In the Czech Republic, almost everyone knows someone Ukrainian.
It might be their classmate, or their mum, a cashier at the local supermarket, or simply someone from next door’s block of flats.
Even before the war broke out, there has been a rising trend of Ukrainian labour migration to the Czech Republic, establishing themselves as the largest minority in the country.
And then Thursday, March 24, happened.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of people fled the war-torn country, dissipating across all of Europe.
From Ukraine’s neighbouring countries as of May 6, Poland has welcomed over 3.1 million refugees, Romania over 850,000, Hungary over half a million, the Republic of Moldova over 400,000 and Slovakia almost 400,000.
But many have not stopped there and have crossed further: largely to the Czech Republic.
As of Sunday, May 8, the Czech Republic has granted temporary protection to over 330,000 refugees.
In these dark times, let me express my deepest solidarity and support also directly to Prime Minister @Denys_Shmyhal and his government. Our response to the Russian invasion will be clear, harsh and as swift as possible. We stand with Ukraine and your people, Prime Minister.
— Petr Fiala (@P_Fiala) February 24, 2022
The government of Petr Fiala swiftly condemned Russian aggression and all its following steps have been in support of Ukraine, its President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the country’s citizens entering the Czech Republic.
The Czech government is one of the largest donors of military aid to Ukraine, sending tanks, rocket launchers, and other weaponry to the war-torn country.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Fiala with his Polish and Slovenian equals were among the first to visit Kyiv in person.
On March 15, they met with President Zelensky to discuss “international assistance and reconstruction of Ukraine”.
Held a meeting with 🇵🇱 @MorawieckiM, 🇨🇿 @P_Fiala, 🇸🇮 @JJansaSDS. Top agenda – international assistance and reconstruction of 🇺🇦. Working together to ensure that the funds & property of the Russian Federation will be paid to Ukraine to restore everything destroyed by 🇷🇺 aggressor. pic.twitter.com/ihmOwwGdIo
— Denys Shmyhal (@Denys_Shmyhal) March 15, 2022
Domestically, the government has presented a monthly aid of 5000 Czech crowns (around £170) to cover refugees’ basic needs.
Similarly, the state offers support to Czechs who welcome refugees in their households or empty flats.
The government estimates that many Ukrainians arriving in the country could potentially end up staying in the Czech Republic – a welcomed prospect.
While dealing with pandemic-induced inflation and crises, in the long-term outlook, the current Ukrainian refugee crisis could benefit the country’s economy rather than send it into additional stagnation.
The government thus justifiably sees potential in the influx of Ukrainians.
Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said that “as a small democracy we [The Czech Republic] were bullied by Soviet and Russian imperialism”, explaining the basics of the deep feeling of empathy that many Czechs encompass.
The Czech solidarity for Ukrainians is not coming only from the government but from the people as well.
Many regional charities collect necessary items for refugees, offering aid to families that have settled in local areas.
Then the charity helps Ukrainians to settle in the community, reducing their feeling of loneliness by introducing them to other families already living in the area and organising collective events.
In conjunction with local non-profit organisations, leisure centres, and cultural institutions, the charity establishes a feeling of community, making the situations easier for the incoming families.
Individually, Czechs help as much as they can.
“It’s important to welcome them into our society, help them not to feel so lonely and pick themselves up,” says Anita Novakova, a business manager at a local supermarket in Zdar.
She has employed two Ukrainian war refugees since the war broke out.
“There are many Ukrainian factory workers in the city, so the language barrier doesn’t matter that much.”
She says that important things are for the arriving refugees to be willing to learn and integrate into society.
Radka Markova, a hairdresser from Zdar nad Sazavou, agrees with her as she received a couple of job applications from Ukrainian females.
“Just this morning, a young lady came here to ask if there are any available positions, the issue was she didn’t speak either Czech or English.”
Radka still decided to meet with her again to discuss options in presence of a translator.
She said: “If she can’t communicate with the customers then I can’t offer her a position because what if she gives a client green hair instead of a haircut?!”
From skepticism to Russian propaganda
The language barrier between Czech and Ukrainian is quite thin but still very noticeable.
Within Slavic languages, you can generally grasp the general context of a sentence, but you do not understand it word-by-word unless they are sister languages from either East, West, or South Slavic regions.
Czechs thus perfectly understand Slovakian and similarly Polish.
Ukrainian is a part of the East Slavic language group, equally to Russian – and that is where prejudice and hatred derive from.
Because even if many Czechs know Russian due to the Soviet invasion and influence during the second half of the 20th century, they refuse to speak it.
Even Radka said that she “really does not want to refresh her memory of Russian.”
While historical grievances might be justifiable reasoning for such an opinion, there is a risk it can generate prejudice and intolerance.
Because despite the overwhelming solidarity from most of the Czech population, there are still some who claim that “Ukrainians and Russians are one bunch”.
There is a strong presence of pro-Russian media in the country that spread not only fake news but Kremlin propaganda as well.
Despite the irrational, blind trust for non-credible news sources, some uncertainty is understandable.
As the Czech government gives billions of Czech crowns to Ukraine, and with the influx of refugees, many worry about domestic issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
High inflation, a worrisome housing market, rising energy prices, shortage of skilled workers, and many other contemporary issues concern people across the globe, not just in the Czech Republic.
These and many other issues, including financing of domiciliary care, specialised nursing, or education should be a long-term focus of the government.
But the short-term financial aid and other forms of the very much needed help for the influx of Ukrainian refugees will not only save many lives but could also potentially benefit the country in the future.
Whilst finding economic advantages in the crisis is nice, the most important is the part about helping people: that should be the priority now.