As tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees flee war, they’re leaving behind their homes and belongings, and arriving in new countries exhausted, traumatized and faced with dozens of choices for what comes next.
Some are arriving in Germany, where one Ukrainian-Canadian is helping offer comfort and a breather to these families before they continue on their journey
Anna Miller, who used to work for Save the Children Canada and has lived in Berlin for the last three years, led an effort to raise tens of thousands of dollars from Canadians to buy supplies for refugee families. Since March 3, she’s joined thousands of volunteers to offer supplies and support to Ukrainians arriving daily at the central train station in Berlin.
Roughly 15,000 refugees arrive daily at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main railway station. Among them are young mothers, pregnant women, grandparents and international university students. And lots of children.
Living 15 minutes away from the station, Miller dropped off donations one day with her son. As families disembarked, volunteers led them through the station to the underground area near a McDonald’s where families can get SIM cards, power banks, clothing and warm food. Some of the people who arrived had been travelling for seven days, others standing for 10 hours on a packed train after days waiting in line at a border. Miller wanted to help.
She returned to the station the next day, and then every day that week to volunteer when she wasn’t working. She’d visit from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. or 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., and sometimes take on late night shifts to provide translation support, since she speaks Ukrainian.
“One of the first nights I volunteered, there was a two week old baby and the mom, she was travelling on her own,” Miller says. “Being a mom, I can’t imagine that.”
Eventually, she reached out to family and friends in Canada, asking for donations. She and her husband and their 10-year-old son offered to match their donations up to $5,000.
Funds grew overnight. Miller’s living room filled up with warm hats, packets of nuts and dried food and juice boxes which her family took to the station. They raised so much that Miller froze donations on March 13, after raising around $35,000.
Many of the donations have gone into setting up a “kids corner” at the station — a glassed-in section on an underground layer of tracks which was previously used as a warming centre for nighttime passengers. Now, it’s a play area and a place for kids fleeing violence to just be kids.
“I know how important child-friendly spaces are to help kids have a sense of normality, process the trauma, be safe and be protected,” Miller said, noting the space is also for caregivers to sit and catch their breath.
Millers sees kids of all ages, including toddlers to children up to 10 years old. There are benches on one side, a table for colouring and boxes with toys, books, stickers, crayons and more. The volunteers also offer little backpacks the kids can pack themselves for the road ahead.
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“It’s really heartening that as much as kids are going through, they’re painting flowers and butterflies and only the occasional picture of Putin,” Miller said. “They’re painting the Ukrainian flag. They’re painting flowers and trees and houses, and we’re putting them all up on the wall.”
“You look at the faces of the mothers, some are bursting into tears because they’ve just made their kids day because they pick the right stuffed unicorn out of the box,” she said.
“They’ve seen their kids be kids after obviously worrying about their mental health, the trauma and what they’ve seen.”
In the two weeks since she started volunteering, Miller noticed a change in the morale of those fleeing Ukraine. In the last week, refugees have witnessed more fighting and airwave signals, knowing troops were moving in. They were already scared and exhausted, but now, Miller says they’re seeing families who are also emotionally scarred by bombings.
On a recent day, the above-ground train at the station started up with a squealing noise.
“Mums got spooked (and) kids got a bit spooked because it sounds like the airwave signals,” Miller said. “That’s trauma.”
She also met a refugee who came with his diabetic wife and pregnant sister-in-law, having been in Ukraine only a few months after escaping Afghanistan and are fleeing again.
As those families arrive, they’ve left behind their lives and dodged violence and now have to rebuild. Miller meets them at this critical stage in their upended lives, as they decide their next steps on where to settle and find safety.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” she said, adding she and other volunteers try their best to provide as much information to help families on their way.
It’s also about providing a sense of normalcy and human support, especially for the women and young children fleeing a horrific war.
“It matters a lot,” Miller said. “And I think it matters even more that we’re doing this with the support of friends and families back home in (Canada).”
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_
Maria Iqbal is a 905 Region-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Maria via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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