Doctors Who Fled Ukraine War Face Unemployment in the U.K.

Dr. Samer al-Sheikh stared numbly at the photograph of himself on his phone. The doctor pictured at the operating table was now almost unrecognizable to him.

“I lost everything,” he said.

After fleeing the Iraq war at age 16, Dr. al-Sheikh built a life in Ukraine as a trauma surgeon, gaining admiration for his work at the City Clinical Hospital in Kharkiv even as the Russian shells began falling.

But now, the pings of job rejection emails, not racing heart monitors, mark his time. After leaving Ukraine in March 2022, he is a refugee again, this time in Britain, struggling to make a new start with his family and unable to find a medical post commensurate with his skills.

“When you have to lose twice, not every person can cope with that. But I didn’t want my family to see what I saw in Iraq,” said Dr. al-Sheikh, 33, who had a temporary job unloading trucks at a London supermarket but is now unemployed again.

“If nothing works out here, we will have to go back to where we are valued,” he said, referring to Ukraine.

With many Ukrainian hospitals operating with skeleton crews, some doctors who fled the conflict are considering returning and putting their skills to use again. But for those with families, the question is complicated by the fear of putting their loved ones back in harm’s way.

“If I were alone, I wouldn’t have left Ukraine,” Dr. al-Sheikh said. “But my wife asked me to think about our daughter.”

Hindered by language barriers and an onerous process of recertification — Dr. al-Sheikh cited an 800-page application form he would need to complete — many doctors who left Ukraine have given up working in medicine altogether, refugee advocates say. Instead, highly qualified medical professionals often accept low-skill jobs just to get by.

Andrew Geddes, the director of the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, said that it was not uncommon for highly qualified refugees to struggle to find jobs relevant to their skills. “Without the possibility of meaningful employment, you’re almost consigned to the margins,” he said.

There is even a term for it, he added: “Brain waste.”

In Dr. al-Sheikh’s apartment in West London, the relics of his past life are never far away: an engraved pen given to him by a patient whose life he saved; piles of medical records detailing the thousands of hours he spent at his profession.

He opened a cupboard and pulled out a small box filled with surgical tools, then explained what each implement was. But he had little use for them anymore, he said, replacing the box.

He said he went to the job center and told them that he had three majors. “They invited me to come to a job fair, so I took all of my diplomas and went,” he said. “But it was like a bad joke.”

“They offered me a job as a cleaner in the hospital,” he said.

While many Ukrainian doctors struggle to find medical work in Britain, the country’s National Health Service has been hobbled by severe staff shortages that have contributed to long waits for treatment.

In the months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, online job boards across Europe brimmed with thousands of offers for Ukrainian refugees; governments waived visa requirements to make finding employment easier. But one year on, for many Ukrainian professionals, the road to integration has been longer and more frustrating than they had expected.

Dr. al-Sheikh spends his days handing out résumés. His mornings almost always begin with a rejection email, he said. One recent day, it was for a receptionist’s role at a doctor’s office. Before that, he failed to get a housekeeping job at a hotel.

The voluminous application form he needs to complete for reaccreditation requires detailed evidence of his medical career, including patient names and contact details that are difficult to obtain amid the war.

“I’m doing my best,” he said, but he added that the situation had led him to seek treatment for depression.

For now, his wife, herself a cardiologist, bakes and sells cakes to help support the couple and their 8-year-old daughter, Dalia. Their weekly government allowance of 300 pounds, about $370, is not enough to survive, he said, but he remains grateful to Britain.

Draped over his balcony, a flag celebrating King Charles III’s coronation flutters in the breeze.

Dr. Roman Cregg, the president of the Ukrainian Medical Association of the United Kingdom, a support and advocacy group, acknowledged that restarting a career as a doctor in Britain was difficult.

“The prospect of working here is not immediate, and a lot of doctors have been unsuccessful,” he said, adding, “It could take years.”

“It is very boring for them just to sit here,” he said, and the anxiety was compounded because the doctors “see that their skills are needed back home.”

According to United Nations estimates, about 47 percent of the eight million refugees from Ukraine have a university or other higher education qualification.

The overwhelming number of Ukrainian refugees, including medical professionals, are women, some 90 percent, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Many of them are accompanied by children who fled with them.

Dr. Svitlana Sadova, a cardiologist and single mother to 16-year-old twins, spent two decades treating patients affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It is a world away from her most recent role — scrubbing dishes in a restaurant kitchen on the outskirts of London for about $12 an hour.

“How could I have found myself in such a hopeless situation?” said Dr. Sadova, 45.

“I had a good life in Ukraine,” she added. “If I were not responsible for my children, I would have probably gone back already.”

By the end of most restaurant shifts, she said, she could not feel her hands. Her hourly salary was barely enough to feed her family, let alone call a taxi home to the village in southeastern England where she, her twins and her mother live with a host family. Instead, with no convenient public transportation, she often walked the two miles in the dark.

She has since left that job and is again unemployed.

For more than a year, she has made repeated trips to hospitals to hand out résumés, but she said that no one called her back. Sometimes, the frustration overcomes her.

“Some people tell me that I’m strong,” she said, sobbing. “But I’m tired of being strong.”

Some Ukrainian doctors have already made the decision to return home. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 5.6 million people who fled Ukraine have returned — mainly older people who have struggled to adapt abroad.

Even for younger medics who fled the Russian invasion, it can be hard to find appropriate work.

Diana Beliaeva, 24, says she dreams of becoming a family doctor. After working for eight years at the Bogomolets National Medical University in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, she took her final exams remotely from Sweden last summer.

Now living in Dundee, Scotland, Ms. Beliaeva said that she had struggled to find work that fit her experience. The only option was a job as a health care assistant, but that mostly meant cleaning up after other medics, she said.

“It’s really overwhelming,” Ms. Beliaeva said. “Why did I spend so much time studying and now I can just change beds?”

She wrestles each day with her decision to leave Ukraine.

“We are doctors, and now we are having to beg for money from the government,” she said. “You feel that you’re doing something wrong in your life.”

Despite the setbacks, Ms. Beliaeva said that she still had hope and remained determined to carve out a career as a doctor in Britain.

“I want to give back to this country,” she said.

Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.

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