The German capital is experiencing an unprecedented influx of refugees from Ukraine

When making your way through the crowd of passengers on the Warsaw – Berlin train, you have to watch your step so as not to step on anyone’s paw or tail. Yorkshire terriers, Siberian Huskies, boxers, mongrels – it may seem that the ticket booths are crowded with dog show participants. But everything is much scarier than that.

Многие беженцы приезжают с собакамиMany refugees come with dogs.

Dogs are the only thing that brings a smile back to the faces of their owners, swollen from tears and sleepless nights. You ask them how they got to Germany, and their voice breaks when they talk about how they fled their hometowns of Kharkov, Kiev, and Nikolaev, about lines at the border, about overcrowded trains, and about relatives left behind where the armed forces of the neighboring country have been conducting their notorious “special military operation” for three weeks now.

Ask them about the dogs and the tears disappear and some semblance of a smile appears on their faces. “We couldn’t leave them alone,” they say. The dogs, unable to understand anything, huddle with their owners.

Berlin Station as a “gateway to Germany” for refugees from Ukraine

Nothing is easier than getting lost in Berlin Central Station, a pile of glass and steel through which 330,000 passengers pass each day and from which 1,300 trains depart each day. Four levels, 14 tracks, 54 escalators, panoramic elevators, dozens of cafes and stores – those who find themselves here for the first time often get lost in the signs.

Центр помощи беженцам на вокзале Берлина Refugee assistance centre at Berlin railway station

But ever since the Russian army crossed the Ukrainian border in the early hours of February 24, 2022 and millions of refugees streamed towards the West, the Ukrainian language has become louder and louder in Berlin railway stations. Because Berlin, or more precisely its central station, is the gateway to Germany for Ukrainians.

Virtually all the signs at the station are in Ukrainian and Russian, with a volunteer in a bright waistcoat standing every ten metres. And when another train from Warsaw arrives, the announcements on the platform are in Ukrainian – a former Deutsche Bahn employee, Aleksandr Gorsky, a native of Ukraine and volunteer, speaks into the microphone “Laskavo prosimy v Berlin”. Deutsche Bahn calls him its “most important voice”.

The volunteers’ task is to make their first steps in Germany as easy as possible, to help with basic everyday tasks: getting a free train ticket, getting a SIM card for a mobile phone, eating, sleeping and getting to their destination. The yellow and orange waistcoats make the eyes glaze over. Orange vests are worn by those who speak Ukrainian.

Житель Киева Павел, волонтер Kiev resident Pavel, a volunteer

For example, Pavel, a pensioner from Kiev. He arrived in Berlin on March 2 and he was settled in by a completely unfamiliar German family. Pavel has been coming to the station every day since then to help people like him. But he didn’t go to war just because of his retirement age. “I don’t know how you can not help,” he says.

Or Anna, a pensioner from Nikolaev, who travelled to Berlin through five countries and arrived just two days ago. “People are under a lot of stress because of the separation from their families,” she says. – I went through the whole nightmare myself, and it helps to find an approach to people”.

A few metres away is Irina, a pensioner from Kiev, with a cup of coffee in her hand. She lists the names of the border crossings on her way back from her hometown, tries to smile, but can’t stand it. “I didn’t expect to be treated so lovingly,” she says, breaking into tears.

Жительница Харькова Алла Alla, a Kharkiv resident

Or, for example, Alla from Kharkiv. She has just got off the train too, and hasn’t slept in two days. “We are glad there are no explosions and there is electricity here. We have left everything we had and ran with everything we had,” she says. She had three bags with her.

Her travelling companion cries incessantly.

They also travel with a dog.

Volunteers from all over Europe

Dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers work at the railway station, some travelling from far and wide to help (last weekend Russian-speaking volunteers from London worked at the station).

German railways have eight pairs of trains a day between Berlin and Warsaw and six additional express trains between Berlin and Frankfurt-Oder, on the border with Poland. According to Anja Bröker, a spokeswoman for Deutsche Bahn, at least 7,500 refugees arrive in Berlin every day. “We reserved a part of the station for the refugees in the hope that it would be quieter and they would be able to come to their senses, but there were so many of them that the quiet was a thing of the past,” she says.

No one can say how many volunteers are at the station. “The scale of this nightmare took everyone by surprise – no one was prepared for the volume of this horror, none of us had seen such an influx of refugees,” says Anja Bröker. The psychological support service, originally conceived for railway employees, is now also available for volunteers.

The German railways have handed out over 100,000 tickets for long-distance trains to Ukrainian refugees. Stacks of these tickets with the names of cities have been prepared in advance at a counter marked Tickets – all you have to do is show your passport and say your destination. The action is called Help Ukraine and Anja Bröcker on behalf of Deutsche Bahn assures that the tickets will be given out as long as necessary. “It is important to us that people get to where they are expected as quickly as possible – and do not think about anything,” she says.

There’s also a makeshift children’s corner, tea and coffee, coronavirus testing, a separate stand for LGBT refugees and, of course, help for cats and dogs owners next to the train ticket distribution. There is an incredible, atypical bustle all around, but it seems as though all the volunteers know what to do – “the volunteers and our staff work shoulder to shoulder,” says Deutsche Bahn spokesperson Anja Bröcker. And she adds that for the sake of quick help to the refugees, the group has gone out of its way to waive some corporate regulations and strict adherence to working time schedules.

For a German state structure, such steps are very rare.

Train tickets and calls to Ukraine are free of charge

And for those staying in Berlin, there is a huge tent on the station square, where you can take a break, get something to eat, and recover a little. Here, on the square, free SIM cards for mobile phones are distributed. German providers have made calls to Ukraine and the EU free of charge for refugees. Berlin authorities promptly reactivated the closed Tegel airport in the west of the city and equipped it with a reception centre for Ukrainian refugees. In the near future, the Bundeswehr will be involved in helping refugees in the capital. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bahn is introducing additional trains from Poland to Hanover to relieve the burden on Berlin.

Meanwhile, the veterinary services in Berlin have appealed to dog owners from Ukraine to get vaccinated against rabies as soon as possible.