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For Ukrainians, Physical Safety May Feel Less Important Than Emotional Security

An unexpected finding from our trip to Ukraine.

Key points

  • Interviews with refugees in Poland and the Czech Republic show that many Ukrainians plan to return to their country before the fighting stops.
  • Interviews inside Ukraine revealed that many residents planned to stay in their homes, despite the risks of death, injury, and abuse.
  • Behavioral research on the causes of stress and anxiety offer clues about why these Ukrainians choose danger over safety.

Zamosc, Poland, May 2022

The Polish aid worker at a refugee center near the Ukrainian border shook his head and shrugged, telling us in strongly accented, but passable English “None of the refugees will speak with you.”

“OK,” my wife, Chris (also a PT blogger), said. "But can you tell us why they won’t give us interviews for our magazine?”

The worker, a blond, compact man with three days' growth of beard frowned, “They all want to go back soon, and Russian occupiers are checking mobile phones to see who Ukrainians have messaged or spoken to. If the occupiers don’t like what they see on the phones…” he stopped there, giving us a dark look that said everything. When the Ukrainian women and their children returned to Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, they and their children might not survive the Russians learning that they had given interviews to Western journalists.

Chris and I understood and accepted this grim explanation for why Ukrainian refugees would not grant interviews, but we exchanged glances, wondering the same thing: “Why would anyone who had just escaped the horror of war want to go right back into it?”

Why Some Refugees Want to Return While Other Ukrainians Never Left

The likely answer eventually came to us through interviews we did manage to get: We spoke with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF]) workers, Ukrainian refugees, and Ukrainians still inside the country who chose not to leave in the first place.

MSF country coordinator Michel Lacharite told us at MSF headquarters in Paris that many older Ukrainians explained to him that they refused to leave, not so much because they were too old to survive the rigors of travel, but because they would rather risk death or injury than give up their homes, their friends, and their way of life. “And we are too old for the Russians to bother us,” one babushka (grandmother) living north of Kyiv told Michel on a recent mission to Ukraine.

In other words, many older Ukrainians believed that the risks of staying were not high enough to justify abandonment of everything that gave meaning to their lives.

We heard the same thing from a middle-aged dentist we interviewed in a city near Lviv, who, despite the horrors she had seen, had no intention of leaving. “We built a good life here. All that we love is here. Why would we leave?"

Fair enough. But what about young mothers with children who are not too young “for the Russians to bother” as the babushka who’d spoken with Michel said? What about widespread reports of murder, rape, and deportations to Russia of younger Ukrainians (that most Ukrainians have heard of)? Why would anyone risk that?

Daria, an IT manager from Kyiv whom we interviewed in Krakow, Poland, shortly after leaving Ukraine, gave us clues to the answer. A tall, slim, brown-haired woman with a husband still living in Kyiv (all men under 60 cannot leave the country), Daria said, “I am very grateful to the Poles; they have been wonderful. But, even though I am lucky enough to have work I can do from here, and can afford to stay here, I plan to go back to Kyiv and my husband soon.”

“What about the danger? I asked.

Daria looked away, deep in thought At length, she said in a low voice “I feel so lost here. I don’t know what will happen, and I feel no control over the situation. Somehow, I will feel safer back home with my husband and family. There, I think I can face whatever comes. But not here.” (Indeed, Daria emailed us today that she is now back in Kyiv and happier, despite recent Russian shelling of her city.)

After interviewing Daria, as Chris and I drove toward the Czech Republic for interviews with refugees and aid workers there, we discussed the psychology underlying the overpowering desire Daria and the refugees in Zamosc to return to a dangerous war zone and for many Ukrainians to not leave in the first place.

Discussing the chronic stress and anxiety that the Ukrainians must be experiencing, the desire to face the future inside versus outside Ukraine started to make sense.

A few years ago, while researching a book we co-authored on mind–body medicine, The Listening Cure, we uncovered a wealth of research on chronic stress and anxiety, including a comprehensive literature survey by University of Wisconsin neuroscientists Dan Grupe and Jack Nitschke, showing that the some of the biggest drivers of stress and anxiety are uncertainty about the future along with perceived helplessness about influencing that future.

Chris and I suspect that many Ukrainians feel less uncertain and more in control in familiar settings, surrounded by friends and family than in unfamiliar settings surrounded by well-meaning strangers, even though the familiar settings are physically far more dangerous. Thus, as stressful as living in a war zone can be, it is apparently less stressful for some people than feeling isolated and lost in a physically “safe” place.

That’s a powerful statement about the importance of emotional safety over physical safety.

Surprising as that insight was to us, the silence of the refugees who refused to speak with us in Zamosc because they planned to return to Russian-occupied Ukraine shouted the truth of it.


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