I live in Berlin – Claudia Sütfeld

Categories: Opinion and People & Places.

I live in Berlin, less than 900 km from the Ukrainian border. The war feels very close.

My apartment is in what is probably the most well-known district of Berlin – Neukölln. Synonymous for multiculturalism with all its advantages and problems. In our house, people from Italy and France, from Switzerland, Denmark, the United States and Germany found their home.

I was not surprised that it was only a matter of hours after we learned about the war in Ukraine that the first call for action popped up on our telegram group – “The war is close. Want to help. Any ideas?”

Like us, people living in the same neighbourhood in Berlin, known as a “Kiez” (meaning a small community in a larger town), got together on neighborhood portals, and tried to help.

Ukrainian and Polish restaurants and cultural institutes immediately offered to collect relief supplies in order to transport them to Ukraine. One of the restaurants was nearly overrun when within two hours, hundreds of people showed up with supplies, the line went a full block, and it didn’t get any shorter.

To avoid chaos like that, our group cataloged relief supplies, packed them in boxes, labeled them and transported them to a local restaurant, one of the collection points – warm clothing, hygiene items, nonperishable food. We learned via twitter what was needed and what did not seem to be a good idea, so boxes were re-organised several times.

In the meantime, numerous private individuals and even bus companies started to drive to the Polish-Ukrainian border to hand in the items and transport refugees on their way back – and they are still going.

The stream of refugees increased very quickly. On Thursday alone, 6000 people arrived at Berlin Central Station. The basement has been turned into a temporary reception camp. Food and clothing is being distributed, masks and rapid tests are being sought, as well as translators, and all of this is mainly organized by volunteers. Public transport is free for people from Ukraine, there are shuttle buses to the accommodation options.

“Bettenbörsen” (bed exchanges) are being organized all over Berlin via social media, private rooms or accommodation for those who have no friends or relatives in Berlin. On Thursday, hundreds of citizens came to the central station to offer free sleeping places. Volunteers even used megaphones to arrange overnight stays. People carried signs like “Couch for a girl for one week, we speak German and English”. Our neighbour on the 2nd floor is waiting for a friend from Kiev to arrive and he has already transformed his study into a bedroom.

Berlin alone expects a minimum of 20,000 people to come and stay here in the next few days, weeks or months (and up to 7th March, it is estimated that 50,000 refugees have reached Berlin). Mostly women and children, traumatized, often separated from their loved ones. They will need more assistance than only clothes and food, including medical and psychological aid. Again people already coming together on neighbourhood portals, this time not looking for ways of transporting goods, but to search for daycare places, ask where there is room for school children. Again, as in 2015, it is the volunteers in Berlin who prevent emergencies through the aid organizations or in spontaneously formed groups.

With all the willingness to help, the pandemic is of course a constant companion – even more masks, more tests, how are you supposed to keep your distance in all the chaos? Only this weekend some hospitals will go back “to normal”, for example performing surgeries that had to be delayed due to COVID.

Sometimes it feels like you have to balance one fear against the other.


About the author

Claudia Sütfeld – Journalist, German, Polish ancestors:
I grew up with grandparents who survived two world wars and parents who were deeply traumatized by WW2 as children.
I belong to a generation that was catapulted back to the 1980s by breaking news that “Russia is putting its nuclear forces on alert”.
My daughter’s generation, born after 1990, never experienced the shadow of the Cold War and only knew about living with the nuclear threat from history books.
My grandson celebrated his 6th birthday the day after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
Only hours before I wrote this text, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant Zaporizhia has been attacked.

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