A Ukrainian refugee works three jobs to support her family

WYWM - Ukraine and Poland
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Zakhida Adylova

Age: 35

Occupation: Zakhida is juggling three jobs: one as a full-time content editor for a media company, another as a private language tutor and a third as a translator between Ukrainian and English.

Lives with: Her 12-year-old daughter Samira.

Lives in: Zakhida, who lived in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv before the war, is now in Warsaw, Poland.

Monthly household income: 55,400 Ukrainian hryvnias ($1,491). Zakhida’s income is currently lower than her total outgoings so she dips into her savings to cover her monthly expenses.

Total family expenses for the month: 77,664 hryvnias ($2,090), with expenses paid out of her Ukrainian account. These expenses are split between Kyiv, where her 76-year-old mother Abibe Kudusova lives, and Warsaw.

A photo of Samira on the left with a Ukrainian flag and Zakhira on the left holding a Crimean Tatar flag.
Samira (left) and Zakhida hold up the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags in Warsaw during the summer of 2022 [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]
Samira with the Ukrainian flag in Warsaw during the summer of 2022 [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Zakhida used to take three or four hours out of her Sundays to stroll along the meandering Dnieper River, which splits the Ukrainian capital in two.

Starting in the bustling, historic Podil neighbourhood, she would make her way to the monument depicting the four legendary siblings said to have founded the medieval city of Kyiv, then pass Arsenalna metro station, the deepest in the world. She would wind through the lush Mariinskyi Park near the rococo turquoise presidential palace and hop on the metro at Kyiv Independence Square to head home.

She would use this walk to soak in the atmosphere of the city she has called home ever since she and her daughter, Samira, were forced to leave their native Crimea after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula in 2014. Her mother Abibe joined them a year later.

Before the war, the family’s apartment in central Kyiv was filled with laughter and warmth. In 2021, Zakhida refurbished her 45-square-metre unit in a Soviet-era block to recreate a little corner of Crimea. The family is Crimean Tatar, a Muslim ethnic minority forcibly deported from their homeland of Crimea in 1944 under the orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In 1993, Zakhida’s family returned from exile to Crimea.

Inside her Kyiv apartment, Zakhida hung traditional ceramic plates on the kitchen walls and laid out carpets made by Tatar weavers.

A photo of Chebureki.
A plate of chebureki, a Crimean Tatar dish [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Twice a year, the apartment would fill with other members of their community to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Zakhida and her mother would whip up a veritable feast of Crimean Tatar dishes including chebureki, which is made from unleavened dough and filled with ground beef or lamb, onions, spices, and fried in oil. In Crimean Tatar tradition, Zakhida explains, “the eve before Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, the spirits of our ancestors come to their relative's house. They are eager to be fed with the smell of a fried dish”. Once the spirits are filled with this smell, she says, “they will pray to God to protect their relatives from evil”.

Abibe was bedridden and partially paralysed when she arrived in Kyiv in 2015 after having had two strokes. Zakhida found a specialist doctor to treat her mother while she and her brother Erfan Kudusov nursed her back to health. By 2022, Zakhida says her mother was like a “new person”, inspiring others to “be a better version of themselves” and finally settling into her new life in Kyiv where she had stability, routine and a cosy home.

Samira, who was two years ahead of her peers at school, would spend the evenings studying online with maths, chemistry and French tutors. Zakhida’s burgeoning career as a producer for a political talk show helped finance Samira’s studies.

On February 24, 2022, the peaceful sanctuary of their home came to an abrupt end. Russian forces surrounded Kyiv, capturing a number of suburbs, including Bucha and Irpin, before running into fierce Ukrainian resistance. Overnight, the bustling capital went into lockdown, as police and special forces scoured the streets attempting to root out Russian saboteurs. Arsenalna metro station became a crowded bomb shelter, while sandbags and plywood were erected around cultural sites like Zakhida’s favourite monument of Kyiv’s founders to protect them from Russian missiles.

After two weeks of relentless air raid sirens and warnings from authorities for women and children to leave the city (Zakhida kept a diary for Al Jazeera during this period), she reluctantly accepted they would have to move once again. So, Zakhida left with her mother and daughter for Poland.

Between late March and early April, Russian forces were pushed out of the areas around Kyiv. Abibe, who had grown tired of moving between Airbnb rentals in Poland, decided she wanted to return to Kyiv. Initially, Zakhida was hesitant about her mother returning home, but in June, after they had changed accommodation four times in two weeks, she accepted Abibe’s decision. “It still was not safe, but I understand freedom was the best solution for her”. After all, she adds, her mother “had grown up in exile, eyewitnessed three revolutions and the annexation of her homeland”.

A photo of Abibe standing next to a decorated Christmas tree,
Abibe travelled from Kyiv to Warsaw for Christmas and New Year [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Today, Zakhida lives in a spacious but spartan apartment in the Polish capital Warsaw.

Prices in Poland are much higher than in Ukraine. Inflation in Poland went up by 16.6 percent in 2022, while prices for food, utilities and housing have all risen by more than 20 percent.

Zakhida also has new expenses. Like many Ukrainians, she contributes towards aid efforts. At the start of the year, she paid 5,218 hryvnias ($140) to help send aid to Ukrainian refugees in Canada.

On top of this, Zakhida’s main earnings are in Ukraine’s currency hryvnias, which has seen its value fall by 25 percent since the start of the war.

All this means she has been forced to take on three jobs to support her mother in Kyiv and her life with Samira in Warsaw.

A photo of Zakhida with a soundboard in the background.
Zakhida working as a producer in 2021 [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

One job requires her to spend eight to 10 hours per day editing YouTube content for a Ukrainian media company. Fortunately, her schedule is flexible, so she can squeeze in one-on-one online language sessions with 18 students weekly. They are mainly Ukrainians – of all ages – looking to learn English but she has also taken on an American student who is learning Ukrainian. She also translates documents for a range of clients, leaving her with little free time.

After a long day of work, Zakhida, with a slanted fringe and shoulder-length hair, appears on a video call smiling and energetic.

“I can't allow myself to show weakness. If I show it, my family will be disappointed. Someone should be an engine,” she says.

Since arriving in Warsaw, she has taken time off only on two occasions and gone for long walks along the Vistula River. “Warsaw feels like Kyiv. It has a river that divides the city into two banks - as the Dnieper river does in Kyiv. It is symbolic things like this I look for,” she says, explaining how she tries to find “positive things” around her.

Inflation graphic
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Still, living under the constant cloud of the war, Zakhida is racked with anxiety and burdened by her enormous financial responsibility, knowing she alone is in charge of the wellbeing of three generations of women.

Samira’s father occasionally sends his daughter money but has otherwise played a peripheral role in her life since his relationship with Zakhida ended many years ago.

As a gesture of goodwill, her landlord in Kyiv has not charged her rent since the war began. However, she still covers the utility bills and sends her mother about 6,000 hryvnias ($161.50) a month for food and other expenses. Abibe, like Zakhida, does not spend any money on luxuries, but she does treat herself to a coffee with a friend once a week at a family-run Crimean Tatar café. Although the café is owned by another family member who would happily foot her bill, Abibe takes pride in the fact the women in her family can cover such expenses themselves.

Between September and November, Abibe needed a series of costly surgeries on her jaw due to suffering from a painful dental condition. The $2,500 it cost tore through almost all of Zakhida’s savings from her previous job as a producer. These savings, which she uses to subsidise her monthly income, have nearly run out. She is now considering looking for a fourth source of income.

Even so, Zakhida says she is in a better situation than in 2014 when she was forced to flee Crimea with a toddler and support a bedridden mother. Referring to her resilience, she describes herself as “unvanquished” and says she is happy to do whatever it takes to keep her “closest people safe and happy”.

Over the course of a month, from December 15, 2022, to January 15, 2023, as part of a collaborative project, Zakhida tracked her expenses with reporter Nils Adler.

Here are the expenses that tested her finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of Zakhida standing in the middle of a street.
Zakhida manages money pressures and a huge workload so her mother and daughter can have stability [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]
Zakhida manages money pressures and a huge workload so her mother and daughter can have stability [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Rent

With the influx of Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, there was a spike in demand for rent, which drove up prices. Despite not having to cover rent for her flat in Kyiv, in Poland, Zakhida pays roughly three times what she used to.

Zakhida found it difficult to find a place at first but eventually secured her apartment in the summer, which came unfurnished. The apartment was larger than what they needed but Zakhida was desperate for her daughter to have a stable environment so she got to work as quickly as possible to cover the cost.

Zakhida's expenses
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

She has added some basic furniture to the apartment but it lacks the warmth and character she cultivated in her Kyiv home. Decorations are a luxury they cannot afford, although Zakhida takes pride in some small pieces from home, like a Tatar coffee set.

A friend of hers who fled Ukraine now stays for free in their spare room along with her three-year-old daughter.

2021: 12,000 hryvnias ($323) per month in Kyiv
2022: Polish zloty 4,000 ($898) per month in Warsaw

A photo of Zakhida (centre) with her brother Erfan (left) and a friend sitting on a table.
Zakhida with her brother Erfan (left) and a friend in her Warsaw flat [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Utilities

Zakhida now pays two sets of utility bills. For her flat in Kyiv, she receives a monthly bill for all services. She has seen a negligible rise in costs. However, electricity is currently unavailable for large parts of the day in Kyiv due to Russia’s systematic destruction of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

In Poland, utility bills are separated by service and vary in payment dates; some require set payments many months in advance, while others are variable and monthly. This makes it difficult for Zakhida to budget accurately. Utility costs in Poland are significantly higher than in Ukraine.

There is central heating in her apartment block, so she cannot turn it off even if it is a considerable expense. However, she would only do this if she was alone. She says it is “absolutely impossible” to let Samira or her friend’s young daughter go cold to save money. For her, their health is simply non-negotiable.

2021: 5,723 hryvnias ($154) per month in Kyiv
2022: 14,506 hryvnias ($390) per month in Kyiv and Warsaw

A photo of people walking through Arsenalna station in Kyiv.
Arsenalna station in Kyiv, the deepest in the world. Back in Ukraine, Zakhida frequently used the metro [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Transport

In Kyiv, Zakhida would always use the city’s metro system, famed for its elaborate station designs. A travel card for 50 metro trips was affordable at 325 hryvnias ($8.7).

For the same price as this travel card, Zakhida can only buy a three-day card for the Warsaw metro system. This has meant that long walks, once a pursuit of pleasure, are now necessary to reduce transport costs.

In Warsaw, she tries to keep her use of public transport to a minimum but she does need to fork out for travel on occasion. In January, she tried to save money by bulk-buying food at a discount supermarket only to find she could not carry the shopping and needed a short taxi ride home.

2021: 851 hryvnias  ($23) per month in Kyiv
2022: 1,180 hryvnias ($32) per month in Warsaw

A photo of Samira holding an award statue on her left hand and an abacus on her right hand.
Samira, who continues to study with online tutors, came second in a mental arithmetic competition in December 2022 [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Mobile telephones and internet

Zakhida now pays for two internet and mobile phone providers - one in Ukraine for her mother and one in Poland for her and her daughter. The internet is more expensive in Poland, she says, and sometimes the connection goes off for short periods, forcing her to switch to mobile data to meet her deadlines, which can incur unexpected charges.

Internet access is also essential for Samira’s education. Zakhida exudes an unbridled pride when speaking about her daughter, describing her as “purposeful, open-minded, friendly, open-hearted and patient”. Samira attends Ukrainian school online and Polish language classes at a local school.

On top of this, she continues online classes with private tutors. It is an expense Zakhida refuses to forgo saying she would rather go hungry than see her child miss out on her education. And for now, it is paying off – Samira has won a series of mental arithmetic competitions, including the international 2019 World Association of Mental Arithmetic Schools (WAMAS) tournament. Samira often sets aside her winnings from these competitions to cover the following year’s entry fees.

2021: 614 hryvnias ($16.5) per month in Ukraine
2022: 1,557 hryvnias ($42) per month in Kyiv and Warsaw

A photo of two cakes, the one on the left is round and the one on the right is a square.
Cakes prepared by Zakhida and Abibe for Eid al-Fitr [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Food

Zakhida and her daughter’s spending on food has skyrocketed since they moved to Warsaw. Zakhida tries her best to keep costs down by never eating out and buying food in bulk once a month from low-cost supermarkets.

Their eating habits have also changed because of the increase in prices. For example, in pre-war Kyiv, she would buy 5kg of halal minced beef a month, which would cost 144 to 160 hryvnias (roughly $4). However, in Warsaw, she has to pay 45 to 70 zloty (between $10-16) per 1kg of halal beef.

They buy cheaper meat now, like chicken, to counter the soaring costs. But chicken is still expensive and Zakhida is careful with how much she buys. It is also more difficult to find places that offer halal meat in Warsaw compared with Kyiv, which means she has less opportunity to look for cheaper alternatives.

2021: 7,307 hryvnias ($197) for a monthly grocery shop in Kyiv
2022: 13,129 hryvnias ($353) per month in Warsaw

A photo of a traditional Crimean Tatar coffee set.
A traditional Crimean Tatar coffee set that Zakhida brought from Kyiv to make her 'feel at home' [Courtesy of Zakhida Adylova]

Five quick questions for Zakhida

1. What is the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I have to cut out all cultural events. I tried to go to cultural events in Ukraine – concerts, theatre and cinema – but here, in Poland, I need to cut all of this out. This month there has been nothing, not even a trip to the café. It is a different life.

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Presents for my mother and daughter. We don’t usually celebrate Christmas but here, I thought it would be nice to surprise them with something pleasant, so I bought Samira a small maths game and my mother some slippers.

3. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Always prioritise your child’s education. I can cut out my own food but I will never take away my daughter's education. The younger generation is the future and we must invest as much as we can in their education.

4. What is your biggest money worry? When you experience so many tough situations like I did in 2014 and now, you know what it is to live below zero but you also know that being depressed will not help. The scariest thing for me is that I allow this [anxiety] all to get the better of me and I lose control of my health and, thus, my ability to work.

5. What is the saving hack you are proud of? Taking on a third job. Even if I felt stressed and tired, I now have $200 more.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera