Ukrainians fleeing war, and volunteers to help them, fill a Berlin train station
BERLIN — Just a week since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 1 million people have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
European Union member states have responded by unanimously agreeing to grant automatic, temporary one-year visas (extendable by a further two years) to all Ukrainians, sparing them lengthy asylum procedures.
At Berlin's central railway station, hundreds of volunteers in high-vis jackets distribute sandwiches, hot drinks, diapers, toys, warm coats and a helping hand to the thousands of Ukrainians disembarking here daily.
Many of the volunteers, like 20-year-old April, wear homemade stickers indicating which languages they speak. One of the four languages April is fluent in is Ukrainian — it's her mother tongue. She started going by the name April when she came to Germany from Ukraine a year ago because locals couldn't pronounce her Ukrainian given name, she says.
April and others interviewed for this story do not want to use their full names because they say they are too frightened, even in Berlin, by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
April says she's been unable to get her family out of their native Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine, and she feels desperate and useless. "The least I can do is help people who were able to escape," she says, adding she is here providing moral support as well as material support. "It's very important for me that my fellow Ukrainians feel welcome here, especially the children."
Kati, a 36-year-old mother of four from Berlin, holds a sign saying she can offer a room for a family of four. "The pictures of children in bomb shelters and cellars break my heart," Kati says. "My own grandparents were refugees during the Second World War and I've never forgotten their stories."
But many of the mothers and children who have just arrived on the Warsaw-Berlin Express plan to continue their journey. One of them is 38-year-old Anastasiia, from Kyiv, and her 2-year-old son David, who are having a rest before taking another train to Munich, where she has friends. Her husband, like most Ukrainian men, has stayed behind to fight.
"Putin can go to hell," she says as she wipes her son's runny nose. "I just hope he's too young to remember all of this," Anastasiia adds, looking at her toddler.
A 29-year-old volunteer named Georgia says the scenes are reminiscent of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, when hundreds of thousands of people from Syria and other countries fled to Germany. Then as now it was local, ad-hoc initiatives that took then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mantra "Wir schaffen das!" ("We can cope!") to heart and jumped in where local authorities fell short.
"It's organized chaos here," Georgia says. "It's super grassroots, all coordinated on [the messaging app] Telegram."
But 20-year-old Xeniya, a student at Kyiv University, has serious doubts about being able to "cope." Looking shocked and tired, she says she is the only one in her family who decided to flee their native and relatively calm Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, which she believes won't remain calm for much longer.
Xeniya says she feels split: "It's like there are two of me. One here and one in Ukraine and they can't exist without each other."
Her relief at reaching safety contradicts her longing for home, a sentiment shared by so many arriving here on hourly trains.
A version of this story appeared in the Morning Edition live blog and is set to air on All Things Considered.
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