Forced migration affects a whole range of academics and their research worldwide. Sociologist Olena Strelnyk and cultural scientist Mariya Shcherbyna focus on their own displacement from Ukraine caused by the Russian war of aggression.

  • Olena Strelnyk

    Olena Strelnyk habilitierte sich 2018 in Soziologie an der Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University, Ukraine. Sie ist die Autorin von “Childcare as work. A sociological perspective on mothering” (2017). Seit April 2022 ist sie Visiting Scholar an der Technischen Universität München. Derzeit untersucht sie verschiedene Aspekte der Auswirkungen des Krieges auf die Geschlechterrollen sowie auf die Situation und die Rechte der Frauen in der Ukraine.
  • Mariya Shcherbyna

    Mariya Shcherbyna (Maria Shcherbina) ist promovierte Kulturphilosophin und außerordentliche Professorin an der Ostukrainischen Nationalen Universität V. Dahl. Sie forscht zu Gender und Antidiskriminierung, war Mitglied der Antidiskriminierungskommission des ukrainischen Bildungsministeriums. Nachdem sie mit ihrem Sohn und ihrem großen Hund aus Charkiv geflohen ist, ist sie derzeit Gastwissenschaftlerin am Politecnico di Torino, Fellow der Akademie der Wissenschaften von Turin.

Scien­tists displaced by wars, huma­ni­ta­rian disas­ters, and poli­tical uphe­aval face common chal­lenges caused by forced migra­tion. Accor­ding to various data, women are usually a mino­rity among forcibly displaced scien­tists. For example, data from the Council for At Risk Acade­mics (CARA), a London-based charity that helps acade­mics to continue their work at one of 124 partner univer­si­ties and insti­tu­tions in the United Kingdom or other safe loca­tions, indi­cate that in November 2021, there was a 6:1 ratio of men to women among program parti­ci­pants. This can be explained partly by the low share of female scien­tists in count­ries from which scien­tists left for huma­ni­ta­rian or poli­tical reasons (for example, Syria or Afgha­ni­stan). The key diffe­rence between the wave of forced displa­ce­ment from Ukraine as a result of the ongoing full-scale Russian inva­sion of Ukraine that began in 2022 and the previous waves of refu­gees to EU count­ries is its noti­ce­ably gendered nature.

The situa­tion of displaced scien­tists is rela­tively better compared to that of the „average“ forcibly displaced person. Scien­tists have a higher level of social and cultural capital, e.g., know­ledge of foreign languages and expe­ri­ence in trave­ling or working abroad, and they can be included in networks of mutual aid, e.g., univer­sity commu­ni­ties. In addi­tion, a large part of them have come at the invi­ta­tion of univer­si­ties that have offered diffe­rent programs for scho­lars at risk.

Accor­ding to Ukrai­nian martial law, most men aged 18-60 are banned from leaving Ukraine during wartime. Accor­dingly, women make up at least 85% of those forcibly displaced. This context of scho­lars displaced from Ukraine pres­ents a new chall­enge and has become a gender issue. Women, who are often accom­pa­nied by children and/or other family members, must navi­gate many chal­lenges simul­ta­neously: adap­ting to life in a new country, often caring for loved ones alone, making hard decis­ions, volun­tee­ring, and working and inte­gra­ting into the EU scien­tific community.

This article is based on the auto­eth­no­gra­phic method as its authors are forcibly displaced scho­lars (a socio­lo­gist curr­ently based in Germany and a cultural rese­ar­cher based in Italy) as well as on a series of pilot inter­views and consul­ta­tions with colle­agues from Ukraine displaced to Germany and Italy. The article is part of an ongoing projectthat aims to analyze issues of gendered chal­lenges for academic pathways and iden­ti­ties of displaced women scho­lars. Here we focus on three topics: ever­yday life and its chal­lenges, chal­lenges for rese­arch work and inte­gra­tion into a new academic/professional envi­ron­ment, and the issue of identity.

“I don’t have any choice”: fatigue, inse­cu­rity, and over­load in ever­yday life

This is the story of the forced displa­ce­ment of one of the co-authors of this article, Mariya Shcher­byna, who left the city of Kharkiv, a metro­polis in the east of Ukraine, under bombing and shel­ling in March 2022:

my own version of so-called academic mobi­lity from Kharkiv looked like this, which compared to others was a privi­lege: a small car which barely fit two women, myself and a colle­ague of mine, two of our teenage children, and two dogs inclu­ding our dog Nero, weig­hing 60 kilo (he lost 5 kg on the way because of stress). We had exactly as much stuff as we could sit on, and in the trunk were gas cans, food, medi­cine, and dog food.

What do the ever­yday lives of our respond­ents who are forcibly displaced scho­lars look like? A brief descrip­tion is workload, workload, and workload again. For those displaced with children, the classic two-shift pattern of paid and unpaid сare work sounds like a dream. When we asked our colle­agues how they manage to do ever­y­thing, the most frequent answers are “I cannot manage to do anything”, “I don’t have time for anything” and “I don’t have a choice”.

Two women, two teen­agers, two dogs (the small one, 20 kg, sits on its owner’s lap, the larger one, 60 kg at this moment, lies on Mariya and her son). Part of the escape route from Kharkiv, 2022, personal archive.

In the ever­yday life of displaced acade­mics, there are chal­lenges common to all war refu­gees, such as language barriers, finan­cial uncer­tainty, finding housing, facing an unfa­mi­liar culture and bureau­cracy, navi­ga­ting a new refugee status often invol­ving rest­ric­tions on some rights, adap­ting to new living condi­tions, lack of control over their lives, decreased confi­dence, social isola­tion, feelings of power­less­ness, disrup­tion of basic social bonds, mental health issues and trauma caused by war, “survivor guilt” and other problems.

There are some specific chal­lenges for displaced scien­tists from Ukraine, namely having to continue to work and do their rese­arch and having to seek new posi­tions or grants, as most of their academic posi­tions are short-term and preca­rious. At the same time, they are engaged in diffe­rent forms of volun­tee­ring, such as regular finan­cial aid to foun­da­tions that support the army or to specific mili­tary and civi­lian people they know, efforts to collect dona­tions, help with trans­la­tion for wounded soldiers in reha­bi­li­ta­tion programs and for other refu­gees from Ukraine, parti­ci­pa­tion in Ukrai­nian diaspora schools and projects, etc.

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The most crucial chall­enge is that many of them are displaced with loved ones who need their care and support.

Care work is espe­ci­ally challenging

Most displaced women scien­tists with children are forcibly single mothers as their part­ners stayed in Ukraine. This means that women bear the main and often sole respon­si­bi­lity for family life, for children, and often for elder family members. Addi­tio­nally, the burden of care work signi­fi­cantly increases both in quan­tity and in terms of inten­sity, as loved ones go through an often diffi­cult process of adapt­a­tion to life in another country, and their physical and psycho­lo­gical health may dete­rio­rate, which requires special atten­tion. At the same time, the resources that women can rely on are extre­mely limited: it is often diffi­cult to find places in kinder­gar­tens and schools, the ever­yday logi­stics of care are extre­mely compli­cated due to unfa­mi­lia­rity with the struc­ture of services and the local language, and the lack of the usual support networks comprised of rela­tives and friends. A simple proce­dure, such as a visit to a doctor, can turn into a time-consuming problem:

In order to get the right to contact a family doctor, you must first register at a bureau­cratic insti­tu­tion where employees do not speak English. My colle­agues are often busy, and I do not want to bother them because the queues are long. My personal ‘quest’ took 4 hours, but it is still faster than getting a resi­dence permit from the police” (Maria, Italy). If a woman is displaced with children and elderly rela­tives, the number of such chal­lenges natu­rally increases.

Emotional work also increases. This includes psycho­lo­gical support of family members, most often children and adole­s­cents, orga­ni­zing visits to psycho­lo­gists and doctors, media­ting disputes both between family members and between family members and the host family, and so on. At the same time, women need psycho­lo­gical support them­selves because of the sepa­ra­tion of fami­lies in war, the family problems caused by stress, and the incre­asing pres­sure on mothers not only due to an incre­dibly heavy workload but also to the constant need to make vital decis­ions under condi­tions of uncer­tainty. In such a situa­tion, women lose contact with their own bodies and with their own psycho­lo­gical well-being. One should not forget about women’s stress, which they are trying to suppress.

All these chal­lenges can cause a conflict between profes­sional and family roles, as well as nega­tively affect the produc­ti­vity and perfor­mance of scien­tists and affect the search for new posi­tions. In addi­tion, single bread­winner status and the burden of care work limit their parti­ci­pa­tion in active networ­king, crea­ting addi­tional barriers to their produc­ti­vity and visi­bi­lity in local and inter­na­tional academia.

Inte­gra­tion into a new professional/academic envi­ron­ment: from the old preca­rious posi­tion to the new one

The share of women among rese­ar­chers in Ukraine is 46.3%, which is rela­tively high in compa­rison, for example, with the Nether­lands (26.4%), the Czech Repu­blic (26.6%), Germany (27.9%), Luxem­bourg (28.1%) and France (28.3%) (UNESCO, 2019).  Fluc­tua­tions in the share of women among scien­tists and rese­ar­chers in the world depend on the level of wages in science, the speci­fics of buil­ding an academic career, hiring and academic mobi­lity, the ability to combine a career with child­care, gender stereo­types about women in science, and diffe­rent fields of research.

Olena Strelnyk with Ukrai­nian colle­agues at the 41st Congress of the German Socio­lo­gical Asso­cia­tion o (Biele­feld, Germany, September 28, 2022), personal archive.

The high share of women in science in Ukraine is inter­preted often in a neoli­beral way as evidence of the “high success of women in a society” and their “indi­vi­dual choice”. The main­stream discourse about women in science is repre­sented mainly by “success stories” rather than discus­sions about the chal­lenges for women in buil­ding academic careers. Struc­tural reasons are often beyond these discourses: the high share of women in science indi­cates the low status of science and rese­arch acti­vity in society. Low paid, often forced part-time employ­ment due to funding cuts, short-term contracts, self-financing of scien­tific projects, trips to confe­rences and publi­ca­tions, lack of access to good libra­ries, exces­sive teaching and admi­nis­tra­tive workload, the low level of pres­tige of science and scien­tific work are all reali­ties of rese­arch acti­vity in Ukraine, which has worsened since the begin­ning of the full-scale war.

After the start of a full-scale Russian war against Ukraine, many Ukrai­nian women scien­tists came to the EU and other count­ries at the hospi­table invi­ta­tion of local univer­si­ties and foun­da­tions as scho­lars at risk. For many of them, this is a chance for a decent life and for conti­nuing rese­arch. However, sooner or later, many women will face the chall­enge of inte­gra­ting into local academic markets and pursuing academic careers in a diffe­rent context and with mostly lower starting posi­tions, as their oppor­tu­ni­ties for doing rese­arch in Ukraine were very limited.

The academic market in many count­ries is extre­mely compe­ti­tive, and often career oppor­tu­ni­ties are not prima­rily deter­mined by formal indi­ca­tors (such as the number of good publi­ca­tions and cita­tions), but by belon­ging to a certain academic commu­nity or network and gene­rally by the „visi­bi­lity“ of a scien­tist in the academic world. As a rule, forcibly displaced scien­tists from Ukraine do not have these resources or such resources are limited, even among those who had a rather „compe­ti­tive“ academic port­folio. In addi­tion, limited time and resources due to over­load with care work, chronic stress and anxiety, and uncer­tainty about the future signi­fi­cantly reduce the produc­ti­vity of scien­tific work.

Many scien­tists who worked in Ukrai­nian univer­si­ties and rese­arch insti­tutes have been faced with the choice of resig­ning from their posi­tions or retur­ning to Ukraine; however, some have kept their posi­tions as lectu­rers and profes­sors with the possi­bi­lity of remote teaching. Many of them main­tain their ties with Ukrai­nian univer­si­ties and acade­mies because they are uncer­tain about their further plans to return and have a gene­rally inse­cure posi­tion, and it is important for them to main­tain ties with their home­land and the Ukrai­nian academic commu­nity. For example, for a long time, Natalia taught remo­tely at a Ukrai­nian univer­sity for free, because during the long program of academic mobi­lity, the salary at her main place of work was not preserved, and teaching became an oppor­tu­nity for her to main­tain a connec­tion with Ukraine and contri­bute to the deve­lo­p­ment of the country. Another woman scholar displaced from Ukraine, Tamara, works remo­tely on a full-time basis at a Ukrai­nian univer­sity while simul­ta­neously working at a German university.

Mariya Shcher­byna, at the confe­rence in Italy, speaks on contem­po­rary Ukrai­nian women’s history, personal archive

Most of the scien­tists we know look to the future with anxiety. The lack of finan­cial “cushions”, the conti­nua­tion of the war, some­times the inabi­lity to return due to destroyed housing or occu­pied terri­to­ries, and short-term contracts and scho­lar­ships nega­tively affect scien­tific work: it is diffi­cult to plan even a medium-term project without under­stan­ding where one will be in a year. The cycle of deve­lo­ping an appli­ca­tion for funding a scien­tific project and applying for funding is long. This means that after recei­ving a six-month scho­lar­ship, it is neces­sary to imme­dia­tely start forming a new appli­ca­tion in order to have any chance of recei­ving new funding. Remem­be­ring the first months of being a refugee with a family and with the enormous stress and chal­lenges of the first months of adapt­a­tion, it was almost impossible.

In addi­tion, the reality of the war has influenced the refor­mat­ting of rese­arch by scho­lars in the field of social and huma­ni­ta­rian studies: one cannot simply continue their pre-war projects because all struc­tures, insti­tu­tions, and prac­tices have under­gone changes in the context of the war. This requires, if not rebuil­ding the topics of one’s rese­arch, then at least rethin­king them and coll­ec­ting new data. At the same time, the demand for know­ledge about Ukraine is great, and accor­dingly, the load on Ukrai­nian scien­tists from social studies and huma­ni­ties is incre­asing. Many scho­lars are over­worked and exhausted for these and other reasons, and most of our colle­agues work evenings and weekends.

The situa­tion is alar­ming for those who, after short-term scho­lar­ships, have not received continued funding and have had to suspend their scien­tific acti­vi­ties or comple­tely change their profile. It is diffi­cult to quan­tify the share of such scien­tists, but there is signi­fi­cant anec­dotal evidence of this situa­tion. For example, Natalia, who came to Germany on a rese­arch grant, did not receive an exten­sion of the funding and found herself in an uncer­tain posi­tion. Fort­u­na­tely, she even­tually managed to find a new scho­lar­ship; however, for six months she lived on her savings.

“Fleeing Profes­sors”: buil­ding a new identity

The iden­tity of „Fleeing Profes­sors“ or displaced acade­mics is a multi­faceted cons­truct deeply entren­ched in the dicho­tomy of their scho­larly role and their status as refu­gees. It is built around the follo­wing senses: a complex sense of belon­ging on the border between two worlds; a sense of respon­si­bi­lity for repre­sen­ting Ukraine in the world (“Ukraine is judged by us”); reflec­tions on one’s own agency as someone who fights against Russian propa­ganda, advo­cates for the inte­rests of Ukraine, and promotes Ukrai­nian studies in the inter­na­tional academy; and the diffi­culty of posi­tio­ning oneself as a profes­sional and rese­ar­cher, not just as a victim of the war.

Displaced acade­mics often describe their posi­tion as a “border­line”, whereby they hold a privi­leged posi­tion among refu­gees due to their profes­sional iden­tity, which allows them to preserve their intellec­tual selves and in some cases leads to a denial of the refugee iden­tity. For example, Iryna says that she considers herself a profes­sional migrant who went to Berlin (from  Kharkiv which is constantly under fire from missiles) to earn money while Tamara says that if the inva­sion had not happened, she would still have gone to work at the mathe­ma­tics depart­ment on a grant, but for a shorter period, and in this case it is considered a type of academic mobi­lity. But at the same time, she also believes that she cannot do not call herself a refugee because she is a refugee at the same time.  So, it is about conflic­ting iden­ti­ties on the border between profes­sional and forced migration.

Displaced acade­mics as forced migrants can be described as “scho­lars from nowhere to nowhere” (McLaughlin et al., 2020).  They are in a land “between” the home they left behind and their current place of resi­dence with post­poned lives and unclear plans due to the highly uncer­tain situa­tion they face.

Olena Strelnyk at Munich Pride – 2022, personal archive

Moreover, many displaced acade­mics feel a parti­cular respon­si­bi­lity for their actions during the war and inwardly feel that they repre­sent the voices of those left behind: they have left their fami­lies and friends in Ukraine who are fighting and volun­tee­ring and who work and live in a war-torn society. They, parti­cu­larly those curr­ently serving in the Ukrai­nian armed forces, are unable to directly commu­ni­cate about the Ukrai­nian situa­tion to the Euro­pean commu­nity. In fact, one of the women soldiers, who serves as the head of the battalion’s medical service, openly expressed during an inter­view for another project that she relies solely on scien­tists in Europe to be her voice and to discuss the Ukrai­nian expe­ri­ence and ever­yday life in the context of the war.

Ther­e­fore, the scien­tists often iden­tify them­selves as “ambassa­dors of Ukraine”, which on the one hand, means promo­ting Ukraine and Ukrai­nian culture at the ever­yday level (from cooking national dishes for the host fami­lies to talking about the current situa­tion in Ukraine with neigh­bors and colle­agues) and, on the other, orga­ni­zing specia­lized confe­rences and events and doing orga­niza­tional work also known as academic care work. These prac­tices repre­sent their unique expe­ri­ences and profound resi­li­ence, deeply linked to the broader narra­tive of the war from which they have fled. For social scien­tists and huma­ni­ta­rians, the war and displa­ce­ment neces­si­tate a change of topics or the addi­tion of new topics related to the war and forced migra­tion, embo­dying the stories of those who could not leave or chose to stay. Their narra­tives bring a human face to the statis­tics and head­lines, offe­ring nuanced perspec­tives often over­looked in main­stream discourse. Often scho­lars speak not only for them­selves but for an entire commu­nity impacted by the war, brin­ging light to the lived expe­ri­ences of their compa­triots. They under­line their active resis­tance against the disin­for­ma­tion, mani­pu­la­tion, and propa­ganda that surrounds the media repre­sen­ta­tion of Russia’s war on Ukraine, lever­aging their intellec­tual capa­bi­li­ties and first­hand expe­ri­ence to debunk unfounded narra­tives. Their voices play a crucial role in shaping global under­stan­ding of the situa­tion, hence shaping policy responses. This part of scho­lars’ iden­tity brings oppor­tu­ni­ties to make an essen­tial contri­bu­tion to a more accu­rate repre­sen­ta­tion of the Ukrai­nian situa­tion and the Ukrai­nian people. But this posi­tion is fraught with chal­lenges, such as the possi­bi­lity of bullying and dangers to their preca­rious posi­tions at their host univer­si­ties. For scien­tists it leads to a new meaning in the sense of other­ness that is already present for mobile acade­mics (Kim, 2010). They expe­ri­ence (self-)labeling as “others” who are perceived not on the basis of their profes­sional achie­ve­ments but rather on the basis of their expe­ri­ence of war and trauma. The margi­na­lized posi­tion in the academy is also accom­pa­nied by the feeling of profes­sional degra­da­tion and the need to re-plan one’s academic career. For example, a person with a doctoral degree may choose to enroll in a PhD program to gain stabi­lity for at least a few years.

The inter­con­nec­tion between scien­tists’ iden­ti­ties as displaced persons and displaced scho­lars pres­ents a unique dimen­sion that requires further study. As this specific group conti­nues to navi­gate new envi­ron­ments, further rese­arch is needed to under­stand the complex inter­play of these roles and the poten­tial impact on their profes­sional and personal lives. This under­stan­ding may help to find ways to better support Ukrai­nian women scien­tists in their host count­ries and academic systems, address systemic issues, and faci­li­tate their overall integration.