Berlin is among the cities in Germany to take in the most Ukrainian refugees. But it's running out of room, especially as refugees leave homes of volunteer hosts after months of sleeping in someone else's living room.
It's the children who catch your attention first. Screaming and laughing loudly, they run around in Terminal C of the former Tegel airport in Berlin. Colorful lights in the sole of a girl's shoe light up with every step she takes. A boy does laps on a scooter. Another tries to jump onto a pallet truck that two men in work clothes are using to transport boxes.
Because the children are so lively, the adults in former airport building seem even quieter in contrast. Some sit near power outlets, staring at the displays of their recharging mobile phones.
Others have found a seat at one of the many tables here, and are eating. Those who have just arrived are waiting for their registration, and must stand with their suitcases. They seem the quietest.
Bunk beds and flimsy walls
Tegel airport, which closed two years ago, now houses a reception center for asylum-seekers and refugees from the war in Ukraine.
"We have 600 beds for asylum-seekers and then an additional 1,600 spots for Ukrainians in Terminal C. But most of these are now occupied," said Detlef Cwojdzinski from the German Red Cross, which, along with other aid organizations, runs the reception center here. "The situation is difficult because we now have to accommodate people in large tents," he told DW.
Two of the temporary tents, which each house 400 people, are standing outside on the former airport's tarmac. Generators roar and blow warm air into the tents through thick hoses. Inside, the accommodation looks similar to the living area in the terminal but there's less space. White and gray temporary walls separate off niches, occupied by bunk beds. "Please don't take pictures," said a Red Cross employee, pointing out that people here have hardly any privacy anyway.
The aid organizations do a lot to make a stay here easier. There is a clothing store, support staff, interpreters, medical and psychological care and child care.
"Every day around 40 dogs, cats and other pets arrive here," said Cwojdzinski. "We take care of them too."
A stay in the reception center is supposed to be limited to one to three days. Right now, though, the average stay is more like eight days, if not even longer. More than 3,000 people are currently waiting in reception centers like these, to be transferred to more permanent accommodation. And the numbers are only rising.
Long-term accommodation harder to come by
In a recent letter sounding the alarm, Katja Kipping, the Berlin state government’s senator for social issues, said the state's office for refugee affairs is currently "not able to cover the extraordinarily sharp increase" in asylum-seekers and the increasing needs of Ukrainian refugees "at the necessary speed."
There are simply not enough beds, despite the city's best efforts. As an emergency solution, 10,000 additional beds in hangars and tents should be available by the end of the year, like those already standing on Tegel airport's former runway.
Berlin is among the cities in Germany that have taken in the most refugees— an estimated 85,000 are currently registered there. But most of the Ukrainians have found private accommodation. Only 3,000 live in state-sponsored accommodation. Having said that, more Ukrainian refugees are now reporting to the reception centers as they no longer want to burden their private hosts.
Eight months in the living room
Among them are Anna Bobrakova and her two sons, who were in a private home for over half a year. The three come from the Donbas region and fled to Kyiv in 2014 when war broke out there. Eight years later, the war caught up with them again. Arriving at Berlin's central train station, a German family offered them private accommodation.
They stayed in the family living room for eight months. "We were very grateful, but it was time to leave," said Bobrakova. "Even though we were all very sad and cried when we moved out."
Bobrakova and her sons now live in a hotel room rented by the state of Berlin. But there she's on her own and it's not so easy. She still needs help with the language, both in daily life and in dealing with German bureaucracy.
Bobrakova has been able to find some help at a Protestant church in Berlin. The St. Markus parish in the Steglitz neighborhood has been involved in refugee aid since the start of the Russian invasion and has sheltered to up to a hundred people. Camp beds have been set up in the community hall, there's a clothing donations area and donated food is piled up in storage rooms. People staying there can cook in one of three kitchens.
Viktoria Chumak lived here for six months. She had initially hoped to return to her hometown, just south of Odesa. Four of her family planned to leave Ukraine, but at the border her 20-year-old daughter said she didn't want to leave. "I had to choose between my 14-year-old son and my mother, who is severely disabled, and my daughter," said Chumak.
Fear, a constant companion
Every day she fears for her daughter. "There are better days and there are worse days. Today is a bad day because there were many rocket attacks in Ukraine again," said the 41-year-old, tears in her eyes. Chumak still hopes that her daughter will also come to Berlin. At the same time, her son has settled so well in Germany that he can imagine staying here forever, and her 72-year-old mother doesn't want to go back to the war-torn country either.
This is also due to the fact that the family of three have now found their own apartment. "This is a notable exception," said Alexander Weber, who takes care of refugees at the Markus parish. "This is the only social housing that we have been able to provide since the outbreak of the war."
Weber has been at the church helping from the start. The 37-year-old science editor was born in the Soviet Union and has lived in Germany since 1990. "As a Russian by birth, I feel particularly affected and I want to prove that what the Kremlin is saying is not right," he said. Weber's wife Victoria Abakumovski agrees.
"At home I want to climb the walls," she said. "I'd rather be here, giving German lessons, listening to our guests, holding their hands and crying with them."
Those who flee Ukraine obviously bring their trauma with them. At the church, they try to help process the terrible experiences through discussions. It's not easy for the volunteers either. "We talk to each other a lot here," said Weber.
Clothing the dead
But sometimes the horror is just too great. "Once a woman came in here who was clearly in a bad way. She was very pale and didn't want to talk at first," said Weber. "We found out that she was on her way to Ukraine and wanted to take things for four people from our closet."
When asked whether it was for men or women and in what size, the Ukrainian only answered several times that it didn't matter. The woman's four relatives had been shot by Russians and found naked in a mass grave, Weber recalled. "The woman was on her way to Ukraine to dress and bury the bodies."
This article was translated from German.
Author: Sabine Kinkartz
First published: November 19, 2022
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