Robert and Tania, both visually impaired Ukrainians, had planned to come to Lithuania to work, but the war in their home country accelerated their decision. After starting a family 10 years ago, they found jobs in Vilnius before renting a dormitory room. Today, however, they are settling in: both are working, Robert is slowly learning Lithuanian, and soon, they plan to return to Ukraine for a short holiday to visit relatives.
Both come from western Ukraine, which borders Romania, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Robert, who is 35 years old, was born in Mukachevo, Transcarpathia. His wife Tania, who is a few years younger, is from Ivano-Frankivsk. Robert injured one eye as a child and the other has slowly weakened as a result of illness, and now he can only see shadows. He is a graduate of a medical college, where he trained as a masseur. This profession is what drove Robert to look for work abroad a couple of years ago, when the sanatorium where he worked was closed during the COVID pandemic.
Why Lithuania? "Maybe, because I found out that a sanatorium in the Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai was looking for Ukrainian massage therapists," says Robert. "I corresponded with them, sent them my documents, a description of where I was working, and when the war in Ukraine started, at the end of March, we came. I met with the administration, but they told me to wait."
Robert and Tania waited three months for a reply from the sanatorium. Unfortunately, they could not get a job there because the sanatorium management decided that it would be too difficult for a masseur with a disability to walk around a large sanatorium alone. The Ukrainian family then decided to move to the capital, Vilnius. The Ukrainians registered with the Employment Service there and, very soon, Robert was offered a job as a masseur in a private massage salon. Tania got a job in a bakery in a supermarket. In Lithuania, both Robert and Tania have already processed their disability documents, are receiving disability benefits and have joined the Lithuanian Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted, who have invited them to take part in the training for new members this fall. Our Lithuanian member also helped Robert to get a work permit for his specialty and provided all the necessary legal information.
Finding a place to live in Vilnius was more difficult, but the owner of the massage salon where Robert works helped. She found a dormitory near her work and rented it in her name. "The landlord didn't want to sign a contract with the Ukrainians," says Robert, "but now we will renew the lease and sign it in our name."
Robert and Tania's relatives and family have remained in Ukraine. "Because they live on the western side of the country, they don't feel the war there very much," says the husband and wife, "only in the first days of the invasion, the airport near us was bombed, and then the refugees from eastern Ukraine started pouring in." For now, Robert and Tania plan to return to their home country for a short holiday, which they will have soon.
The journey to Lithuania was not easy, they recall. First by plane, then by bus. It took a day and a half. “Near Lviv, we came under fire, the road we were on was closed and we had to find another one," Robert recalls. "Then we stood in a long queue at the border. They check everyone, they don't let young men out of the country. There were cases before when the border guards wouldn't even let blind men through without a special certificate from the military commissariat. But when I went, an amendment had already been adopted to allow people with disabilities of the first and second group to leave Ukraine."
Although Lithuanian is considered one of the most difficult languages for foreigners to learn, Robert already understands what his clients and colleagues say to him in Lithuanian, but it is difficult to speak it himself. "It's easier for me to learn when I write the words down. But now I don't have my Braille board, which I used to use when I lived in Ukraine." Tania is worried that her co-workers in the bakery speak Russian, so it is harder for her to learn Lithuanian. Now a visually impaired Ukrainian massage therapist is working on the paperwork to make sure his license is valid throughout the European Union. "Maybe I can attend a course to improve my skills. But I don't want to work in a hospital, I'm fine where I work now."