Many Ukrainians are thankful for the welcome Germany has given them but some still feel out of place | Photo: Wolfgang Maria Weber/Imago
Many Ukrainians are thankful for the welcome Germany has given them but some still feel out of place | Photo: Wolfgang Maria Weber/Imago

Germany hosts more than 900,000 Ukrainian refugees, most of them women and children. While many want to return home, others say they plan on staying. DW spoke with two families in Cologne.

"At first we hesitated to leave but then we realized it was too dangerous to stay," says Anastasia, who fled Ukraine along with her mother and her two younger brothers in March. 

She and her family were living in Sumy in eastern Ukraine, a city which saw heavy urban fighting in the six weeks after Russia launched war on Ukraine on February 24. 

With Russian forces shelling evacuation convoys, they knew leaving would be a dangerous undertaking.

But they felt they had no other option as the situation in Sumy was getting worse every day, 26-year-old Anastasia says.

Anastasia's boyfriend and her father, who had to remain behind to fight for Ukraine, accompanied the rest of the family to the bus that would take them out of the country.

"The farewell was heartbreaking," says Anastasia.

Their journey, spent sitting on their bags in the aisle of a bus bound for the Polish border, took two days.

From there, they traveled first to the German capital, Berlin, and then through the night to Cologne, a large city in Germany's west.

There they were taken to refugee accommodation in a hotel, which currently houses 100 Ukrainians.

Anastasia and her brother Artyom are now living in Cologne but hope to return to Ukraine soon | Photo: Victor Weitz/DW
Anastasia and her brother Artyom are now living in Cologne but hope to return to Ukraine soon | Photo: Victor Weitz/DW

Hoping to return home

Anastasia says that like many of those living in the hotel. her family want to return home as soon as it's safe.

"First we thought it would be in May, now we're hoping for fall. It all depends on how long it [the war] lasts," she says.

"Honestly, we're scared to go back and sit on a powder keg in Sumy, Russian rockets could strike it at any time. But we'd really like to go home as soon as possible."

She says she and her mother worry every day about those they left behind in Ukraine.

"To live with that uncertainty, to not know how my father and boyfriend are, is very difficult. My mother and I have shed many tears about this," the young woman tells DW.

Difficult adjusting to life away from home

Anastasia says she and her family "will carry gratitude in their hearts for the rest of their lives" for the way Germany is protecting and caring for Ukrainians.

More than 900,000 Ukrainians were officially registered in Germany as of July 16. 

Still, she feels many of them feel out of place here — with the lack of German language skills being a major hurdle. 

"Refugee forums on social networking platforms have been our salvation. We found useful information there that helped us solve lots of problems we otherwise couldn't have solved," she says. 

Social workers and volunteers aren't always able to help those residing at the hotel, Anastasia explained, adding that even the volunteers sometimes don't understand what exactly what is being asked on the many forms the refugees have to fill out.

Still, Anastasia and her family are now officially registered and are receiving financial assistance that helps them pay for food and their accommodation. 

They have no plans though of looking for a more permanent place to stay. 

"We're not going to look for an apartment," says Anastasia. "That's difficult in Cologne and we aren't planning on staying in Germany that long anyhow."

Anastasia's family isn't alone in wanting to return. A recent United Nations survey of Ukrainians who have left found the majority hoped to go back to their home communities as soon as possible, but most want to wait until it's safer to do so. 

Anna and Alex, a same-sex couple from Odesa, say they can finally live free from fear in Cologne | Photo: Victor Weitz/DW
Anna and Alex, a same-sex couple from Odesa, say they can finally live free from fear in Cologne | Photo: Victor Weitz/DW

Fleeing Odesa at the right time

It's a different story for Ukrainian couple Anna and Alexandra, who have also ended up in Cologne.

When Russia launched its war on Ukraine, the couple immediately fled the port city of Odesa in southwestern Ukraine where they were living.

"It became clear to my partner and I on February 24, that we could be doubly targeted," says Alexandra, not only because they were Ukrainian but also because they were in a same-sex relationship.

"The thought that Russian laws could soon apply in Ukraine — forbidding same-sex partnerships — was awful," she says. 

The couple, who have been together for three years, fled with their cat, even though they knew the animal may make their journey more difficult.

"Volunteers who helped us in [the Czech capital] Prague suggested we go to Germany because we would have better chances of finding a place where we could live with our cat," says Anna. "We were pleasantly surprised when we learned it was no problem to bring in pets."

Difficult search for a Cologne apartment

When they arrived in Cologne in mid-March, the couple set out to find temporary accommodation.

"We followed up on offers in internet forums. That's how we found the first family that said they'd take us and our cat in for an unspecified time," says Alexandra.

After registering with German authorities and also receiving financial assistance, they started looking for an apartment where they could live on their own — but finding one in Cologne, they say, is no easy matter.

One problem, warns Alexandra, is that internet forums are crawling with scammers advertising in Russian and English and wanting money up front for referrals to possible rental properties.

"Most so-called rental agents disappear after you've made the first payment," she says.     

In early July though they got lucky. Their prospective landlord was willing to hold his apartment for two weeks while they waited for Germany's employment agency to approve rent assistance. 

"We didn't sleep well while we waited for an answer, we were tired and worried the whole time. Finally, we got a call from the agency and written confirmation for the payment of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Cologne. We were in seventh heaven," they explain together.

Anna and Alexandra say freely celebrating CSD was a first for them and tell DW they can't imagine returning to Odesa | Photo: Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters
Anna and Alexandra say freely celebrating CSD was a first for them and tell DW they can't imagine returning to Odesa | Photo: Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters

A new home in Germany

In Odesa, Anna worked as a manicurist and studied psychology while Alexandra worked as a bartender.

Now, the two have a place in a German-language course starting mid-August. They both hope they'll be able to enroll at university in Germany and find jobs here.

They have no plans to return to Ukraine.

"I can no longer imagine a life for myself in Odesa after seeing how LGBTQ people live in Cologne," says Alexandra.

Cologne has a large gay scene and a reputation for being LGBTQ friendly.

At the beginning of July, the couple went to Cologne's Christopher Street Day (CSD) parade. 

Attended by more than 1 million people, it's one of the bigger gay pride events in Europe. 

"For the first time in our lives, we were able attend a CSD parade without being scared," says Alexandra, explaining that at the Odesa LGBTQ pride march, those attending don't dare step outside police-cordoned areas for fear of being beaten.

"I've often been confronted with violence [in Ukraine]," Alexandra says. "But here in Cologne I can live freely. We hold hands in public and can introduce ourselves as a couple wherever we go."

"That is priceless and provides a quality of life that we wouldn't have back home."

This article was originally written in Russian.

Author: Victor Weitz

First published: July 23, 2022

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