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UKRAINE

Can Germany cope with the influx of refugees from war-torn Ukraine?

Since the start of Russia's brutal war on Ukraine, more than 240,000 refugees have registered in Germany. The government has vowed to help, but local authorities, volunteers and refugees are struggling with bureaucracy and a lack of organisation.

Ukrainian refugees Berlin Hauptbahnhof
Refugees who have fled the war in Ukraine gather at the arrival point at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

When Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Bundestag last Wednesday that “refugees are welcome” in Germany it echoed the message his predecessor Angela Merkel issued more than five years ago at the height of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis: Wir schaffen das – we’ll manage it.

Yet since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24th, forcing millions to flee their homes, it’s clear that German authorities and charities are struggling to cope with thousands of arrivals every day.

Although the war on Ukraine is a different challenge, the bureaucratic issues are similar to 2015: how can refugees register in Germany and get financial support set up quickly? How can authorities ensure shelter and safety; get children into schools and people into work?

Locals across Germany have opened up their homes to people – but both the refugees and volunteers have spoken about their struggle to find information and after getting to the safety of Germany’s borders – and have urged authorities to slash red tape. 

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Journey into the unknown

One of the hundreds of Berlin hosts to bring Ukrainians into their homes is Australian Marcus Wongyai. He took in Yiliena, Viktor and Mikhailo on March 3rd. They are three of around 246,000 refugees from war-torn Ukraine who have registered in Germany up to March 26th.

The Ukrainian family opened up to The Local Germany about the nightmare that forced them to fill up their car with petrol and make a run for Poland on February 28th.

“We were very afraid for my father who fell into a diabetic coma as we did not have the insulin for him,” said Yiliena. who did not want to use her surname for fear of Russian reprisal. “The Russians bombed the TV station next to my home and all the pharmacies and hospitals were closed for military use,” she adds.

Along with her husband Viktor, she got her 87-year-old father Mikhailo into a car and drove west towards Poland, but it was not before they had a brush with death. “As we left Kyiv, we saw the Russians dropping bombs on the Stoyanka bridge we had just crossed,” Yiliena explained.

The trio then made their way to the Polish border where a German doctor of Ukrainian descent put them in touch with their host couple in Berlin.  He gave them enough money to fill their tank with petrol and drive across Poland because no-one was changing Ukrainian currency to euros.

Ukrainian refugee family

From left to right, Mikhailo, Yiliena and Viktor try to relax at their makeshift home in Berlin. Photo: John Culatto

Even though Yiliena and Viktor, both 62, are a relatively well-off middle class couple, the Russian invasion has stripped them of everything. “Our money is worth nothing and we cannot take our savings out of ATMs,” Yiliena said, adding that she was desperate to stand on her own two feet again.

Their host Marcus, who has lived in Berlin for three years and runs an international medical software company, said he was appalled at how little help was available for the newly arrived Ukrainians, having been sent from one government department to another in his search.

“The Berlin authorities really seem to be doing all they can, but they do not seem to be supported by the central German government,” he told The Local.

Berlin under pressure 

Berlin has received about half of the refugees that have entered Germany in the first month of the Russian war on Ukraine. Franziska Giffey, the German capital’s mayor, said recently that the city is “at the limits of our capacities”.

Refugees arriving at the former Tegel airport’s welcome centre are now likely to be distributed around the country to ease some of the pressure on the capital so it can better manage the strain on infrastructure like schools.

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Berlin charities have taken on board the lessons of the Syrian refugee crisis. “We have to reactivate the network from 2015,” said Holger Michel, of Freiwillige Helfen, which arranges volunteers welcoming Ukrainians at train stations and refugee centres. He said that of the refugees coming from Ukraine, 20 percent are children and some of them are arriving alone, making the operation even tougher.

Another Ukrainian refugee, Olena, escaped Kyiv in early March with her one-year-old son soon after the Russian attack started. She has been staying with a friend in Berlin for three weeks, and is hoping for support to come through soon. 

The Ukrainian arrival centre at Tegel Airport, Berlin

The Ukrainian arrival centre at Tegel Airport, Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“My friends bought food and nappies for my baby and I also received humanitarian aid from local volunteers,” Olena told The Local Germany. “On March 16th, I went to the social services to get medical insurance and social benefits, but so far I have not received anything. However, they promised to pay the money soon and send the insurance by post.”

Last week, the former journalist whose husband is still fighting Russian troops back in Ukraine, finally got her job permit. While admitting it has sometimes been a struggle, she said Germany is “doing enough for Ukrainians”.

“The only problem is the long queues,” she said. “Many people need help and all of them turn to social services. With a small child it is very difficult to stand in line. It is very exhausting and it takes a lot of time.”

What is the German government doing for refugees?

In response to the crisis, the German federal government said it would provide Ukrainians with “a residence permit for temporary protection” which can be obtained from an immigration office. This means they do not have to go through the lengthy asylum process that other refugees endure.

“They will simply present their documents to say that they’re Ukrainian citizens… together with an ID and first registration, and they are entitled to social assistance, housing and the health care system,” a spokesman for the German Office of Refugees told The Local Germany.

“At the same moment and also as a huge difference when compared with the asylum seekers… they are immediately able to pick up any kind of job,” he said.

Lagenbach explained that the German state is acquiring “various state-run houses, container villages, hotels and hospitals” to give homes to refugees. This effort is occurring despite the low availability of accommodation in locations like Berlin, with the goal being to distribute refugees across the country more evenly. 

Sign for Ukrainian refugees in Berlin

A sign directs Ukrainian refugees to long-distance transport and tickets at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

READ ALSO: German minister wants to allow refugee teachers from Ukraine to work in schools

“Once they live within our shelters, they will get breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as basic sanitary provision in addition to their state payments. When it comes to cash, there were Ukrainian citizens applying to local district social welfare administrations and as far as I know, this was granted, but they were not huge amounts of money.”

Despite easing the processes, authorities have faced criticism.

“It should be possible to apply for a residence permit quickly in every federal state,” lawyer Olga Klus of the Fair Integration project told The Zeit German newspaper. “I very much hope that it will now be as easy as possible for the refugees to find a job without cumbersome administrative procedures,” she added.

Host Marcus said that the refugee family he was supporting find computer access difficult and getting an appointment at a Bürgeramt council office even harder. He also slammed authorities for taking too long to provide financial support. He suggested that as “the second most powerful Western economy,” Germany could “give pre-paid coupons for refugees to use at supermarkets”.

READ ALSO: How people in Germany can support Ukraine

Uncertain future

Until April, Ukrainians like Viktor, Yiliena and Mikhailo will remain with Marcus who will be paying for them. For now they are just happy to be safe in Berlin, but unsure of their future and that of their country.

Viktor, a computer manufacturer, and Yilena, an accountant, would love to work for their keep but their inability to speak German and have their qualifications verified will make it hard. 

“Now we want the German government to refund people like Marcus who helped us and allow us to get to work,” said Yiliena.

Olena is happy to have got a job quickly and now wants to learn German. Yet she misses her husband and is looking forward to the day she can return home to a peaceful Ukraine.

But with peace still a distant uncertainty, Germany will likely be pushed to its limits as it attempts to support the some 250,000 Ukrainian refugees who have already entered across its borders – and the hundreds of thousands that may in the coming months. 

These are larger figures in a shorter amount of time than even at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. But the question many people are asking is the same: will they manage it? 

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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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