In Spain’s ‘Little Ukraine,’ those fleeing war find home again

For years, Ukrainian migrants in search of job opportunities found a warm welcome in a small Spanish town. Now, as Ukrainian refugees flee the war, they’re finding shared cultural ties and an outpouring of support in this enclave abroad. 

Joan Mateu Parra/AP
A Ukrainian flag is displayed on the Town Hall of the village of Guissona in Lleida, Spain, March 17, 2022. Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the tiny town of Guissona was known as “Little Ukraine."

As Ukrainian refugees fleeing bombs and bullets at home fan out across Western Europe, few places they arrive feel as welcoming as a Spanish town known for years as “Little Ukraine.”

Even before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine last month, 1 in 7 residents of Guissona was originally from there. Guissona’s population more than doubled to around 7,500 residents, and drew in a lot of immigrant labor, including the Ukrainians, after a regional supermarket chain opened a distribution center nearby two decades ago.

More than 3.5 million people have already fled Russia’s war in Ukraine. The refugees are finding safe havens in small communities on the continent where family and friends who went to find work have put down roots.

In Guissona, refugees aren’t just staying with their relatives. Familiarity with the Ukrainian community bred local sympathy for the refugees’ plight, and Spaniards are making room for them, too.

Miquel Julia, a local businessman, had an empty apartment for sale in the town. Mr. Julia says he’s made many Ukrainian friends in recent years, and when a local cousin of a Ukrainian refugee family asked him for help, he handed them the apartment until it’s safe for them to go back home.

Mr. Julia couldn’t turn a blind eye to the desperate refugees, he says.

“Bad times. Even more so when you see the state in which they arrive, and the stories they bring with them,” he said.

Mr. Julia has lent his apartment to Alona Hrykun, a seamstress from Kyiv, who recently arrived with her teenage daughter and small son.

“My husband stayed behind in Kyiv. He is an ambulance driver and is helping move injured and sick people during the invasion,” Ms. Hrykun said. “I am so proud of being Ukrainian.”

Besides her husband, Ms. Hrykun left behind her mother and grandmother. Both were physically unable to make the trip of around 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) from one side of Europe to the other.

Authorities in Guissona, in northeast Spain’s Catalonia region, have worked hard to avoid the creation of ghettos and to help foreign workers integrate into the community.

Many of the town’s windows and balconies, including at the town hall, are currently draped with Ukrainian flags and antiwar posters and banners.

More than 200 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Guissona so far. They are part of the around 25,000 who have sought refuge in Spain.

“They are getting our full support. They feel protected,” says Guissona retiree Maria Angels Lopez. “We all make the effort to help them and be with them. To stand in solidarity with them.”

Every day since the onset of the war, dozens of locals and newly arrived refugees work at a Guissona warehouse filling boxes with food, medicines, clothes, blankets, and toys to be sent to Ukraine.

Among the volunteers is Alina Slobodianiuk, who arrived here three days ago with her teenage son Maxim and daughter Yana.

They lived in the industrial Ukrainian city of Dnipro where she worked as a public relations specialist at a leading Ukrainian bank. Ms. Slobodianiuk is divorced and her ex-husband is a soldier.

Ms. Slobodianiuk’s left most of her family behind, including her parents, brother, and sister. She says they’re in contact every day, but that her family opted to stay in the hope that the war will end soon.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. Because I love my country. I really love Ukraine,” Ms. Slobodianiuk said. “But I am afraid for my kids.”

The Spanish government was one of the first to adopt special European Union measures in response to the wave of refugees.

Among the temporary measures, refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine are given temporary residency and work permits within 24 hours.

Refugees also have access to public health care, discounted medicine, and free schooling, among other benefits.

Just over 115,000 Ukrainian citizens were living in Spain last year, according to the 2021 census.

The web of contacts through Ukrainian immigrants is working elsewhere in Europe, too.

In a village in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, an hour’s drive from Rome, two Ukrainian women who fled with their small children have found peace thanks to family ties and a local couple.

Tania and Katia fled the Ukrainian city of Lviv a few days after the outbreak of the war, leaving their husbands behind. They are the daughter and daughter-in-law of Halyna, a Ukrainian carer who lives in the village of Belmonte Sabino.

Halyna used to look after the mother-in-law of a local hotel owner, and he is now putting up the two women and their children.

“We are really happy. The Italian people have a big heart,” said Tania, who said she was grateful to the inhabitants of Belmonte Sabino, all of whom they now consider friends.

The Ukrainian women asked that their last names not be used, for fear of reprisals against family in their home country.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

Editor’s note: Check out the Monitor’s comprehensive Ukraine coverage from correspondents in Ukraine, Europe, the United States, and beyond on our Ukraine page.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to In Spain’s ‘Little Ukraine,’ those fleeing war find home again
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today