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UKRAINE

‘It feels like a dream’: The Ukrainian refugees arriving in Berlin from war zone

With Russia's attacks on Ukraine intensifying, millions of people have had to flee their homes, with many seeking refuge in Germany. Tamsin Paternoster met some of them - and the volunteers providing support - at Berlin's main station.

Three-year-old Margarita and her mum stand at Berlin's main station.
Three-year-old Margarita and her mum stand at Berlin's main station. Thousands of refugees are arriving every day from war-torn Ukraine. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Berlin Hauptbanhof is one of Europe’s biggest train stations but normally quietens down after 10pm when all shops have shut, trains are less frequent and only the 24/7 McDonalds is still accepting customers. Since February 25th however – the day after Russia invaded Ukraine – the station has gradually transformed as a greeting point for tens of thousands of people who have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods to find refuge in Germany and beyond.

They include Anna, a 29-year-old who works in marketing and is from just outside Kyiv. She had been travelling for two days before arrival at the station. First to Lviv in western Ukraine and finally to Berlin on a train through Poland.

These monsters came to our house on the third day of the invasion, I live 15 minutes from Kyiv,” says Anna, describing the invasion. Like many others, Anna’s family rushed to save whatever they could before leaving – including their pets. “We also took our animals, two cats and one dog, they are super stressed right now, especially the cats who are used to being at home,” she says. 

‘Anxious about everything’

Taking an escalator down to the underground floor of the station there is a bustle of activity. On the board behind a makeshift ‘Information’ hub, 10 volunteers, wearing high-visibility jackets with signs stuck on with tape that read: ‘Ger/Eng’ or ‘Ukr/Rus’ – indicating the languages they speak – are frantically taking people’s questions.

Refugees wait in Berlin main station.

People who have fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion sit in Berlin main station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Hanschke

Volunteers that speak Ukrainian or Russian are the most in demand, with German and English speakers repeatedly getting turned away or told to come back later. One volunteer named Anya, a 23-year-old student studying in Berlin says: “I’m half Ukrainian and half Russian, half of my family now are in Kharkiv, and I’m really, really anxious about everything. I thought it would be better than checking news and being worried to just come here and help.”

READ ALSO: How people in Germany can support Ukraine

On a board behind them, the train times are scribbled in blue ink: 23.20 from Prague, 22.10 from Warsaw. A volunteer with a megaphone stands up and announces to the groups of volunteers: “Okay, there is a train arriving in twenty minutes, I need eight people.”

The volunteers help carry the bags of those arriving, who are often exhausted and disorientated, and guide them to the main information point. They are then re-directed to stalls containing supplies for children, information on their next train, free cat food and dog kennels, a Covid- 19 testing centre and a large food and drink hall.

Cardboard signs have been taped up around this makeshift welcome centre, offering translations and directions for those arriving. Most are women with children of all ages: multiple toddlers are scattered around taking advantage of sweets offered to them by volunteers, a group of teenage boys are charging their phones in preparation for more rounds of online games.

Tamara Cycman, a 37-year-old freelance designer who has lived in Berlin since 2014 helped set up a ‘kids corner’.

“I wanted to help give the children arriving something to do, so I got a trolley full of old papers and pencils and watercolours that I had,” she says. “We just sat down and told passing children and their mothers who were standing if they wanted to come and draw with us while they were waiting. It escalated quickly.”

Volunteers from Berlin set up a kids corner in the station for refugees. Photo: Tamsin Paternoster

Cycman, who has been volunteering since late February, commented that she had noticed two trends as the war went on. “One is that there are a lot more people, and refugee centres in Berlin are already full,” she says. “Another trend is that the more time is passing, the worse the state of the people who are arriving. They look, obviously, a lot more tired, and they have been travelling for much longer or left scary situations behind as the conflict gets worse.”

Two weeks ago, Berlin recorded 1,300 refugees arriving by train. At the weekend the Berlin Senate Department for Integration, Labour and Social Affairs recorded an estimated 5,200 people arrivals from Ukraine into central station, with 9,000 arriving last Wednesday alone.

It’s hard to determine exactly how many people have arrived. Under normal circumstances, Ukrainians are allowed to enter Germany without a visa for up to 90 days. However, EU countries have already agreed to apply a special rule that lifts visa rules and eases the process. After registering as a war refugee, people are entitled to support but may be transferred from Berlin to another state in Germany.

It is clear that governments are overwhelmed. “Berlin can’t do it alone,” the capital’s mayor Franziska Giffey said last weekend. Readers of The Local have also reported confusion and difficulty in finding resources and information from authorities. 

A spokesperson for the Berlin Senate told The Local: “No one can tell you the exact number of Ukrainian war refugees, only those who have been accommodated by the State Office for Refugee Affairs (LAF), because many also arrive at the main railway station and then travel on.

“Berlin accommodated 900 people on Wednesday. A total of 8,900 people have accommodation in Berlin.” On Sunday, 1,000 people were accommodated by the LAF in Berlin.

READ ALSO: How is Germany supporting refugees from Ukraine?

The federal police say an estimated 109,183 refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Germany since Russia invaded the country. 

In terms of numbers, the amount of people arriving from the war zone has the potential to exceed the last time Berlin’s volunteers rallied around a similar crisis: in the summers of 2015. At its peak, after repurposing Berlin’s Tempelhof airport to accommodate people arriving, the local government struggled to house the 600 to 700 refugees arriving daily leading to tension between Berlin City Hall and individual districts over the use of local sports halls as shelter.

‘All my stuff is gone’

At the station, many people arriving in Berlin have been taking trains to other parts of Germany or Europe. German train provider Deutsche Bahn has offered a ‘helpukraine’ tickets, making travel for Ukrainian people free across Germany.

Signs directing refugees from Ukraine to supplies in Berlin main station.

Signs directing refugees from Ukraine to supplies in Berlin main station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Those who want to stay in Berlin are directed to the arrival centre at Oranienburger Strasse 285 where they are offered a room and meals while they wait to be granted a residence permit. Others have taken advantage of people offering private accommodation on platforms such as Unterkunft-Ukraine.de, which has offered 307,240 beds across Germany since the start of the crisis. Until a few days ago, Berliners were showing up at the station with signs and being matched on the spot with people arriving off trains. Volunteers cite safety concerns for refugees as a reason why this was stopped. 

Requests for accommodation, donations and general organisation pop up on a Telegram channel titled ‘Ukraine-Berlin Arrival Support’. The channel is just one of many, and as of Friday last week had 13,509 members. It is a near constant buzz of information, with repeated notifications for volunteers to be on the lookout for potential human traffickers or suspicious people. An increase in police officers and private detectives patrolling the area has occurred in recent days.

READ ALSO: ‘Could have been us’: Why British-German couple took in Ukrainian refugees

“I am waiting until 9am, I will stay here overnight. My train to Stockholm leaves in the morning and I will go join my friends there.” says 27-year-old Maria from Kyiv wearing pink boots and a matching jacket, sitting on one of the station’s hard benches with headphones to block out the noise. She had left Kyiv two days ago.

Maria is not alone. As nighttime arrives and the flurry of volunteers winds down, groups of people with children of all ages and pets of all kinds sit down in small groups, preparing for a cold night in the station before another train takes them all across Europe to join friends, distant relatives or strangers. Volunteers have appealed to Deutsche Bahn to make the station warmer, but have been rebutted by claims that this would be a fire hazard.

Anna is still waiting, trying to figure out her next steps. She tells me: “I had a perfect life, and a perfect job and now everything is broken. I have one hoodie with me, all my stuff is at home. Right now, it’s not like reality, it feels like a dream.”

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UKRAINE

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
 
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
 
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
 
 
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant
“Sentimentai”.

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.

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