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Millions of Ukrainians have escaped the war. Many still can't find enough work

Volodymyr Korchevsky, center, stands with his son Bohdan, 18, and wife, Hanna Korchevska, outside their temporary home in Lviv. The Korchevsky family left the middle-class life they’d built in Mariupol and now months later, jobs gone, savings depleted and unable to afford rent, they are living in what’s essentially a short shipping container, sandwiched between others, in a Lviv city park.
Volodymyr Korchevsky, center, stands with his son Bohdan, 18, and wife, Hanna Korchevska, outside their temporary home in Lviv. The Korchevsky family left the middle-class life they’d built in Mariupol and now months later, jobs gone, savings depleted and unable to afford rent, they are living in what’s essentially a short shipping container, sandwiched between others, in a Lviv city park.

LVIV, Ukraine — When a wall in their two-story home collapsed under Russian bombardment, and the explosions didn't cease, the Korchevsky family left the middle-class life they'd built in Mariupol, packing what they could into a neighbor's car.

Months later, jobs gone, savings depleted and unable to afford rent, they are living in what's essentially a short shipping container, sandwiched between others, in a Lviv city park.

A new report from the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 2.4 million Ukrainians have lost their jobs in the eight months since Russia's full-scale invasion began, putting unprecedented pressure on the country's social welfare system.

Thousands of businesses have been destroyed or depleted of employees. Imports and exports have been strangled by repeated attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and the occupation of many of Ukraine's Black Sea ports. At a recent meeting in Berlin, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told Western leaders the conflict has wiped out at least 35% of the country's economy.

The figures paint a dire picture of the country's economic and humanitarian situation as it aims to keep public morale high amid power outages, broad Russian missile strikes, slow territorial gains and a coming winter that the World Health Organization says could be brutal for Ukraine's most vulnerable.

For displaced and struggling families like the Korchevskys, the figures are an all-too real reflection of what life has been reduced to even in the relative peace of the country's western regions.

"I can't find work"

Before his home city was reduced to rubble and taken by Russia, Volodymyr Korchevsky made a good living working in the port city of Mariupol's steel plants on Ukraine's southern coast. His wife, Hanna Korchevska, taught kindergarten classes.

"I graduated in 1994. Metallurgical Institute of Maripol," the 50-year-old says, with a proud smile, standing outside the makeshift shelter — some 700 miles away — that he now calls home.

They owned their home. His monthly salary was roughly $500 per month. Her's was roughly $300. Today, they're living on a combination of social welfare he's been able to get from the local unemployment office, a meager salary his wife has been able to pull together cleaning up garbage at a local park and the $400 per month his 18-year-old son earns working for a cybersecurity firm while attending online college courses.

"I can't find work," Volodymyr Korchevsky says. "Western Ukraine doesn't have many opportunities in heavy industry."

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have returned home in the eight months of war, but more than 6.2 million Ukrainians are still living in other parts of Ukraine after Russsia's full-scale invasion, according to the most recent surveyfrom the International Organization for Migration.

For many, the transition has come with difficulties. A survey by the International Organization for Migration in July found that 60% of the country's displaced people lost their jobs. The country's unemployment rate has soared to 34%, according to the National Bank of Ukraine — a figure, labor experts say, that doesn't capture the whole picture because so many people in Ukraine had undeclared jobs before the invasion.

"We can say that a lot of people lost their jobs. They lost their businesses. Houses," says Nataliia Slaviuk, an economist and assistant professor at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. "And also a drop in income of people as far as depreciation of the currency."

The inflation rate in Ukraine has soared to over 20%. The cost of everyday goods like food, clothing and medicine has become harder for people to afford.

"Rent is expensive. Food is expensive. A dozen of eggs in the shop used to be [a dollar]," Korchevsky says. "Now it's like [two dollars] in the shop."

A survey of Ukrainians conducted by the European Union, the Centre for Economic Recovery and Gradus Research found that 66% of respondents felt the need for more money.

"In general, those who relocated within Ukraine have more needs than those who stayed or moved abroad," the survey found.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other aid organizations have been trying to help financially struggling Ukrainians with cash payments. The International Rescue Committee has been distributing money to vulnerable populations and large families — typically a one-time payment of about $145.

"When we speak with people after we've distributed the cash, we find they're spending most of that amount on food, medical expenses, rent and child care costs," says Marysia Zapasnik, the nonprofit's Ukraine director. "And we're expecting that as winter approaches, lots more of that money will have to go to some sort of heating source and winter clothing."

Ukraine's social welfare system is reeling

At unemployment centers across Ukraine, job postings are tacked to boards. Postings for sewers, cooks, welders and truck drivers are posted in the lobby of the Lviv city employment center. Most of the jobs pay just over the minimum wage, roughly $280 per month.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Lviv, local realtors say, is about $270 per month.

"It's a difficult situation for these people," says Oleh Risny, the employment office's director, but he adds it's difficult for everyone. The Lviv region employment center just laid off 40% of its own staff, he says, "Because we have no money."

Ukraine is running an average monthly deficit of $5 billion, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And defense spending is expected to increase. A draft budget for 2023, approved by the Ukrainian government in September, called for a tripling of defense spending to nearly 18% of the country's gross domestic product. Pension provision and social spending is roughly a third of that.

The National Bank of Ukraine, which aggregates the country's current economic statistics, did not respond to questions about social welfare spending.

"Most of the income of the state is going to the army," Slaviuk says. "So all the social expenses possible are being cut."

Efforts are underway to employ the displaced

Business leaders and economists say there are opportunities for people who have been displaced and that those will grow as more businesses relaunch operations in new parts of the country.

More than 700 businesses have relocated to safer parts of the country, Tetiana Berezhnaty, Ukraine's deputy economy minister, told local television hosts in September. Industrial enterprises, typically found in natural resource-rich eastern Ukraine, are moving west.

Others are looking to fill payrolls with people who have been forced to relocate. More than 5 million Ukrainians have left the country, according to U.N. statistics. Hundreds of thousands who stayed have been mobilized to fight in the country's armed forces.

Businesses, like ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih, a major steel plant in the south-central part of the country, have made a concerted effort to fill gaps by hiring people who have been displaced.

"We are recruiting people from the areas that have been significantly affected by the war," Artem Filipiev, the chief administrative officer of ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih, told NPR in an interview over the summer.

Earlier this month, Ukraine's Ministry of Economy announced plans to create an "Army of Restoration," a workforce to rebuild the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damaged buildings and infrastructure in the country. It will pay people roughly $280 per month.

"I need victory"

For Volodymyr Korchevsky, the options for work are limited. After relocating to Lviv, he went to the military recruitment office and during his medical checks, doctors discovered he has heart disease.

"I need two stints," he says, standing in the park in slippers and socks knitted by his wife. "But we can't afford it."

His 14-year-old son, Ulysses, sits at a desktop computer in the back of the temporary shelter they now call home playing a video game where he drives tanks. A stray cat they adopted meows in his lap.

The boy is not doing well psychologically since leaving Maripol, Korchevsky says.

"Because of the shelling and bombing, the cold and the hunger, he's really into himself right now," he says. "He doesn't want to connect with other kids."

Korchevsky says he'll continue looking for work to support his family for as long as he can. Asked what he needs besides money, he chuckles.

"I need victory."

Olena Lysenko contributed to this report from Kryvyi Rih Ukraine. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.