When somebody leaves their home country to immigrate to a new land they usually do so with the intention of never returning. It’s the classic tale of human migration; moving to where the opportunities are. The world has always worked this way.
When my great-grandparents left Italy, Ukraine, and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, they moved to America to build a new life, to forget the past. Their children became American, and then their grandchildren, and then my brothers and I entered the world….
In my relatively short time in Ukraine, I’ve heard many stories of Ukrainians leaving for the West. It’s a reality and a very popular story, but there’s another story not often told—the one about Ukrainians returning home.
The first time Katya left Ukraine was in 1990, she was two-years-old. Her parents—who lived through the Soviet Union—met secretly in underground churches, were spied on, and constantly threatened by the KGB for decades.
Thus, when her father received an opportunity for an American University education, her entire family was the first to leave Ukraine on a religious visa. The intention, however, was always to come back and use his education to serve the country.
Katya spent six years in Ukraine and returned to America for high school and then continued university. She got her degree and a great job working for an international company Education First, a company with over 46,000 employees in 116 countries around the world.
She first worked for EF in Boston and then got an opportunity as the marketing director in Moscow. After two years of living in the “machine” of Moscow with non-stop parties and traffic, where, “it always felt difficult,” she happily jumped at the new opening to work for the company’s headquarters in Switzerland.
That dreamy Switzerland with fresh air, stability, and pristine beauty… waterfalls replaced oligarchs; immaculate streets substituted the Babushka Mafiosa. She loved her first two years there.
But paradise has its flaws… flaws that can’t be seen in beautiful pictures, but need to be lived through. The Swiss have created a highly-refined culture of societal rules, obsessive timeliness, and a lack of spontaneity. It started to tire her.
EF had brought Katya the world; she had the ability to transfer to any continent of her choosing.
But that voice she suppressed for two years got louder. That voice that whispered, “Why to start over in another country if you can just go home?” It was the voice that defied all cultural judgment around her. How could she go back to Ukraine while having full access to America and the world at her fingertips?
The decision weighed on her; like the humming of a refrigerator—not always heard, but always there. Battles of the mind can be brutal; metaphorically speaking, Kaya’s head was in Stalingrad.
EF is like Google and Facebook in the sense that it’s a lifestyle institution. It’s not just a job, it’s a network, a family, and most addictively: an identity. It’s one thing to leave a job, but it’s another thing to leave a tribe; it takes titanic courage to do so.
Pretty much everybody thought she was crazy with her decision….
A few months ago she quit her job/life with EF and moved back to Kyiv. She humbly lives with her parents now (which she made clear is not permanent). Even though she’s around family, she’s been pushed out of her comfort zone.
“I’m leaning back after leaning in for so long,” she told me.
Often there's cultural resistance for a decision like this. Many Ukrainians perceive this decision as a failure—when someone "gives up" on the abroad, and return home.
To soften the reentry, Katya told me there are many simple gestures of kindness in Kyiv that she didn’t find in Boston, Moscow, or Zurich.
“It started raining the other day and a woman motioned for me to come under her umbrella. We didn’t talk at all, but she walked me through the rain in the most natural way,” she said with a smile.
The action is everything, and no sane person returns to something terrible. Katya is happily embracing reverse immigration, and she’s gone to where she feels her opportunity is.
“Ukraine is a county that accepts me. Why look for something else when it’s all right here?” she said. “There’s a feeling that there is so much more I can do here now than in any other country.”