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"A forced departure is just like losing a loved one or a beloved job, only in this situation we are losing our homeland."


"At one point I just didn't know what to do next, I fell into despair. It feels like you are floundering but you  don’t understand why - complete pointlessness".

Alena Falkovskaya is originally from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, where she graduated from university with a degree in psychology, and almost immediately emigrated to Israel. Since then, more than ten years have passed, Alena has moved to four more countries, in each of which she continued to study psychology and work, and mostly with immigrants (it just so happened that among the clients of this psychotherapist there were and still are mostly immigrants).

What do such people usually seek the help of a psychotherapist for? and why "psychologists also cry"? Alena told media Loft in an interview. We, in turn, asked her not only our own, but also your questions, which you have sent us in direct.

- Alena, how did you start working with immigrants?

- I don't want to disappoint you, but there is no such specialization in psychology (smiling - author's note). Let me explain. When a person asks me how to adapt faster in a new country, I always ask a counter question: what does it mean to adapt? Did something bad happen to you, was it something scary? After all, these are phenomena that accompany human life in any place, you don't have to move for that. Emigration just aggravates a lot of these things.

So I do existential therapy, which involves exploring the person and their feelings, and I work with all areas of life. It just so happens that I myself moved in 2010 from Ukraine first to Israel and then from Israel to Germany. From Germany I went to Riga for another year, and then I studied in Lithuania for a long time at the Institute of existential psychotherapy... I spoke about it on Instagram, and I guess people with similar fates started to reach out to me, and gradually I got a lot of clients.

- How did your emigration begin?

- I graduated with a master's degree in psychology, but I worked as an English teacher in public after-school institutions. I liked it, of course, but, on the other hand, I didn't want to teach in clubs until I retired, so I decided to try and change my life somehow.

Even though I was 21, the move was hard. There were no smartphones, I walked around the city with a paper map. I toiled at a cleaners during the day and played the violin at weddings at night. I was a clothes salesman in a shop, and a nanny too. I did everything, because otherwise I wouldn't have had enough money to pay the rent. In short, a time of survival, to be honest.

That's why I understand the feelings of those who moved into the unknown: on the one hand it was my conscious choice, on the other hand - from time to time I did not understand why I had made that choice and I wanted to go home...

I tried to get my education in Israel, but to do that I actually had to go and study all over again (the system was very different from the Ukrainian one), so I was not ready.

Then my then husband-to-be was offered a job in Germany, and we went there. But things only got worse: I couldn't work or study there - I didn't have the necessary documents. Then, however, I won a grant for my non-formal education project, and I lived in Riga for a while. When the project ended, I went back to Germany again. That's when depression overwhelmed me, and for the first time in my life I went to a psychologist on my own. She not only helped me as a client but also told me about the Lithuanian institute where I subsequently studied.

- Alena, when you were depressed, did you realize what was happening to you and why? And at what point did you decide you couldn't cope on your own?

- "Psychotherapists also cry" is my motto in life. My colleagues and I even joke, asking "where is the psychotherapist who doesn't go to anyone else?”

Some angrily write: "you yourself are a psychotherapist, but if you're a hairdresser or manicurist, do you not go to these professionals? Where's the logic in that? Everyone has serious worries in life: the loss of loved ones, moving - psychologists are no exception.

...I remember I just stopped understanding what to do next, I fell into despair. But even specialists in a moment of depression don't always understand what exactly is going on with them.

- Can you describe how you felt?

- There was some absolutely childish confusion. Generally any therapy is aimed at making a person understand that they always have a choice in life and that they are free to make this choice. And I thought at the time that there was simply no choice at all. And there was a sense of hopelessness. It seems like you're floundering and you don't understand why - total meaninglessness.

- Emigrants often find jobs where lower qualifications are needed. There is, of course, no such thing as an embarrassing job. This being said, it doesn't take away from the experience - you used to be a highly skilled professional, and now you're cleaning other people's houses...

- Once, in Israel, I saw an opening in an English-language newspaper. They had a paid service: after reading an article, a person could call a teacher and discuss the material with him to practise English. I had two interviews and was sure that I would get the job - after all, I taught English in Dnipropetrovsk!

But after the third interview they turned me down. I felt as though I had been knocked down. I probably walked around with this burden for a year - I couldn't even look for a job again. It was so devaluing, it was like I was made to feel like I was a  nobody here.

I didn't even apply for a job as a psychologist. But English!

The feelings one experiences in these circumstances are complicated. I remember how I went and cried... But then again: you have to pay for your flat, so you go and find another job that's easy to get.

I think at such moments it is important to see some perspective, to make a plan. But many emigrants stay at that level forever: they find a job that more or less suits them in terms of money, and that's it. They can then spend the rest of their lives complaining that there I was someone and here I am nothing.

It can really break you: "If I didn't get a job right away, no one needs me here, it's not worth learning the language and it's not worth doing anything". At some point the strength runs out and the person is left in this state: "Fine," they think. People stop promoting themselves: they complain, but do nothing. It takes strength to move forward.

- It is much easier to move forward now than even ten years ago - there is more information, and it is easier to get it...

- Yes, ten years ago we were travelling as if we had our eyes closed, without money or preparation. If you asked me if I would be ready to repeat it,I would say no. It seems to me that going unprepared is an emigrant's biggest mistake. You have to look for information. Even if you moved involuntarily, still: read, learn, analyze - and it will be easier for you to accept changes.

- How long do people take to adapt to this kind of change?

- There is almost always a familiar pattern: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Don't think it's only about loss or grief. It also applies to other major life changes. There is also a concept in psychology called the "bathtub of change". It looks roughly like the picture and consists of four compartments.

First, a person decides to leave. Then they face a reality which does not coincide with their beliefs: the food is different, they cannot find a job, they have no friends. This provokes stress, and people during this period usually do not even give themselves a chance to look around and think about what they really care about, what they need, why they are here in the first place.

Instead, they make decisions from a point of desperation. And then they move on to the third stage - they run for some kind of job, look for someone they know urgently. Many do not reach the fourth stage - the growth stage - because they are simply thrown back: after all, if the work is not right, and their acquaintances are not interesting, the person will not feel joy and a resource for new decisions will not appear.

Meanwhile, it is at this point that a person has to think about some decisions that could be made in order to start growing in the fourth stage. This is why I tell my clients that it is important to let their bitter feelings be, not to skip this stage, but to live it.

"Yes, it's hard for me, it's hard for me, I don't know what to do" - just talk to yourself about it, hear yourself, think about it. It doesn't mean you have to sit and suffer, no. Rather, it means realthat any emigration is really hard is very, very important.

I have several thousand comments under my Instagram post on this topic. And some write that it was easy for them. I'm very suspicious of that, because emigration is a lot of stress and it's hard.

- You said that preparation for emigration is very important. But many people nowadays move forcibly. Is it possible to prepare for such a departure?

- No, of course, the very word "forced" contradicts this. The only thing that can help is crisis therapy. For example, many of my colleagues and I work with Ukrainian refugees for free.

As for some kind of advice...

Uncertainty, as a rule, is very hard for people, many people even have panic attacks because of it. Forced departure is exactly the same loss as the loss of a loved one or a beloved job, only in this situation it is the loss of our homeland. The feelings will be similar.

Certainly, people fleeing war or repression will have post-traumatic syndrome, and it's not even a one-year story. After all, they are faced with existential questions: what is human life worth in general, what is its meaning and so on. It's hard for a person to answer them, and if you have to find a roof over your head and think about what to feed your children, then there's simply no time to look for answers.

I recently did a lecture on how to talk to children about war and we came to the conclusion that you first have to accept reality as such. Yes, it's so horrible. There's a war going on. Things are really bad and you shouldn't even try to compare this life with your past life. This comparison will only further stifle, inhibit and make you suffer. Things will never be the same as they were.

It takes a long time to accept this fact. But when it is slowly taking place, it allows you to move on. Otherwise, a person will spend the rest of his life pining after the old times. Doesn't sound very appealing, does it?

- Readers even sent in the following question: "For eight years I've been living with the thought that I'll go back home, and everything will be there".

- I would immediately ask a counter question: "Why wait? What has happened that a person lives for eight years and doesn't come back?"

- I would suggest that return from emigration in the post-Soviet space has a negative connotation. Emigration itself is often equated with defeat. In short, you will never be "on the horse" in the eyes of society - not if you leave, much less if you return...

- Therein lies the paradox.

So, the everyday life in his homeland did not suit him and he left. But he is not satisfied with everyday life in the new place either. Then what has to happen to make them feel good and comfortable?

- How do people respond?

- They have different answers. Importantly, you have to discount the current situation: now, those who are fleeing Russia are simply afraid to return. Some really think that if they go back, it will be a defeat. Some people say that they don't like their mentality here, but they don't like the standard of living in their home country.

So there is such a rush all the time. Why? Most often it is because integration has not happened. When it happens, you will probably miss your home country sometimes, but you will stop wanting to go back all the time.

There are generally four strategies of acculturation (adaptation):

  •     Staying in two cultures at the same time (home and host).
  •     When one adopts only the new culture.
  •     Staying in the old culture only.
  •     When one rejects both cultures (rare).

In addition, adaptation is usually divided into psychological and practical - and they are interrelated in many ways. When one is well received, when one is welcomed in society, adaptation is of course milder. The process itself is usually presented by researchers as a continuous upward trend.

But sometimes there is another tendency: first there is admiration and immersion into the new culture, and then the person feels frustration and disappointment and wants to leave...

- How long does it usually take to adapt?

- It always depends on the individual, but in the vast majority of cases it is long and difficult.

For example, some people get divorced after they emigrate, because moving always exacerbates difficulties in the relationship. Or age, it matters too. I moved when I was 21, and my future husband - at 16, and we had a completely different perception of emigration.

Or another point: my husband went to Germany on a job offer, and I followed him. And you know, since I didn't deal with any bureaucratic paperwork it was even harder for me, because when another person handles all the issues for you, it makes you completely non-sufficient in another country. You don't understand trivial things: how to pay bills, how to order a parcel - it's clear that with this kind of situation you won't integrate soon.

No one is waiting for us anywhere - it's an axiom, it has to be accepted in the first place.

The most common question I am asked is "how does one then feel at home?" But there are different interpretations of home in philosophy: our body is a kind of home and also home is the language we speak.

Imagine: one does not learn the language, one does not need it for work and has no friends among the locals. It seems comfortable. But the moment our little house meets other houses, we don't understand how to interact with them. So, my advice is to start learning the language wherever you work. It can at least partly give you a sense of home.

Sometimes people after moving say, "I'm not going to learn the local language, let them learn mine if they need to. I think this is from insecurity, from fear. Don't be afraid, please - in fact anyone is capable of learning any language, at least on some domestic level. I find this notion of home in the language to be key and important when moving.

I know five languages to varying degrees and can communicate in them. It's paradoxical to me that some people don't see it as something to be proud of, but treat it as some kind of compulsion. So what is wrong with learning another language, even if you move away later and it is no longer useful to you?

- Generally speaking, it was not very pleasant to hear that no one is waiting for us anywhere...

- Unfortunately, neither benefits, nor comfortable living conditions, nor other assistance change this fact. But you see, the thing is... This: "Since no one's waiting for me there, I'm not going" - that's shifting responsibility.

So they don't wait, so what! Many people come, and when they come to some difficulties, they answer the question "why do we have to go through that" with the answer "well, it just happened, it just happened". No, you made that decision, even if the circumstances prompted it. The ultimate choice is always ours.

So this "not waiting" doesn't mean that you can't build your home abroad, and I'm certainly not referring to walls here. Home is about your values, it's about satisfaction in life, it's about what makes you feel happy. Of course, if you work at a job you don't like, if you don't have friends that you feel comfortable around, how can you feel at home? You will curse the place you are in every day! You won't feel at home.

A man is responsible for his own life and no one will do anything for him, no matter what country he is in. You have to ask yourself why you are moving and answer yourself honestly.

The answer "I don't know" is also honest. When you answer like that, you will demand less from yourself, you won't expect great results. And that will be your experience, which you will then integrate into your life. Likewise, if you go to become a minister or something like that you will certainly face disappointment.

I've met in my practice people who also live in two countries because there is something in each of them that they are ready to be there for. There is nothing wrong with that either, although some people think that if they move, now they shouldn't visit their home country often. Once a year is enough, they say. But why? Why not every three months? (If you can, of course). This is also some kind of stereotype!

I have a client in Germany, for example, who doesn't go home because she can't show when she arrives that she's doing very well, she can't make an impression. She's insanely tired of this tension, but she doesn't see a way out of this situation either. It's also an immigrant complex, that if I go abroad, everything has to be perfect.

- Yes, the grannies on the bench outside the entrance hall come to mind, who know that their daughter/son/nephew went abroad and will judge them if they are not respectable enough...

- Another client of mine couldn't buy a bike for three years. She said: "I don't know anything about them and I don't want to look like a fool when I come to the shop". Even though there are professional salespeople there... And it's the same with this homecoming.

As if you have to be an expert on moving abroad if you dare to do it.

Why try to live up to the expectations of people who haven't even told you what their actual expectations are? It's like living someone else's life all the time, and in the way that it is purely in your mind.

In reality, the grannies at the porch, most likely, do not care about you at all. Understand that this is your experience and yours alone, and that experience is not going anywhere. A person who has tried to leave at least once will never be the same. They will look at the world more broadly or more narrowly, but always in a different way. So both attempts to teach each other something by those who have left or those who stayed behind are an absolutely futile exercise, because life changes in both places.

By the way, I'm often asked about my experience of emigration, but my experience is mine alone. You have to develop your own and integrate it into your life.

- When emigrants come to their home country, they often find it difficult to communicate with their loved ones.

- This is a big problem for my clients. I, too, once came to visit my parents after a long break and they had renovated and the whole flat was different. In such a situation, you can catch the feeling that you don't belong here or there. This increases the feeling of loneliness and misunderstanding. Is there a manual on how to deal with this? No.

It's important to prepare not only for the move, but also for the fact that relationships with people will never be the same as they were before you left. Because you won't come back the way you were before you left either; people will be different; the circle of communication in your home country will narrow over time.

This is absolutely normal, because any relationship is work, especially long-distance relationships. It's insanely difficult to maintain them. So, if people try to do it, it means that really necessary connections are left.

- We got a lot of questions about guilt towards elderly parents: "How to get rid of the guilt of leaving my parents there and leaving for a better life?", "How to get over the fact that I left my parents?".

- When a person says that they have "left their parents" it is not a question of emigration. What does it mean to "leave" or "leave for a better life"? Should one have chosen a worse life but to be with them? It is again a question of whose life you want to live.

It may sound cynical, but I see it as a merger of children and parents. They are not one, they are separate people. It's understandable that there is love and a warm relationship. However, if you choose life for yourself, it doesn't mean that you don't love them or that you are a bad child. Why can't you live the life you want? If you don't realise this in time, you will regret it both ways: if you leave and if you stay. This feeling is very corrosive and often spoils a person's whole life.

That's why I would look into what's going on there, in this child-parent relationship.

We are all thrown into this world through no fault of our own - that is one of the given. Then why do we owe our parents something or do children owe us something? No, we are separate people and it is important to give ourselves the opportunity to live our own lives. If we don't have our own desires, we will automatically fulfill someone else's.

- Readers also asked how to make it easier for an elderly person to move.

- Oh, my mother emigrated at 56, got a green card and left the Ukraine. She's a mathematician, assistant professor at the university, but she gave it all up and decided to give it a try. It was incredibly hard at first, she was even seriously depressed, but I wouldn't emphasise age here.

It's understandable that there's less strength, more trials behind one's back and it's harder for one to, as one thinks, "start all over again". But you can try to abstract away from that, because you can do different things at 50 and at 60.

The main thing is to give yourself time to look around: it might not work out, but at least you'll try. Of course, there will be difficult internal processes, reevaluation of life, and you can't prepare for that, and there's no getting away from it either. However, you can try to find acquaintances, study the local culture, look for some support groups.

- There was, by the way, a question about young people, too: "How do you persuade a teenager to move because of the war, if he doesn't want to at all?

- If it's really about security, children should be removed in any way, even by force. In all other cases, you have to sort out what your wishes are and what your child's wishes are. You can also try to negotiate: on what conditions the children are willing to move, what you are willing to do. Maybe they are afraid of something that has never even occurred to you! Discuss these fears and expectations within the family. This is very important! But be careful: You don't have to talk about your fears, you talk about the children's worries.

- Thank goodness for social media - now we can quickly make friends in a new place. Although, most often the circle of communication will be conditionally Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking. Do you have to get acquainted with locals?

- It is unlikely that they will become your best friends. For example, my husband and I only socialise with a few Germans from time to time. So if you feel comfortable in a Russian-speaking community, that's fine. For example, there are several Russian-speaking cities in Israel. In Berlin, I know such neighbourhoods, too, and people are perfectly comfortable there.

This being said, I would still make an effort and try to get to know the locals, because it's an opportunity to understand the culture, as far as integration is concerned. You get to know how people behave, how they think, and you will feel better.

It's true that if such introductions don't happen in the first few years, they are unlikely to happen later on.

- Do you think toxicity in emigrant chat rooms and communities really exists? More than once I have heard from emigrants: "here are Armenians/Belarusians/whatever support each other, but ours...", with ours being the variable...

- Here, in Munich, there are really strange conversations in local Russian-speaking groups, like "it's impossible to live here on five thousand euros". This makes you shrink back at that moment and think: "Yeah, but I go to the cheapest shops". Or, for example, refugees come now and write that they are looking for a flat and are willing to pay, but the reply is: "There's definitely no place for you here. Why is that? Why did you find one and they won't?

It's also strange, because there are a lot of people who feel lonely here, but they push away potential mates. I think it stems from the fact that people try to measure who had a harder and more difficult time on the immigrant path. However, feelings cannot be compared, they are all valuable.

There was a story in Lithuania when anyone could write about their losses on the crisis therapy centre's website. One eight-year-old boy wrote that he was very upset about the death of his hamster. They attacked him, saying, "We have loved ones dying here, and you're talking about a hamster. The point is though, that it was a loss for him too!

So it's not a question of where you buy your groceries; it's a question of how happy you feel. Everyone's journey in emigration matters.

- Many questions have come to us from Russians - what to do about Russophobia, how to react to rudeness, reproaches and so on.

- This is a difficult issue for me, as I am acutely affected by what is happening in my native Ukraine. At the same time, I have immigrant clients from Russia, and when the fighting started, they asked me if I would refuse to work with them. And for those who did not ask me this question, I myself asked what it was like for them to work with me...

So, what I think.

It seems to me that proving in the current situation that "I am against the war" is useless. It's like telling a depressed person not to be sad - you won't convince them of anything. Equally, why convince people, many of whom have lost everything that you have nothing to do with it?

The other question is, what do you do? You know, get on with your life is probably the right answer. I have a client from Moscow who has been living in Ukraine for six years and she does not even have a residence permit, I think, and she speaks Ukrainian badly. Nevertheless, she was a volunteer in Bucha and Mariupol. Then one day a Ukrainian woman came up to her and pulled a knife on her... For being Russian. I was shocked. And my client said: "I understand her." She didn't stop volunteering after that.

It seems to me that the right thing to do now is to take care of yourself and help your neighbour if you need it. And if someone says unpleasant things to your face, tell them how you feel in return. If you are ashamed, say so; if you are sorry, say so too; explain calmly that you are trying to help. Proving that it's not your fault is useless, believe me. Because after all...

What the Ukrainians hear now is that everybody is not to blame, and at the same time a huge number of people are dying!

For example, a colleague told me that he came from a small Lithuanian town where there were mass murders of Jews during the Holocaust. When he found out about it, he felt guilty, even though he hadn't even been born yet. In my opinion, that's how it works: your passport is what identifies you. My husband is from Russia and many of his relatives live in Moscow, and I am disappointed that none of them have yet called my father, who is now in Ukraine, and expressed sympathy.

- But you have not given up on your Russian clients?

- No, of course not. Working with a psychologist is a long and fairly intimate process, and to abandon someone halfway through would be a kind of betrayal.

By the way, I have a client who has enormous anxiety about being harassed in Europe because of her Russian passport, and she doesn't want to go back to Moscow either. But I speak openly with my clients, and if our positions,more or less, coincide, of course we continue to work.

- Our readers also asked how to choose the right country to emigrate to.

- You have to go where you want to be. For example, I love Israel, but 35 degrees Celsius and 85% humidity are unbearable for me. I remember at one point even walking down the street and thinking, "My God, will this last forever?" So it wasn't for me.

So you have to see what's for you and what's not. Then again, you can't know everything beforehand, so try it! It's not forbidden, is it?

- There was another question: in my new country there are no personal boundaries, everyone touches the baby, I get angry, what should I do?

- Draw your own boundaries. It's not about emigration again, it's about you. If I'm walking my dog and someone wants to pet it, I can say no because it's my dog and it's not a toy. Especially not a child! So it's about a mum setting her boundaries.

- Readers also asked how to stop worrying all the time about what's going on back home.

- For example, I've met people in my practice who seriously feel guilty about the worsening ecological situation on the planet. Maybe you also feel responsible for what is happening in your homeland? After all, a person identifies themselves with the place where they were born and raised, and they cannot deny it. Although, of course, there are those who do not care - again, we are all different.

Then there are those who read the news endlessly and find an excuse not to go out in real life. It's very similar to some mothers on maternity leave: the mother unconsciously covered herself with the child and cannot get out of the cocoon...

In each case, you have to figure out why you are stuck in this agenda. It is very important, of course, but it should not replace your real life. In moments when you feel physically sick of the news, the flow of information must be limited.

There is no other way.

In general, it seems to me that a person who feels at home will have a healthy attitude towards any news, because the feeling of home is always a feeling of security.

By the way, many philosophers write that home is the way. I like that concept too, because I also think that a Groundhog Day-like everyday life is only an illusion of home. You have to be prepared that your desires, your values and that very feeling of home will change from time to time - and that's perfectly normal, because life is dynamic and we are dynamic in it. Once you are aware of that, you can hit the road!

Interview by: Paulina Mironovic
Photos taken from the internet


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