The last train from Warsaw is arriving late. Scheduled for 22:16, it’s due on platform 14 at 23:22.
Meanwhile the volunteers prepare. The effort has turned the -1 floor of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof station into a vast market of second-hand and donated goods, all offered free of charge. Tables and stacks of boxes are filled with an immense offering of well sorted clothing, toys, food and drinks sourced from individual Berliners, local bakeries (Zeit für Brot featured heavily), cafés and even a cat counter with pet-food and cat litter.
The Ukrainians who’ve reached Berlin are mostly women – men are not let out by the Ukrainian government unless they’re too young or too old to fight. Many have kids. Quite a few have brought their cats, fewer their dogs (though there was a call for “three muzzles” on the Telegram channel through which the relief effort was being organised).
Telegram informs us they need volunteers again, especially speakers of Russian, Ukrainian and Farsi. Each day brings with it new arrivals and challenges.
The effort is impressive: when I arrived new volunteers are being turned away. A woman explains that tonight, volunteers outnumber the anticipated refugees. These official helpers wear signature yellow vests bearing an indication of the language they speak (lots of German, English, Russian, a few with Ukrainian, too). They patrol the station, looking to help anyone in need. Two hip-looking Ukrainian girls, having arrived earlier in the day, hang around drinking tea, browsing through the donated goods. They’re waiting for some friends they know in Berlin to collect them and calmly turn away the eager volunteers. When an English speaking volunteer asks, “Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do for you?” One girl translates for the other in Russian, “She really wants to help us.”
Not everyone is so well attended. There have been reports of people of colour having a harder time finding accommodation. A couple of Arabic guys and some Roma families are still waiting around at the station from an earlier train. And yet, the potential hosts are numerous. After the next train pulls in and passengers disembark, they eventually face a crowd of people stand waiting with handwritten signs bearing messages like “One mother, one child” or “A bed for two people, two nights”. Yellow-vested volunteers then match refugees with hosts. It can be trickier for larger groups, for men, for people of colour – but when a volunteer calls out “a woman and a kid?” there are so many offers that you sense competition among the potential hosts. One woman, having missed out three times with her offer of “one woman”, upgraded it to “one woman, two kids,” giving her a better chance of providing someone with shelter tonight.
By 23:58, the Telegram channel calls for people not to come any longer: “No more hosts needed at HBF”
The Telegram channel is a source of rumours and warnings. Apparently, shady people have been offering money to host young women and children. Members of the group are warned to contact the police, if they see anything suspicious.
Among the supplies, they lack small toys. They have too much bread, not enough bananas, bell peppers or gluten free food. After tonight, however, the state will take over the catering.
The next morning, Telegram informs us they need volunteers again, especially speakers of Russian, Ukrainian and Farsi. Each day brings with it new arrivals and challenges.
Already, the number of refugees arriving each day surpasses the peak from 2015. Remembering the last time the city welcomed refugees fleeing war, you can’t help thinking that everything seems better organised now, nor that these arrivals, having travelled a relatively shorter distance, don’t carry the same despair and despondency. And, of course, the reporting on these mostly white, European migrants has exposed some unhealthy attitudes about who we choose to include and exclude. Getting off the train, they look as if they could be coming to Berlin for a city break. They could be you.