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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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CRIME

Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

Borys Shyfrin fled as a young child, along with other members of his Jewish family, from the Nazis.

Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

More than eight decades on, the Ukrainian Holocaust survivor has been forced from his home once more – but this time he’s found a safe haven in Germany.

Shyfrin is among a number of Ukrainian Jews who lived through the Nazi terror and have now fled to the country from which Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich launched its drive try to wipe Jews out.

He never wanted to leave Mariupol, where he had lived for decades. But Russia’s brutal assault on the Ukrainian port city made it impossible to stay.

“There was no gas, no electricity, no water whatsoever,” the 81-year-old told AFP from a care home in Frankfurt, recalling the relentless bombardment by Moscow’s forces.

“We were waiting for the authorities to come… We waited for a day, two days a week.”

Bodies of people killed by bombs and gunfire littered the streets, recalled Shyfrin, a widower who had lost contact with his only son.

“There were so many of them… no one picked them up. People got used to it – no one paid attention.”

People scraped by finding what food they could, with water supplied by a fire engine that made regular visits to his neighbourhood.

Shyfrin’s apartment was damaged during the fighting in Mariupol – defended so fiercely that it became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance – and he spent much time sheltering in the cellar of his building.

Became homeless

The elderly man eventually left Mariupol with the aid of a rabbi, who helped the local Jewish population get out of the city.

He was evacuated to Crimea, and from there, travelled on a lengthy overland journey through Russia and Belarus, eventually arriving in Warsaw, Poland.

After some weeks in Poland, a place in a care home was found in Frankfurt.

In July, he was transported to Germany in an ambulance, with the help of the Claims Conference, a Jewish organisation that has been aiding the evacuation of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors.

Shyfrin, who walks with the aid of a stick, is still processing the whirlwind of events that carried him unexpectedly to Germany.

The outbreak of war was a “very big surprise”, he said.

“I used to love (Russian President Vladimir) Putin very much,” said Shyfrin, who is a native Russian speaker, did military service in the Soviet Union, and went on to work as a radio engineer with the military.

“Now I do not know whether Putin is right to be at war with Ukraine or not – but somehow, because of this war, I have become homeless.”

Shyfrin was born in 1941, in Gomel, Belarus.

When he was just three months old, his family fled to Tajikistan to escape German Nazi forces who were occupying the region.

Many of Belarus’s Jews died during the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed a total of six million European Jews.

In neighbouring Ukraine, the once-large Jewish community was also almost completely wiped out.

After the war, his family returned to Belarus and Shyfrin completed his studies, did military service, and settled in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in the mid-1970s.

“Traumatised”

The pensioner seemed philosophical about the twist of fate that has forced him to leave his home.

“Well, it’s not up to me,” he said, when asked about having to flee war for the second time in his life.

His most immediate concerns are more practical – such as how to access his money back home.

“I can’t even receive my honestly earned military pension,” he said.

He recently moved to a new care home run by the Jewish community, where there are more Russian speakers.

As well as helping Shyfrin on the final leg of his journey, the Claims Conference provided him with financial assistance.

It has evacuated over 90 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors to Germany since the outbreak of the conflict, a break from the organisation’s usual work of ensuring that survivors get compensation and ongoing support.

The body had long been helping to run care programmes for Holocaust victims in Ukraine.

But, as the conflict intensified, it became clear such care programmes could no longer be sustained, particularly in the east, said Ruediger Mahlo, the Conference’s representative in Germany.

“Because many of the survivors needed a lot of care and could not survive without this help, it was clear we had to try to do everything to evacuate (them),” he told AFP.

Getting them out involved huge logistical challenges, from finding ambulances in Ukraine to locating suitable care homes.

For many of the frail Holocaust survivors, it can be a struggle to grasp the fact that they have found refuge in Germany, said Mahlo.

They are fleeing to a country that “had in the past persecuted them, and done everything to kill them,” he said.

“Certainly, they are traumatised,” he said.

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