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Ukrainians Open Their Homes To Crimean Refugees


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.

Here's yet another sign that Russia is firming up its control of Crimea. The Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and much of his cabinet showed up there today. Medvedev announced that Crimea will become a special economic zone with tax breaks to attract investors. Now, Russia says it annexed Crimea at the request of its large ethnic Russian population. But not everyone there is Russian. And even before the annexation, some people were leaving their homes and fleeing. Many people elsewhere in Ukraine are offering their homes to Crimean refugees.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, where the number of newcomers is overwhelming.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Yelena Tarasenka was born and raised in a town near Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. She always considered herself a Crimean and a Ukrainian, but all of a sudden being both is extremely hard.


KENYON: Sitting on a park bench overlooking Kiev's Independence Square, Tarasenka explains that even before the Russian takeover, it was clear things were getting dangerously unstable. Suddenly there were more than 10 times the usual number of Russian troops on the streets, as well as other armed groups. There were Russian armored vehicles on the move and helicopters flying overhead. She took her nine-year-old son and a few belongings to the train station.

YELENA TARASENKA: (Through translator) And when I arrived to the station, the tickets were almost gone. The train was packed, so many wanted to leave. I managed to get a ticket for me and my son and we had to squeeze on board. So many people wanted to leave. They were mostly women and their children. And this was before the referendum.

KENYON: Oleksandra Dvoretska is a young Crimean activist forced to leave her home of 23 years, as Russian forces advanced. She called the government hotline for displaced Crimeans and got no help. She's watching the acting parliament pass a bill about the occupation of Crimea and is shocked to find it doesn't even address the myriad problems facing Crimeans who don't want to be absorbed by Russia.

OLEKSANDRA DVORETSKA: (Through Translator) How will social benefits, pensions, child allowances be paid? How will children be registered for school? Will Crimeans pay taxes to Ukraine? A business registered in Crimea should pay taxes there but nobody wants to pay the Kremlin.


KENYON: Anna Sandalova helps her son enter an address into their car's GPS. They're headed to bring food to a Crimean Tatar refugee and her family, that Sandalova helped relocate to a suburb of Kiev. A public relations manager by profession, she says she didn't know a single person in Crimea, but she woke up one morning realizing that even those who didn't face the bullets in Independence Square had to do something.

ANNA SANDALOVA: And if you see what you have to do, you have to do that. And in the beginning of March, I understood that we have to bring kids from Crimea to more safe place in Ukraine - in Western Ukraine, in Kiev.

KENYON: She created a Facebook page and soon had a thousand people volunteering rooms, apartments, even homes for Crimean families - focusing on mothers and their children. She says many of them feel lost when they arrive, with so many questions that they can't find answer to yet.

SANDALOVA: Do they want Ukrainian passport? Or do they need to change it because they have their lands, their houses there, and they didn't know what to do with that?

KENYON: The recipient of Sandalova's food delivery is Suzanna, a 38-year-old Crimean Tatar mother of four. She asks that her last name not be used because the men in her family are still in Crimea. Suzanna says the feelings of anger and betrayal are still running strong among not just Tatars but all pro-Ukrainian residents of Crimea.

SUZANNA: (Through Translator) Yes, that's true. When the Russian forces came, many people thought Ukraine had abandoned Crimea. They said: Why didn't they resist? We showed our patriotism, why didn't they protect us? And many people still feel that way. But since coming here, I understand that maybe they couldn't do anything after the Yanukovych regime degraded the military.

KENYON: Suzanna says Ukraine also relied on the Budapest Declaration, in which the U.S. and Britain - as well as Russia - committed to protecting Ukraine against aggression. Now she hopes that the new pro-Russian mood in Crimea won't turn to violence against the Tatars who remain, who say they won't be driven from their homeland again.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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