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‘Your normal is not my normal’: Working with Ukrainian war refugees in Berlin, Pt. 2

(Editor’s note: This is Pt. 2 of a continuing series documenting the work of a multi-lingual Ukrainian expat in Berlin helping newly arrived Ukrainian war refugees. You can read Pt. 1 here.)

They still arrive.

Dear people, there are still people arriving in Berlin who are fleeing from the war. The first train is EC178 from Prague scheduled for 10:42. So you still have time for breakfast and afterwards you are welcome to support for a few hours at the HBF. Do you have some time to spare today? Great – we are looking forward to see you. © quote from the HBF Berlin Arrival Support Telegram channel.

Other people have been doing this for weeks and months now.

They set up websites, Telegram channels, online supplies lists, Facebook groups, all to help the Ukrainians.

Learning on the job

I, an amateur, feel out of place. But I am still trying to learn fast and fit in. The first cases I get are easy. People want food or water, and I direct them. Some ask me to go with them because though the food corner has everything signed in different languages, they are still afraid to ask for some coffee or tea or soup because it’s not self-serve; it needs to be poured by a volunteer.

A woman comes to the Red Cross station and pulls me away for a private talk. Turns out she’s got HIV, and she is already staying in some shelter on the outskirts of Berlin. She says she doesn’t need any immediate help or meds, but she came here to ask how the system works, and what she needs to do to get proper treatment once she gets her health insurance card.

I find out that many people didn’t get anything concerning health insurance when they applied for the refugees of war status. We’re hosting several relatives, and they did get a temporary paper – not exactly an insurance but something that allowed them in case of need to go to the insurance company and get an Überweisung – a referral to the doctor.

This woman doesn’t seem to have received anything at all; it seems that social services departments in different areas of the city, or maybe it’s different insurance companies, operate differently. I explain how insurance works here as best I can, and she leaves, hopefully reassured that she won’t be left without help when the time comes.


Some people come in and ask for free SIM cards. It’s such a popular ask that there’s a printed advertisement by the entrance stating that we don’t hand out SIM cards. Some big phone companies, like Telekom and Vodafone, did it in the beginning, but it seems that their supplies have been running out. Still, volunteers have a short list of stores that are reported to still give away free cards. We hand over the photocopies of the list.

Some people just come in for free wifi, or charge their phone. A woman asks if we have any portable chargers but unfortunately, we don’t. A man comes and asks how he can transfer money to Ukraine, because his daughter needs money and she’s still there. I start explaining about the bank account, and a wire transfer, and the Wise account that he can get to make the exchange rate and transfer fees less painful. I show him how he can get bank requisites from the Ukrainian banking app Privatbank, which I too still have.

But it’s all too complicated.

German banks usually want a residence registration, which he doesn’t yet have. Wise takes time to do background checks; and then with Wise, you’d still have to get money into that account somehow. So, he still needs a German account, or money in a Ukrainian account, and he doesn’t have money there.

In the end, he asks me if I can do a transfer myself from my own Ukrainian account, and he’ll just give me 50 euros in cash. That’s something definitely crossing the limits and we don’t have to do that.

I’m thinking that my husband would definitely tell me not to. I sigh and furtively look around to see if anyone is watching. Then I quickly do the transfer and pocket the money. After all, if he turns out to be a fraudster, it’s only 50 euros, I am telling myself.

He leaves happy.

(Editor’s note: Berlin is one of the main destination of Ukrainian war refugees. Read more here about the volunteer effort to assist them.)

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Maryna is a software developer from Ukraine who now lives in Germany. Maryna also writes a programming blog to share her knowledge. She sometimes speaks at conferences, though being an introvert, writing comes more naturally. She says she’s not a professional writer but writing is something she likes, “and I think I can do it pretty well.”

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