abroad due to the war?

The biggest mistake is that we don't integrate. More precisely, many Ukrainians don't fully utilize integration. Some don't even want to learn the language, form social circles, or seek employment.

Successful integration requires an active life position. Of course, it's not easy, as everything depends on one's emotional state and level of resources. Therefore, first and foremost, it's important to seek assistance from a specialist if there is an internal call to find inner peace and balance before starting active actions.

It's also essential to immediately seek contacts that are of immediate necessity. Find answers to various life questions. What should you do if something happens to your health? Where is the hospital, and what is the procedure for seeing a doctor? How does health insurance work here? Are there 24-hour pharmacies?

Who can you turn to for advice: a Swiss person or a long-time Ukrainian resident here? What volunteer services provide various types of assistance, including psychological and informational support? Are there Telegram groups, for example?

Things become more manageable when you have a plan, whether in your mind or on paper. The biggest mistake is closing oneself off in their world and not attempting to seek answers and paths to adaptation.

How to integrate without complete assimilation and losing oneself?

There are two extreme behaviors exhibited by refugees: complete assimilation, where a person loses their own identity entirely, or complete ghettoization, where a person completely separates themselves from the local community. Both of these paths are unproductive. What can be done to avoid this?

It's important to maintain contact with fellow compatriots to avoid losing that connection and actively engage with the locals to understand their customs, way of life, what is acceptable, and what is not. It's about finding a balance in this regard as well.

We have much to learn and much to teach. We, as Ukrainians, are wonderful, and we must preserve what we value in our culture, way of life, and worldview, what we can share. For example, in Switzerland, it's not customary to help the elderly, but we are accustomed to it, so if there is an internal calling, we should continue doing it. We should not give up what is important to us. We have many minor (and significant) moments, each worth preserving. It allows us to remember who we were.

What can help us move forward in integration?

The most important thing is to have a goal. For example, Anna's goal is to develop as a coach and help people, both locals and Ukrainians.

Everyone should have a big or small goal that inspires and motivates them to move forward.

It's also crucial to look at everything that happens to us as an experience. We don't know how long we will stay here, what the future holds... But it's very helpful to view it all as an interesting experiment.

Moreover, we need to help each other, support one another, communicate, adapt, explore, and develop, all while preserving our internal values and principles. It means living here and now but not forgetting who we are and where we come from.



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