On International Women’s Day, I went to Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (central train station) to meet M., a young woman from Kharkiv, Ukraine.
As the first waves of refugees from Ukraine arrived in Berlin, the city’s volunteer organizations mobilized. They very quickly organized chat groups, Telegram channels and Facebook teams to set up a welcome and information center at Hauptbahnhof, arrange for accommodation, further transport to other cities, clothing, food, medical needs, pet needs, and needs tailored to LGBTQI and BIPOC groups.
One of the very first to jump to action for accommodation was the Facebook group Host A Sister, a group originally developed for solo female travelers to find safe accommodation as they explored the world. My niece alerted me to Host A Sister’s efforts, and I immediately added my name a spreadsheet with my contact details, type of accommodation available, how many people I could provide shelter to, and for how long.
Almost immediately, I received emails from the organizers looking for accommodations for families, mothers and children, small groups of people traveling together, and just as immediately other women able to host larger groups jumped to the chance to help. Eventually, I was matched with M., a third-year med student from Kharkiv, arriving on March 8.
M. had spent one or two nights in Poland, where receiving stations and camps were set up for evacuees. She arrives in Berlin with a camping backpack, a bedroll, and wearing snowboarding trousers and heavy boots. She tells me she had packed up very quickly on the evening of 27 February, prepared to sleep rough. She told me it took her 10 days to get to the border, a trip that would normally only take a few hours by car.
We get her settled into my flat, with a bed and fresh bedsheets and blankets. She insists that she can just use her sleeping bag, not wanting to be a bother, telling me she will only stay as long as it takes her to find a job and her own flat. Her eagerness to re-establish normalcy in her life, to be ready to go back to Ukraine as soon as possible, to try and pick up where her life was so cruelly interrupted, is something I learn that most of the people arriving from Ukraine feel.
After all, Berlin is only a short train ride away, many have even been here before on holiday. People arrive from the border in normal, everyday clothes, with roller suitcases and stuffed animals and laptops and headphones, clean clothes, food in their bellies, pets in pet carriers. They have not walked for days, piled into small boats and headed out to sea, washed up on Greek islands or sent away from Italian coasts, or starved in the forests of Belarus and Serbia on their way to Germany.
Geographically, they’re not that far from home.
I assure M. that she’s welcome as long as she needs, and there is no hurry. We set her up with clean towels, her own set of keys, and a tour of the neighborhood at her request. As she relaxes a bit into her first day, tells me she is feeling lost. Her entire life has just been snatched away from her. Her future is unwritten. She is unanchored.
M.’s mother chose to stay in Ukraine, in a village outside of Kharkiv. M. says she is safe. M. says her mother understands why M. fled, but also doesn’t understand. M. says she and her mother have a complicated relationship.
I say, “I think that is the relationship of all mothers and daughters.”
Her first night, M. says it’s nice to feel safe, to not hear bombs. But she also says she feels bad for feeling safe. Then she goes to bed, and sleeps for 10 hours.
As the days go on and we get to know a bit more about each other, I watch M. as she navigates days that are half-filled with figuring out how to register her status and get the support she needs, and half-filled with nothing, wandering around Berlin with no direction. Almost feeling like she is on vacation but not on vacation, drifting and untethered and yearning to not be lost.
“My mother is an optimist,” she tells me one day after a brief call with her mom back in Ukraine. “She says she can hear shelling, but it’s not too close. She’s spending her days reading and listening to music,” M. laughs, but with laughter that never reaches all the way up to her eyes that are full of worry and dread.
Her mother is only 3 years older than me.
M.’s only other family member is an uncle in Israel, who says he can’t do anything for her right now because his flat is already rented out. I am enraged by this. I am generally enraged by the entire situation, by the unjustness of it. Enraged by a guy I chat with on a dating app who soppily tells me he will only offer his spare room to a refugee mother and child, prioritizing a childbearing woman over solo travelers, as though women like M. don’t have the same value, aren’t worth sheltering, too.
In her normal life, before the war, M. doesn’t watch much TV, reads medical journals in her spare time. She listens to classical music, and really likes symphonies. I play Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain for her. I tell her that there is something in those long, clarion opening notes that quenches a thirst deep inside of me, that gives me a feeling of profound peace.
I don’t tell her that it’s the peace you feel when you’re home.
M. is incredibly resourceful. She continues to consult the various Telegram channels passing information back in forth, in Ukrainian, Russian, German, English. People helping people as best they can. M. throws a question out: anyone have a lead on a flat? She gets an answer immediately: yes, for 2 months, in a small town outside of Cologne.
It sounds too good to be true. We’re both wary. Rumors of traffickers are starting to be shared, alerts about people disappearing. I suggest she ask a few pointed questions. The woman offering the apartment figures out M.’s concern, gives her a call to reassure her. Actually puts her on the phone with her boyfriend’s mother, who is Russian from city outside of Moscow and speaks in an accent that M. recognizes.
She takes the flat.
She tells me that her university in Kharkhiv will continue with online study, news that M. herself is surprised by. She’s figured out her registration, has an appointment to open a bank account, and is applying for her work permit. She wants to go back to Ukraine — she tells me about the mountain ranges she’s hiked, the things she loved her in city — but she doesn’t believe returning will be possible for months.
She’s says this with gentleness, and kindness — for herself, for her country. But she’s realistic.
She’ll make a good doctor one day.