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Christmas: How Ukrainian refugees find comfort in Germany

December 23, 2022

Ukrainians who have fled their country in the 10 months since the Russian invasion are facing their first festive season in Germany. Many have only one Christmas wish.

Gemeinde der Ukrainischen Griechisch-Katholischen Kirche (UGKK) in Berlin-Johannisthal
Ukrainian refugees find strength at St. Nikolaus church in Berlin-JohannisthalImage: Christoph Strack/DW

"It is all very difficult emotionally," Natalia told DW. "This year, Christmas is definitely very different for me." She comes from the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, where hundreds of people were killed and many areas were devastated in Russian attacks early this year. A few months later, she fled west with her daughter and ended up in Berlin. Her daughter has since found work in Cologne and moved there.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-December, Natalia stood in the bustling parish hall of the St. Nikolaus Church in Berlin-Johannisthal, in the east of the German capital. Catholic Christians from Ukraine have been using this church for many years. On December 19, two weeks after the occasion is celebrated by many Christians, Orthdox denominations celebrate the festival of St. Nicholas, for whom the church is named. This parish has become something of a home for Natalia.

"I cannot imagine what would have happened if I had not found this here. Everything would have been incredibly difficult for me," she said. "Here, I have support, here I can talk and meet other refugees. And I pray a lot." Natalia has started volunteering in the congregation and preparing children for confession.

Natalia in the parish meeting room with people eating at tables behind her
Natalia finds consolation in prayer and in the presence of other Ukrainian refugeesImage: Christoph Strack/DW

It was a feast day at St. Nikolaus. Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh, of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCK), has come from Munich. A small choir accompanies the mass, singing in harmony. The pews are full and at the back of the church the faithful crowd in, including many women, many with children. They also stand in the vestibule and pray. Some even wait on the street.

When the bishop walks around and sprinkles the people with holy water toward the end of the two-hour service, he also goes up to the parish halls on the first floor. There, too, people listened to the service on loudspeakers and prayed along.

Dzyurakh's full title is apostolic exarch of Germany and Scandinavia. This means that he has a large diocese. In Germany, this includes about 50 congregations spread across the country. The parishes, bishop, and pastors have been in a state of emergency since February 24 — the day Russia invaded Ukraine. As an aside, the priests of this church, which is in full communion with Roman Catholicism, are allowed to be married.

The congregations are growing. Nobody knows by exactly how many, but it is surely by several thousand. Many of the people attending mass this Sunday in Berlin speak no German or only a little. But after the service, they celebrate together. In the courtyard, there is bograch soup cooking on an open fire. Nearby, a barbecue sizzles.

man making bograch stew in a cauldron over a fire in a yard
Bograch — a taste of homeImage: Christoph Strack/DW

The bishop remained in the church for almost two hours, heard confession and spoke with people one-on-one. He spends a long time with a young woman who, supported by an older companion, talks through a stream of tears, and shows him a photo on her phone.

'We pray for our defenders'

"Everyone is asking themselves whether they have the right to be happy," Dzyurakh told DW. "As pastors, we encourage the people to let the Christmas joy into their hearts. That is why God's son came down to earth so that we can experience joy and hope. We need this joy. We pray for peace in Ukraine, we pray for our defenders. But we also want to celebrate this festival with joy."

In many places, priests are encouraging their parishes to first celebrate Christmas via video call with their relatives in Ukraine, often the men, and then come together for worship and fellowship. During Advent, the Catholic church in Stuttgart has published several texts online to explain Ukrainian customs to German communities or share a Christmas carol.

They describe fates such as that of the family of Svitlana Hnativ, who fled the war with her mother and son. They want to at least have a video call with Hnativ's brothers and father in north-western Ukraine, where they are looking after internally displaced people. "Our hearts are at home, and yet we are looking forward to Christmas here," she said. The 36-year-old expressly thanked the Stuttgart family who had taken her in and cared for her.

Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh smiles in his office
Dzyurakh has a large diocese, including about 50 congregations spread across GermanyImage: Christoph Strack/DW

'Many strangers help'

This is important to Natalia in Berlin. As the conversation with her ends, she wants to make one more point. "It is so nice that so many Germans support me. People I hardly know, even when filling out forms for the authorities. Many strangers help, it is fascinating," she said.

Myroslav (43) and Anna (42), refugees with four children, also discussed the kindness of strangers. "We have had such amazing experiences. Strangers have often helped us, or people we met by chance," they told DW. "In the congregation here, we receive support every day."

They traveled separately from Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west of Ukraine, to the Czech Republic — the mother with one child, the father with three. There, in safety, they researched which German cities had highly active church communities.

"We decided on Berlin," Myroslav said. The children have started school, both parents are learning German, and he leads the small parish choir. But he adds: "It will be much sadder this year. Our parents and many friends are still there. It [Christmas] will be much lonelier here."

The pastoral care workers in the nearly 50 church communities are also concerned about loneliness. "We are all human," Bishop Dzyurakh says. The stories "that are brought to us, challenge us." But it is true: "When we comfort others, we also experience divine comfort."

Myroslav and Anna stand inside a church with people behind them
Myroslav and Anna are grateful to have received help from strangers Image: Christoph Strack/DW

The established UGCK congregations in Germany had wanted to align their church calendars with the other Christian churches in the country from 2023, to celebrate Christmas and Easter at the same time as Catholics and Protestants. Now they have paused this move because the refugees from Ukraine celebrated according to the calendar of Eastern tradition and orthodoxy, and nobody wants to take that away from them. That is why some UGKK parishes celebrate Christmas on December 24 and others, such as in Berlin, on January 6.

People 'disappear without a trace'

Many congregations were stretched to their limits in the first few months of the war. The parish priest in Berlin was looking for psychological support in March. Now it is Serhiy Oliynchuk's job.

The 48-year-old UGCK priest is a studied theologian and holds a doctorate in psychology. He has many one-on-one conversations. Sometimes he is conducting a church service, other times he is a contact person in the psychosocial institutions of the Catholic aid organization Caritas. "And sometimes I have been needed as an emergency chaplain." He works with grief. Most refugees experienced the loss of their peaceful lives and the separation from their husbands and parents, he said. It was terrible whenever the brutal war took the lives of their loved ones. "And the absolute nightmare is when relatives simply disappear without a trace."

Oliynichuk comes from Lviv. His parents and siblings live there. The chaplain explains the significance of Christmas as a family celebration for Ukrainian Christians: "You always celebrate with extended family, with parents and grandparents." It is sad when that is missing. So "this year will be difficult," and a challenge for the congregations. "Of course, we cannot replace everything. But through the church services and praying together we are united."

A Ukrainian family builds a new life in Berlin

In Berlin-Johannisthal they gathered for a long time over food from their homeland and stories of their escape. The children received small parcels full of chocolate — it was St. Nicholas Day, after all. Natalia finds the conversations with others in her situation helpful. What is her Christmas wish? "My only wish is for the war to end. That would be the best thing that could happen at Christmas."

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Restarting in 2023, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society every Tuesday. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C