Ukrainian Refugees: Notes From The Train Station
They still arrive.
Women with and without children. Old couples. Mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, grandmas and grandkids, sometimes with dogs and cats in tow. Some travel with a purpose; those who have relatives or friends who can host them. Some only know the country they want.
“I am going to Belgium,” a young woman tells me.
“Why?” I ask, because we’re in Germany which many people choose for its social support (the support that is pretty lame if you ask me, but some countries don’t have any, so… what do I know).
“I heard it’s good there.”
I shut up, because who knows where the good is, and what is even good for a person who had to flee her country and probably left some loved ones behind? I direct her to the travel center where they give free tickets to people with Ukrainian passports. I go out of the tent with her and show her the way; it’s just into the train station and one floor up. They even have a separate line for Ukrainian refugees now.
I am on a translation shift in the tent belonging to the Berliner Stadtmission, which provides a bus to transfer the Ukrainian refugees to an arrival center in Berlin Tegel. They built a huge tent in front of Hauptbahnhof — the train station — for people to have some place to wait for the bus. There’s a food and drinks section in the corner, a children’s corner with toys, books and crayons, where some volunteers watch over the children while harried mothers can grab a bowl of soup or a sandwich and coffee. There’s a station where people can get some hygienic products, like diapers, wet tissues, menstrual pads.
There’s another volunteer center for Ukrainian refugees in the train station itself; they work independently and provide approximately the same services, except the list of products they offer is I think bigger. They have shampoo, soap, shaving foam to hand over; they also collect small toys to give to the kids who weren’t able to bring any, and they collect the over-the-counter medicine supplies which people can buy and bring over. As far as I know, they aren’t coming from any organizations; they self-organized way earlier than Berliner Stadtmission appeared on the scene, so in some ways, they have a better infrastructure. They have a list of products they need online, the list is regularly updated and a person can sign up for some items there, and just buy them and bring to the station. There’s also a list of Telegram channels for all the train stations in Berlin where volunteers set up their centers, so one can find out details about the current situation and needs.
I haven’t yet worked in that center, though it’s probably the next thing on my list. Today, we’re helping in the Berliner Stadtmission tent.
I registered online and got a QR code, so I use it to check-in and then a Berliner Stadtmission employee gives me an orientation talk. Before it’s over, I am already pulled away by someone. I nod to the coordinator and go with the person. He needs a train ticket; that’s something we know how to do.
“It’s not your task to fulfil their needs,” the coordinators warned me. “It’s your task to translate. If you don’t know how to solve the request, direct them to the people in blue vests; if people in blue vests can’t speak with them directly, you translate.”
People in blue vests are from the Berliner Stadtmission; they’re employees, not volunteers. Everyone in the tent has a color-coded vest. Blue are Berliner Stadtmission coordinators; blue with pink stripes work in the kids’ corner. Green ones are volunteers; green with orange stripes can speak Ukrainian or Russian, they’re on translators duty. I have the orange stripes, though my German is way less than perfect. But I supplement with English, or quickly use the dictionary to look up the word that’s escaping me. Most of the blue vests and people from the Red Cross who also have a station there speak good English, so we have at least one common language.
The first cases I get are easy. People want food or water, and I direct them. Some ask to go with them because though the food corner has everything signed in different languages, they are still afraid to ask for some coffee or tea or soup because it’s not self-serve, it needs to be poured by a volunteer.
A woman comes to the Red Cross station and pulls me away for a private talk. Turns out she’s got HIV, and she is already staying in some shelter on the outskirts of Berlin. She says she doesn’t need any immediate help or meds, but she came here to ask how the system works, and what she needs to do to get proper treatment once she gets her health insurance card. I find out that many people didn’t get anything concerning health insurance when they applied for the refugees of war status. We’re hosting several relatives, and they did get a temporary paper, not exactly an insurance but something that allowed them in case of need to go to the insurance company and get an Überweisung — a referral to the doctor. This woman doesn’t seem to have received anything at all; it seems that social services departments in different areas of the city, or maybe it’s different insurance companies, operate differently. I explain how insurance works here as best I can, and she leaves, hopefully reassured that she won’t be left without help when the time comes.
Some people come in and ask for free SIM cards. It’s such a popular ask that there’s a printed advertisement by the entrance stating that we don’t hand out SIM cards. Some big phone companies, like Telekom and Vodafone, did it in the beginning, but it seems that their supplies have been running out; still, volunteers have a short list of stores that are reported to still give away free cards. We hand over the photocopies of the list.
Some people just come in for free WIFI, or charge the phone. A woman asks if we have any portable chargers, but unfortunately, we don’t.
A man comes and asks how he can transfer money to Ukraine, because his daughter needs money and she’s still there. I start explaining about the bank account, and a wire transfer, and the Wise account that he can get to make the exchange rate and transfer fees less painful. I show him how he can get bank requisites from the Ukrainian banking app — Privatbank, which I too still have. But it’s all too complicated. German banks usually want a residence registration, which he doesn’t yet have. Wise takes time to do background checks; and then with Wise, you’d still have to get money into that account somehow, so he still needs a German account, or money in a Ukrainian account, and he doesn’t have money there. In the end, he asks me if I can do a transfer myself from my own Ukrainian account, and he’ll just give me 50 EUR in cash. That’s something definitely crossing the limits, and we don’t have to do that. I’m thinking that my husband would definitely tell me not to. I sigh and furtively look around to see if anyone is watching. Then I quickly do the transfer and pocket the money. After all, if he turns out to be a fraudster, it’s only 50 EUR, I am telling myself. He leaves happy.
A harried-looking young woman with strawberry blond hair and freckles is watching the kid in the play corner. Then I realize it’s not just one kid she’s watching, it’s three. In a moment, she comes up to me and asks about accommodation options. I tell her about the distribution center in Tegel, and then I remember that the Stadtmission employee was telling me that they had some accommodation options for people in special circumstances — with many kids, or with disabilities. I ask how many adults and kids she’s travelling with. Another woman comes up; they’re from the same family. The second one has a typical Roma look.
“How many kids do you have with you?” I ask.
“Seven,” they say.
“And how many adults?”
I look at them again; none looks older than 25 years, and the kids all look like they’re under five years old. I go to the administrator in a blue vest and ask about the “special accommodation”. Turns out those are churches that provide shelter for a night or two, and that this family has already spent the last night in one of those. They’re asking if they could stay there again, but it’s probably better for them to go to Tegel now, since the church is only a temporary solution for a few days, and in Tegel, they’ll be at least distributed to some other place, where hopefully they could find something more permanent. I tell them about it and leave them there to think it over. Privately, I think that if I travelled with so many kids, an option to spend the night in the big shared shelter and then travel who knows where with this whole crowd would make me look for the nearest tree. And also some soap and a rope.
At the Red Cross, a small crowd is gathering, and I jump in. A woman wants to have her blood pressure taken because of a headache. I translate for the Red Cross person, who’s taking down the age, symptoms and then goes outside where there’s a doctor in a container which is a makeshift medical office. The sheets of paper with data are getting triaged and the doctor will see them based on priority. All the meds, even an Ibuprofen pill for the headache, need to come from the doctor. There’s just one doctor, though there’s several Red Cross people taking the data and two or three interpreters, so the process is partially parallelized, but the doctor is a bottleneck. It doesn’t seem to be a very efficient system, but somehow it works.
As I interpret for the Red Cross corner, I see that meds is something that people want often, but aren’t often getting. It’s kind of expected based on my own observations and the difference in mentality. Germans are big believers in everything “natural” and they try to minimize the drugs intake, whereas in Ukraine, most meds can be bought without a prescription, so many people are used to treating their own symptoms based on what they can find on the internet, or what helped the previous time, or what some relative or friend was taking and it helped. A family with a child comes and asks for some fever medicine for the child who doesn’t actually have fever right now, but it’s just how they’re accustomed to do things — they want to have it near just in case, because the child was sick a few days ago and they’re afraid that travelling will bring back the symptoms. This, however, isn’t a good reason for a German doctor, and she refuses.
There’s some exceptions from that rule for people with serious chronic conditions, though. I interpret for a young woman who claims to have epilepsy, and she shows the empty packaging from the drug she’s usually taking. The doctor takes her in and asks about the frequency with which she usually takes the meds, about the symptoms, and how she currently feels. She leaves with a free prescription for a whole pack of the drug, which she can fulfil at the drug store inside the train station. She’s an exception; usually, people get just a few pills of whatever they need — enough to last them for now. The Red Cross people give an explanation: they’re only entitled to give first aid; long-term treatment is outside their scope of responsibility.
Sometimes, even the serious conditions aren’t enough. An older man comes in. Turns out he has severe sleep problems and panic attacks; however, the doctor says that one of the drugs he’s regularly taking can only be prescribed by a psychiatrist, so she can’t do it. Same as many people in the tent, he and his wife are not travelling anywhere — they’re already staying in some shelter, they’ve applied for the status and for the social support and for the insurance, but they’re just waiting and waiting. They’re saying it’s been several weeks, and they still can’t get the insurance cards and aren’t taken in by any medical practice without the insurance cards. I can well believe it; one of our relatives had to wait six weeks before the card came, and the other is still waiting for it after more than two months, but at least they had the temporary paper for getting a referral. These people don’t have anything that would allow them to get treatment. The system is failing them.
When I go back to the benches to see where the young woman with freckles is, she and her family are already gone.
The man with panic attacks is with his wife. She’s sitting in the Red Cross corner on one of the benches while she’s waiting for him. I ask where they are staying; turns out that they stay with their son’s family. I ask if the family can help with calling social services and trying to speed up getting the insurance; from experience, a “nudge” is sometimes what the German bureaucratic machine needs to get moving.
“They have no time,” she says and immediately starts crying. “He’s always so busy.”
It would appear that the son is working from home, and the apartment where he lives with his family and where they registered the parents is pretty small, so now the parents feel like they are constantly in the way. I think that maybe they just don’t want to be a burden and so are afraid to ask for an extra call or some extra time to be spent on bureaucracy, since the son works all the time, and he’s having many work-related calls, and they already feel like they’re interfering with his life and with his job. Or maybe their son doesn’t speak German very well and it’s a problem for him to make these calls (I know it is for me).
A confused young woman comes in and asks for help. She was fined because she tried to ride with her bike on the S-Bahn; she didn’t know it required an extra ticket. Besides, in Germany, Ukrainians have been able to take public transport for free with their passports. So it’s understandable that people just don’t have any idea that it’s not all free.
It doesn’t make sense to me, either. If a refugee has a right to travel free, why not his or her bike? But no, Germany wouldn’t be Germany if it weren’t nitpicking in this situation. So the young woman got hit with a fine and no means to pay it, since of course she’s just arrived, has no local currency because she can’t exchange Ukrainian money in Berlin and still has long weeks to wait before she gets any social support payments. Several volunteers gather together to discuss the situation, and they don’t know how to help. One proposes to just not pay the fine. I heard really bad things about collector services in Germany who come into the houses to confiscate personal belongings, so I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I refrain from the comments since I just don’t know. It’s one of the cases when a lawyer’s help would be welcome, but we don’t have a volunteer lawyer.
Another old couple arrives and is looking around helplessly. I come up and start speaking to them in Ukrainian, but it soon turns out that they’re from Kharkiv, which is in the east of Ukraine, close to the Russian border. We switch to Russian, as they, same as me, have been speaking it for most of their lives.
Needles to say, they’ve never been persecuted for it.
Well, unless you count the Russian troops who came to “liberate” them and “denazify” from the mythical Ukrainian Nazis, that never existed except in someone’s sick imagination. Because of the Russian “liberators”, they were forced to leave the country. They’re destined for Tegel and its distribution center, since they have no one in Germany to host them.
They ask me about the registration as refugees, and how it’ll happen and if there’ll be anyone in Tegel to help them do it. Mainly, they just want to know what will happen to them, and that they won’t be left alone. I talk to them, get coffee for them, then we go to the Red Cross to solve a health complaint for the husband who seems to have high blood pressure. It’s the first hot day of the spring, and many older people suffer from either low or high blood pressure. The man has his own pills, the doctor who sees him approves that he takes one of them, and asks to come back in half an hour to check his blood pressure once more and make sure it’s getting better. She also asks him to drink more water, stay off coffee for a day and if possible, to have a lie down. It’s not possible though, since there’s no space for lying down in the tent. There’re some portable children cots near the play corner, and some kids sleep in or around the cots, but there’s no such space for adults. The couple dutifully stays in the tent and returns in half an hour. They check the blood pressure again and it’s getting lower, though still looks quite high, but the man refuses to be hospitalized, saying that he’s feeling all better and it’s within the normal range for him. They leave with the next bus. I hope someone in Tegel is kind to them.
A lot of Roma-looking families are walking in all the time. No one checks if they have Ukrainian passports. In fact, no one checks anyone’s passports here, not for the people who arrive — volunteers of course are checked before they can start working. The volunteers who have been working here for some time say that many Roma people come on a regular basis — for water, food, meds. Or just to have some rest. Perhaps they’re Ukrainians, too, but no one knows for sure.
I ask one of the Roma women I am interpreting for about where she’s going. She tells me that they’re waiting for a grandmother who has to arrive with one of the next trains.
“Then she will decide.”
“The grandmother will decide?” I ask, surprised because I remember my own older relatives at home, as helpless as kids in Germany because everything here is strange to them.
“Yes,” the young woman says as a matter of course. “She’s the eldest in the family.”
All the refugees have the same question in their eyes, sometimes unspoken. What is next?
I’ve read a report from another volunteer that took shifts in this very tent, and this is what she writes.
Everyone who has ever gone on vacation and booked accommodation wants to know: what is the accommodation like? With these guests in the “welcome hall” the question fades away to nothing. An emptiness arises in me, I struggle for an answer, because I understand: from e.g. Warsaw to Berlin the destination is clear. Then we put them on a bus, and the destination is anything but clear. A woman asks me if she and her two children are being taken to a hostel. My breath catches in my throat. What should I answer? What does collective housing mean in English? I get a colleague to help me, who knows Russian and explains the situation. Of course, collective housing is always better than having to spend the night on the street. The nothingness, the emptiness, arises from the fact that neither the refugees nor we know what will happen after the collective housing. So I send the refugees to the bus that takes them to the collective housing, but I feel like I’m sending them to nothingness. That’s exactly the job that night.
We send people to the nothingness, hoping that someone, somewhere, will find the answers that we’re unable to provide.
We don’t know who, or how.
At the end of my shift I check out at the container outside and leave, exhausted. I can’t feel my feet, and my head is ringing with the leftovers of German phrases. I am struggling to find better expressions and repeat the new words that I had to look up in my head. I meet some other volunteers from my company, the ones who don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian and were on the food line duty, or handing out hygiene supplies.
“I think this whole thing is organized quite well”, says one of them, a German.
I am thinking of the people waiting for their health insurance for more than a month and unable to get into any medical practice; about the young woman with a bicycle fine and no way to get any money; about the man with panic attacks who couldn’t get his pills; about the two women with seven kids between them who probably are spending the night today on some foldable beds in a crowded place with no idea what comes next.
I think that I couldn’t agree less. “This whole thing” is a mess.
In the morning, I’ve brought two big packs — about 50 pieces — of HotWheels cars to the play corner. I’ve seen many HotWheels cars being requested at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, so I thought it would be a good idea to bring some to the tent as well. I know from experience that a little kid with a small car clutched in his tiny hand behaves three times calmer and throws a hundred times fewer tantrums than a kid without one. So I bring the cars, and we place them on the shelves in the play corner before I start the day.
After my shift, a volunteer from the play corner comes up to me and says that the Roma kids swiped almost all of the cars in one day. But the Roma kids are still kids, so what does it matter? I don’t grudge them the cars; it’s not like I thought they’d stay there forever. I was pretty sure the cars would eventually join the little travellers, I just wasn’t aware that it would happen so quickly.
I guess the tent needs more tiny cars, then.
I still hope to see the day when no more cars are needed there. When the tent itself is obsolete, and so is the volunteer station inside the Hauptbahnhof.
And when the tiny travellers return home, clutching the HotWheels cars tightly in their grubby little hands.