When the Russian rockets started flying over his region of Ukraine, Nazar Volianiuk, his wife and three kids hastily packed clothes, piled into two cars and fled to the Polish border.
They waited two frightening days in line at a crossing clogged with refugees, scrambling for cover in a roadside forest amid the scream of air raid sirens.
Like many who fled Russia’s invasion a year ago, Volianiuk, 31, and his wife, Natalia, 32, figured it would be safe to return to their home in Lutsk, Ukraine, after a few months.
Today, Volianiuk is settled in a tidy suburban apartment outside Chicago, with a cable company job, kids in school and a supportive community – and no desire to return to Ukraine, even when the conflict ends.
“No chance,” he said, drinking tea in his Chicago apartment on a recent day. “We want to stay here.”
One year after Russia’s invasion sparked Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, more than 8 million refugees are scattered in Europe, the U.S., and beyond. As the conflict they fled grinds on, their new roots grow deeper.
Amid new jobs, languages, and lives hang a consequential question: Not just when to go home, but whether.
How many ultimately return to Ukraine is a question with important ramifications: for refugees, including those with temporary immigration status; for host countries that see tensions as new residents add to their workforce but strain their housing and schools; and for Ukraine’s capacity to rebuild its country and economy.
A United Nations survey that included 43 countries, published in September, found that 81% of refugees hoped to return to Ukraine one day, though most said they plan for now to stay in their host countries.
But as the war drags on, the impetus to return is likely to diminish, experts say.
“The longer it lasts, the greater chance that people really start to envision and build up a life (outside of Ukraine) and not go back,” said Hanne Beirens, who heads the Migration Policy Institute of Europe.
Last year, a European Commission official estimated up to 3 million might decide to stay in other countries in Europe. Other estimates put the total number of Ukrainians settling elsewhere at 5 million or even more.
But accurate forecasts are difficult given the unknowns as the war marks a grim milestone, including an apparent new Russian offensive and a recent poll showing declining U.S. public support for military aid to Ukraine.
For now, millions of displaced Ukrainians living abroad – including more than a quarter-million in the U.S. – are left in limbo as they grapple with questions about their future.