27 years away from home

It took Maksime 27 years to become a citizen of Ukraine. His talents and ambitions led him to find safety, a family, and a true calling.

Maksime immigrated to Ukraine from the Congo in 1991. At the time, the Second Congolese War broke out, and it was too dangerous for him to stay in his home country. Taking the advice of some friends, he applied for refugee status in Ukraine. He thought he would eventually return to the Congo to see his family, but he was never able to — little did he know, it would take him 27 years to become a Ukrainian citizen and have a passport.

Maksime’s first years in Ukraine were the hardest. He initially received a small scholarship from his home country to support his studies, but after the war broke out, the government wasn’t able to financially support him anymore. Financially poor with few work opportunities, the small city of Poltava did not seem like the place for a refugee success story.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

 “There was a time when I didn’t have enough money to buy bread. I was scared and unsure I’d be able to survive. But there was no opportunity for me to go back home. It was much more risky than staying in Ukraine, so I did my best to become independent,” Maksime says.

“If you misbehave, that man will eat you”

The cultural differences were even more challenging for Maksime. He was constantly approached by the police and stereotyped by others. Sometimes, people would even tell their children false horror stories about him.

A sense of humor and sociability always saves Maksime from awkward situations. “One day a stranger approached me in the street. He showed me a picture of some Africans and asked me whether I know them. In turn, I took my phone, found a picture of my Ukrainian coworkers and asked whether HE knew them. ‘Ok, I got it,’ the man answered, and left.”

Maksime persevered and went on to study at the Poltava State Agrarian Academy for seven years. He eventually became fluent in the local language after living with a Ukrainian student in university.

 “When I first came to Ukraine I didn’t speak much local language, but today I am fully confident in the language. The university did a great thing – they placed me in a dormitory with a Ukrainian student who was studying French. In as little as a month, we were able to communicate with each other. It was a great idea!”

“I feel like a citizen of the world”

Maksime's morning routine - feeding animals and screening their health.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

Maksime prepares food for the animals in the zoo.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska


© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska


© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

Maksime gets ready to clean the cages in the zoo.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska


© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

Today, Maksime is 53 years old. He is working in the “Grandma’s Yard Zoo” («Бабусин дворик») in Poltava as a veterinarian and guide. Previously, he worked as a bartender for 10 years and is now happy to work in the sphere that matches his academic background.

Maksime likes being close to nature in the zoo where African ostriches, Cameroonian goats, ponies, monkeys, lemurs, swans, ducks and other animals live in peace and harmony. Every morning, he cleans their cage, screens their health, and feeds them. He dedicates the rest of his workday to giving guided tours and keeping the zoo in order, and is a beloved part of the “Grandma’s Yard Zoo” team.

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“Maksime is such an inspiration. He knows his job so well,” Lida, a coworker, said. “Other co-workers often ask him for advice when curing an animal. And visitors? They love him! Often asked for selfie together.”

The church has replaced my father and my family

Besides his job at the zoo, Maksime has been serving as a Protestant priest at the New Apostolic Church for about 10 years now. Religion acted as a bridge into Ukrainian society for Maksime, creating a positive and strong sense of belonging.

“The church has replaced my father and my family. I have never been very religious, but spending time here with my brothers and sisters, sharing our joy and sorrow, supporting each other, makes me feel stronger and more secure. I know that God is here, He will not leave me alone,” Maksime said.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

Although the Church is like Maksime’s new family, he misses his mother dearly. Now that he has his Ukrainian passport, he hopes to visit her in the Congo one day.

“I feel very sorry for my mom, we haven’t seen each other in 30 years. There are no words to express this loss. I wouldn’t wish this on any mother,” he said. “It took me 27 years to become a citizen of Ukraine – I almost lost hope.”

“Dad, why everyone is staring at me?” “Because you are beautiful, dear”

In Ukraine, Maksime met his wife. He has been with his Ukrainian spouse for 19 years, and the two share an 18-year-old daughter, Nicole.

Nicole’s integration was definitely smoother than her father’s, but it was not without its challenges. Even as a child, she noticed other children would fear her dad. Boys would cry and she’d remind them, “Don’t be afraid! That’s my dad, he’s very kind.” She never felt different, but would notice unsavory attention from strangers. Maksime encourages her to attend courses, clubs and talk with locals to break down the wall of misunderstanding and prejudice.”

Maksime blesses one of the parishioners.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

The parishioners of the New Apostolic Church sing prayer songs.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska


© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska


© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

In the UNHCR, integration programs help refugees become a welcomed part of their new society. Together with partner NGOs, the UNHCR hosts a range of cultural activities, language courses and women’s clubs where refugees, IDPs and local community members can meet and get to know each other.

The UNHCR also offers self-reliance grants and vocational training for self-employment. That is not only to fill employment and skill gaps, but also to facilitate the start of new businesses that create economic growth, build partnerships with locals, and provide innovative services in their host community.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

Documentation is one of the most crucial ways we can enable the socio-economic integration of refugees”

Obtaining proper documentation is the first step to integration. “Documentation is one of the most crucial ways we can enable the socio-economic integration of refugees,” said Liliia Huzeieva, an UNHCR Protection Assistant. “We provide assistance in the access to the governmental benefits and access to medical services, but undocumented asylum seekers can’t get access to it at all. That’s why it is important to cooperate with the host government to ensure a fast and trustworthy documentation process — only after that can we talk about further integration programs.”

It is also important for refugee families to enroll their children in schools and kindergarten. Women can then work and set up their own small businesses while their children receive an education. Sometimes our specialists receive complaints about xenophobia in schools, so another important part of the UNHCR’s work is to provide culturally appropriate training for teachers.

© UNHCR/Irynka Hromotska

Every two years, the UNHCR conducts a participatory assessment with refugees to understand their concerns and protection risks. This year, we interviewed refugees who locally integrated without the UNHCR’s assistance. In our discussions, they found that legal status, solid language skills, the development of professional skills and establishing local contacts as the main factors contributing to their success. More information on participatory assessment can be found here.

This article was edited thanks to the support of an online volunteer UNV Emily Theodore. Find volunteering opportunities at https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en