Emilia Dieniezhna conducting an interview during her time as a fellow in the CrossCulture Programme, Berlin 2022

Writer in exile

Journalist Emiliia Dieniezhna fled Ukraine when Russia invaded her country in 2022. Now she is giving her people a voice in Germany.

The interviewer Diwakar Rai and the interviewee Emiliia Dieniezhna belong to the alumni network of ifa's CrossCultureProgramme (CCP). They conducted this interview as part of a journalist training course on reporting on culture and civil society which was offerred by CCP for its alumni.


Dieniezhna is a Ukrainian journalist and activist who began her career as an English translator and went on to work for Ukraine's biggest TV channel. Later, she worked as the Head of Communications and Advocacy for NAKO, a watchdog established to reduce corruption in the Ukrainian defence sector. In February 2022, she fled to Germany with her four-year-old daughter, her mother and her aunt. She now lives in Munich, working as a columnist for Süddeutsche Zeitung and teaching German to Ukrainian children. Her husband remains in Ukraine.

"If I just focus on refugee stories, they miss out on the bigger picture"

What is it like to be a journalist in exile?

Emiliia Dieniezhna: It is not easy. German readers are interested in local stories and, sadly, the western world's concern about the Russian-Ukrainian war issue is decreasing. The expectation of my German audience is different from what I want to write about: they mostly want to read about the life of Ukrainian refugees, especially about the Ukrainian children, how they feel and integrate into German society. But if I just focus on refugee stories, then they miss out on the bigger picture: I want to call for the German government to provide more weapons and save Ukraine. Everyone is dreaming about the end of the war, but it will not come without sufficient efforts. That's why I want to be more proactive and write stories which shape the narrative rather than reflect it.

Emilia Dieniezhna advocated against corruption in the defence sector in her role at the watchdog organisation NAKO in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 2022
Emilia Dieniezhna advocated against corruption in the defence sector in her role at the watchdog organisation NAKO in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 2022 © Emilia Dieniezhna

What do you want Germans to understand about the life of a Ukrainian in exile? 

Emilia Dieniezhna: There are about one million Ukrainian refugees now living in Germany. Most of them do not speak German very well so they are unable to express how they feel. Mothers with children and elderly parents suffer from loneliness. Children who look for solace in new friendships are distanced by the language barrier.

Integration of Ukrainians into German society can be difficult

Germans want to understand why it's hard for Ukrainians to integrate into society, but often Ukrainians do not want to integrate because they hope to get back home in future. There are also some Germans who think Ukraine and Russia are the same. It has become my mission to clear up this confusion in my stories: Ukraine is a completely different country, both in terms of culture and economy. 

You are one of the very few Ukrainian journalists writing about the lives of Ukrainians in Germany. To what extent are your stories able to effect change?

Emilia Dieniezhna: Back in Ukraine, my work as a civil society activist had a much bigger impact. I had direct access to parliament, the ministries and the office of the President. Now it is different: I cannot expect the same in Germany. But my stories have caught the attention of some locals and political figures. My local community has responded and helped me on a personal level. I was contacted by some Bavarians who offered help in hosting refugees, and through my personal contacts I have been able to find accommodation for many people. I have also been in touch with Olga Dub-Büssenschütt, a native Ukrainian who now works on the Migration Council at the Munich City Council. She has become the voice for the Ukrainian refugees and our welfare by raising our issues in local government, and I am glad I can reach out to her and the Council. 

Emilia Dieniezhna left Ukraine in March 2022 and is now a columnist for Süddeutsche Zeitung. Photograph: NAKO
Emilia Dieniezhna left Ukraine in March 2022 and is now a columnist for Süddeutsche Zeitung. Photograph: Maxim Fam

"In every environment there are certain limitations regarding the freedom of speech"

Why did you choose to become a journalist? 

Emilia Dieniezhna: It wasn't a choice I made. A major media company was looking for an English translator to work for them and I thought I would be good at it; on my first day, I thought I had failed terribly and came home really disappointed with myself. But later, the Head of their International Department took me on and gave me a job presenting Bloomberg news to the Ukrainians. Gradually, I started realising that journalism was something I really wanted to do. 

How different is it to be a journalist in Ukraine and in Germany? Is there complete press freedom in both countries? 

Emilia Dieniezhna: I can never say I have 100% freedom because we write for the readers; their expectations often influence what I write about and that brings certain limitations. I want to write about Russia's war, but I know that German society is a bit tired of reading about it and it can stress the readers out. However, we Ukrainians are much more tired and want the war to end more than anyone else. So in every environment there are certain limitations regarding the freedom of speech.

But in Ukraine, for example, I could write openly about anti-corruption. One might expect it to be risky, but it was not: I was never threatened for what I wrote. That was a good sign of democracy functioning in my country. Of course, if one worked for big media groups there could be protocols to follow on how to present sensitive topics, but personally I didn't experience anything like that after the Revolution in 2014. 

Bringing good changes to people's lives

How do you define yourself: as a journalist or an activist? 

Emilia Dieniezhna: I think I am more of a civil society activist who wants to bring change through the things I believe in. Journalism helps me make that happen, but I won't see change for the better just from writing stories. Being an activist is what gives me the ability to help bring good changes to people's lives. 

About the author
Diwakar Rai

Diwakar Rai is a communications specialist who currently works for an international NGO based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He holds a Master’s degree in Project Management. He completed an internship at Deutsche Welle and occasionally publishes articles and video reports on important issues for DW Asia. At the weekends, he often cleans forest areas and enjoys stargazing with his guitar.