Every other hour, another packed train from Poland arrives at Berlin’s main train station filled with hundreds of Ukrainian refugees, mostly mothers and their children looking for a safe place away from the brutal war in their home country.
As they spilled out of the trains on Tuesday, loudspeakers blared in Ukrainian and English: “Dear refugees from Ukraine, welcome to Germany, please follow the instructions of the volunteers in the yellow and orange vests.”
Spread across the platforms, a small army of volunteers in bright-coloured vests appeared — yellow for those who speak German, English and other languages, orange for Ukrainian and Russian speakers — ready to maneuver the exhausted masses through the maze of Berlin’s sleek and shiny glass-and-steel railway station into the building’s basement.
The operation runs so smoothly that the seemingly endless stream of refugees goes largely unnoticed to the city’s tens of thousands of regular commuters making their way through the station’s five levels. Most don’t even know of the sprawling refugee town that has sprung up in the station basement.
Vadim, a 17-year-old teenager who came on his own from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, travelled for three days and nights before arriving in Berlin on Tuesday afternoon. “No sleep,” is all he said, a tired, petrified look in his eyes.
When asked where his parents were, the teen, who gave only his first name, simply shrugged his shoulders, grabbed a dirty backpack and slowly walked away.
Like Vadim, most refugees were too exhausted and traumatized to say much. Their frightened looks seemed to reflect the horrors of war. They sat huddled on long rows of wooden beer benches and tables, tightly holding onto plastic bags, school backpacks or duffel bags containing the few belongings they packed before fleeing the wailing sirens, detonating missiles and hastily arranged funerals back home.
More than 3 million refugees have left Ukraine since Russia attacked the country three weeks ago. Most have fled to neighbouring countries such as Poland, Moldova and Romania. But as the war continues and civilians are increasingly in the crosshairs of the Russian military, many are making their way further west.
Some 160,000 Ukrainian refugees have been officially registered in Germany, but their real numbers are thought to be much higher as Ukrainians can enter Germany without visas and there are no thorough controls along the Polish-German border.
Berlin has become the No. 1 gateway for tens of thousands of refugees, with around 7,500 arriving at the train station every day. Because city officials were initially slow to react to the massive influx, thousands of volunteers have stepped up to help cater to the refugees’ every needs.
They take the new arrivals from station platforms to a waiting area in the basement next to a McDonald’s. There, an entire refugee town opens up: Volunteers hand out food and hot drinks, stands offer free shampoo, diapers, tampons, sanitary napkins and other hygiene supplies. A nursing tent is set up for moms wanting to breastfeed their babies. There is a safe zone for children with toys and boxes full of second-hand clothes, as well as volunteers offering pet food for the many dogs and cats the refugees bring with them.
There’s also a stand operated by German railway company Deutsche Bahn handing out free train tickets for those who want to continue their travels to another destination. More than 100,000 tickets have been issued so far.
Two groups catering specifically to the needs of LGBTQ refugees and people of colour have set up tables next to a COVID-19 testing station, and there are volunteers handing out cell phone chargers, power banks and German SIM cards so the refugees can keep up their lifelines to the husbands, fathers and sons who stayed back home to defend their country against the Russian invasion.
“When the first thousands of refugees arrived here, it quickly became clear that up on the platforms, where the trains arrive from Poland, there was not enough space. That’s why our station management very quickly decided to free up a protected area in the basement,” Deutsche Bahn spokeswoman Anja Broeker told The Associated Press.
“There, together with the many volunteers who also very quickly organized themselves … we have been creating an aid structure that’s getting better with each passing day.”
The operation runs efficiently: Volunteers know their place and task; they are friendly and patient, but the atmosphere is eerily quiet and subdued. There’s no loud laughter or chatter, no shouting, not even babies crying, only the hum of the escalators and the shrieking sound of braking trains entering the station.
About a third of those who arrive plan to stay, but most have no family or friends to welcome and shelter them, no place to sleep. So the volunteers bring them to a big white tent outside the back entrance of the station, next to the Spree River and within sight of the Chancellery.
Here, a constant flotilla of buses stands ready to take the refugees to terminal 5 of Berlin’s new BER airport, the city’s former Tegel airport or a convention center on its outskirts. In recent days, those places were turned into huge makeshift shelters filled with rows of hundreds of cots. Earlier, volunteers had lined up inside the station holding up signs saying how many refugees they could house at their private homes.
Recently, however, reports of men pretending to offer shelter and then sexually harassing and exploiting women have led authorities to warn refugees not to accept private accommodation offers. On Wednesday, authorities in the western city of Duesseldorf confirmed that a young Ukrainian woman was allegedly sexually assaulted by two men earlier this month.
The many volunteers who spearheaded the initial help have mixed feelings about the city taking control now and some feel sidelined by the authorities.
Maya Grossman, 28, a baker from San Francisco who moved to Berlin three years ago and Alyse Conn-Powers, 30, from Bloomington, Indiana, have come to the train station every other day to drop off supplies they bought with donations raised back home in the U.S.
While they first brought leftover food from Grossman’s bakery, the city now no longer wants private food donations or hygiene supplies, so instead the two friends have brought colouring books, pencils, sharpeners and soap bubbles for the kids.
“We’re just going to keep working for as long as we can with the money that we have and keep doing as much good as we possibly can,” Grossman said.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and whatever is happening here is going to be happening for a long time and people are going to need a lot of things.”
Kirsten Grieshaber/The Associated Press