June 2022 update from Kelly Fitzgerald:

A & O, the Ukrainian women who fled Kiev and resettled near Zurich with Kelly Fitzgerald’s help, continue to settle in. They are finding small jobs, like packing strawberries, she reports. Transportation is expensive, so they need jobs close to where they are living. 

In general, European countries are slowly getting better organized about assisting refugees, Fitzgerald says. Switzerland offers refugees more money, but its cost of living is very high. Because it’s been about three months since refugees first arrived, many of their temporary housing situations are ending. To find more permanent places to stay, people are using more formal, official channels rather than the word-of-mouth networks they used in the early days of the bombing.

Fitzgerald has organized a weekly morning coffee at a local family center. Refugees can meet each other and exchange phone numbers and other resources. She is also helping with a backpack project, collecting backpacks and filling them with school supplies for refugee children as they start school.

We talked in late March 2022 with Kelly Fitzgerald, PhD ’08, by Zoom to learn about her work over the last few weeks to support Ukrainian refugees arriving in her adopted home of Zurich, Switzerland. In addition to general efforts, Fitzgerald helped two middle-aged women travel over five days and settle with a host family in Zurich, the first time the women have left their home country.

Kelly Fitzgerald moved to Europe one week after defending her UMass Boston gerontology doctoral dissertation in January 2008. After a year and a half of working in Wales, she married and moved to Switzerland, where she has lived since. She serves as chair of the NGO Committee on Ageing Geneva at the United Nations and teaches in UMass Boston’s Management of Aging Services online master’s program.

Fitzgerald was back in the U.S. in February visiting family when the Russian bombing of Ukraine began. She heard about people getting cash to Ukrainians by booking Airbnb rooms with them with no plans to stay there. Fitzgerald booked a few nights in the capital city, Kiev, with a 56-year-old woman, who she refers to as A to protect her privacy. The two women began corresponding through the Airbnb platform, which translates messages for international travelers. Over the course of a week or so, Fitzgerald kept checking on how safe A and her cousin, O, 48, who lived with her, were feeling.

“As I was getting on the plane to fly back to Switzerland, A was still determined to stay in Kiev and take care of the older people living in her building. She wanted to help in the fight. But while I was flying home, bombs hit near her.” A and O decided to flee. “They hadn’t slept well in two weeks, they were barely eating, and there were tanks out in front of their building. They said it was like living in a movie, it didn’t feel real.”

By the time Fitzgerald landed back home in Switzerland, the two women plus their pet dog were at the border of Ukraine and Slovakia. Texting with them and a refugee logistics man who speaks Ukrainian, Fitzgerald helped the women navigate a harrowing five days of travel. Train fares were free for refugees but the trains and stations were crowded and schedules were delayed. After one hotel overnight stay and much confusion, A and O finally arrived in Zurich.

Fitzgerald found a host home for the women that includes plenty of room for their dog to run outside. Someone donated a computer for them to use. “They are lucky. Tons of people are still living in asylum centers,” she says.

As difficult as the travel out of Ukraine can be, the challenges are just beginning for the refugees, says Fitzgerald. In the U.S., she helped respond to disasters including Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes as well as local disasters in her home state, New Hampshire. In Switzerland, she helps with grassroots efforts to support asylum seekers’ children now living in her adopted home. The Ukrainian refugees arriving in Switzerland face a high cost of living, and most have traveled with Ukrainian currency, which isn’t readily accepted in other countries. Finding jobs without being able to speak the language will be challenging, but companies are opening positions for the refugees, Fitzgerald says.

The Ukrainian women’s first weeks in Zurich have been busy with tasks. Fitzgerald helped them obtain their S permit, which allows them to take jobs and receive health care. They have visited a doctor and received COVID vaccines. They are starting German lessons and learning where the shops are. A has moved from tearful and sad her first few days in Switzerland to grateful. Her ex-husband, who is still her good friend, reports that he is sleeping with his gun. Her 30-something son fled Kiev for a town close to the border with his wife and young daughter; young men aren’t allowed to leave the country.

No one knows how long the war may last or how soon the refugees can return home, of course. Fitzgerald predicts it will be years. Over 13,000 Ukrainian refugees have applied for the S permit and many more arrive every day in Switzerland, Fitzgerald says. Officials estimate 500-1000 refugees will arrive daily in the country of 8.6 million, with 50,000-60,000 refugees expected by the summer. Residents have offered some 60,000 rooms for refugees but the government needs to sort out how to send people to them. Makeshift shelters are starting to open in unoccupied nursing homes and hotels; more are planned.

“You can see the photos of what’s happening to their homes, so many have been bombed,” Fitzgerald says. “But they will want to return to Ukraine, they have families there.”

She worries about the older population still living in Ukraine. According to corona-older.com, a website run by a network of academics, NGOs, and others interested in the wellbeing of older adults in low- and middle-income countries, one in three of those needing help in Ukraine are older people. Their needs include basic supplies such as nutritional supplements and hygiene supplies, the website reports. “So many of them have stayed behind because they can’t leave,” Fitzgerald says. News reports document almost daily bombings of nursing homes, hospitals, and children’s centers.

Fitzgerald is heartened by how quickly her Swiss community has mobilized to support the refugees. She joined a What’s App group text of local hosts and Ukrainians who share resources and updates. As we talk via Zoom, you hear frequent dings of incoming texts. Relieved that A and O arrived safely, she and her friends are now working to help the women’s neighbors in Kiev also flee to Zurich. “It’s been a wild experience,” she says, “with so many grassroots efforts popping up.”

Want to help older people in the Ukrainian crisis? Kelly Fitzgerald recommends this site: https://www.helpage.org/what-we-do/older-people-in-ukraine/

Write to Fitzgerald to learn how to directly support relief efforts—including food, clothing, phone chargers—in the Zurich area.

Read more of our April 2022 Advances newsletter