Setting out for his 5am stint at Hauptbahnhof, Martin Schultheiß expects to finish today’s shift at 1pm before heading into work for a few hours. His job as an IT manager has taken a backseat since early March, when he began volunteering to help the roughly 15,000 Ukrainian refugees arriving daily in Berlin.
“I do night shifts as well, when fewer volunteers are available. About 20 of us support 1500 people sleeping on trains. It’s chaotic,” he says.
Martin is one of many Berliners stepping up to help. Marta Jagdfeld is also volunteering, raising money for the Kick Ass Moms for Ukraine campaign started by her and some friends to pool money for their individual relief efforts. The donations she receives are used to purchase discounted food from Netto – a deal her husband was able to organise – as well as medicine from hospitals and baby supplies. Each weekend, Marta organises a driver to Poland to deliver the goods, many of which are sent on to Eastern Ukraine. She’s also involved in on-site refugee care: “My family and I have a facility on the German coast, where we are caring for about 60 refugees.”
For the time being, she has put aside her work as a nutritionist. Volunteering has taken centre-stage for both Martin and Marta. Both cite proximity as a motivational mover. “In 2015, with the Syrian crisis, Munich was the epicentre for arrivals. Now it’s Berlin. I couldn’t sit around, I had to help,” Martin says.
Marta is from Poland. Like much of the 55,000-strong Polish community in Berlin – and the approximately 13,500 members of Berlin’s Ukrainian population – she feels particularly affected. “I’m Polish, so Ukraine is my neighbour. Many of these poor people are just waiting for help. You can see it, feel it.”
Cutting the red-tape
Johannes and Natalia Schrader are helping four Ukrainian families and two students get settled in Berlin. They also provide short-term hosting at the family home they share with four young daughters in Tempelhof. Growing up, Johannes was taught that war had become impossible in Europe, making this crisis much more tangible.
“If I’d been in the army and had no children, I might even have gone to fight. It’s all such a shock. We grew up with the idea that this wasn’t possible. We’re seeing a different reality. It feels so wrong.”
An estimated 200,000 Ukrainians have crossed the border into Germany since war began on February 24. The government’s decision to waive visa requirements for Ukrainians means refugees can register for further visas until May 23. However, Germany’s reluctance to digitise the visa registration process remains an issue that will now affect refugees trying to start lives here.
“This is the capital city of one of the most important countries in the world and they can’t digitalise their systems. Ukrainians have to stand outside in the cold, queueing for hours. It’s just one more inconvenience. If people were able to register online, they could get money and apply for jobs more quickly.”
Johannes, who is understanding of legislative structures and due process, is still a bit surprised at what appears to be an absence of government planning. “ I would have expected Germany to have some kind of pipeline plans on how to react to different scenarios.”
Johannes and Natalia previously helped a Syrian contact in Hamburg get settled when he first arrived in Germany, doing everything from finding him a flat to having him around at Christmas. They see his success – and the fact that he’s become a family friend – as a sign of hope. “Seven years down the line he has a flat, a job, a son. We’re hopeful that we can make a difference in people’s lives,” says Natalia.
An estimated two million refugees have fled from Ukraine to Poland, whose open-door policy has freed up €1.6 billion in government spending. However, many communities still rely on supplies from abroad to manage. “The Polish people have given everything they have,” says Robert Dunst, who works in marketing at tipBerlin magazine during the week and spends weekends driving back and forth to Poland, where his family is caring for around 300 refugees in two high school gymnasiums.
“We bring food because there’s none left. Pharmacies are empty, children have no medicine. My wife is a doctor, so she’s providing medical care. The Johannesstift Diakonie [where she works] gave her €5000 worth of medicine to take with us.”
Robert stores donations in his garage, cellar and guest apartment. Every Thursday, he and his wife Sandra sort through the parcels, load up the van on Friday and deliver on Saturday. A former volunteer with the Red Cross for over 15 years, Robert knows about providing aid but this is the first time he’s acting as the organiser of his own initiative. He plans to continue helping for as long as he can.
“I can do it as long as I have the money, donations, and people to receive the donations. When people leave the gyms to move on to other countries, or go back to Ukraine, that’s when I stop.”
Crisis as catalyst
Apart from the more obvious reasons, Robert and other volunteers share one important practical factor: geography. Berlin’s proximity to the war has made it a hotspot for volunteer activity, with social media fuelling access to information.
We need more volunteers, especially Russian and Ukrainian speakers … There were lots at first, but people have burned out.
Natalia and Johannes joined a number of groups on social media when they decided to get involved, networking on various channels and participating in conversations about what could be done. “Telegram and other social media groups make it easier for people to connect. It makes it more present,” says Johannes.
Many fundraising opportunities are posted on social media. Robert, who made a call for donations on Facebook, is now partnered with neighbourhood association I Love Tegel, which learned of his initiative via social media.
“We were going to keep it small at first, but when we put out the call on Facebook it got bigger and bigger. I Love Tegel got involved with their Facebook page.”
Marta also found success in fundraising through social media. “I sent messages through WhatsApp and Instagram that I was raising funds if anyone wanted to contribute, and word spread.”
It seems likely that volunteer efforts will be needed for some time. And no matter what the contribution, short or long-term accommodation, funds or time: it all makes a difference.
“We need more volunteers, especially Russian and Ukrainian speakers,” says Martin. “There were lots at first, but people have burned out. But even one day a week is enough, every pair of hands is needed.”
Marta stresses that those without time can help by supporting fundraisers. “If somebody doesn’t have time or is occupied with work or feeling weak mentally, that’s okay. Sending money is also appreciated. Every little thing counts. That’s the message I give everyone and that’s what motivates me.”
Keen to help? Here’s a list of ways to donate and volunteer in Berlin.