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Ukrainian refugees arrive in western Germany

March 7, 2022

Women and children have arrived in Cologne by bus from the Polish-Ukrainian border, exhausted but happy. Their feelings of joy and relief are mixed with immense anger toward Vladimir Putin and Russia's invasion.

Refugees arriving in Cologne
Women and children from Ukraine have been arriving in Cologne in recent daysImage: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

Chocolate, muesli bars and toothbrushes. As the Ukrainian refugees climb out of their bus, completely exhausted, they each receive a welcome package from volunteers. Almost 20 hours of travel from the Polish-Ukrainian border are now behind the women and children, along with days of uncertainty as to whether their escape to Germany would really work.

Again and again, the departure the border was delayed. There were problems with the registration and, in the end, the computer systems at the border broke down. So there was an overwhelming sense of relief among the refugees and supporters after they arrived in the north of Cologne.

Linda Mai, one of the organizers who brought these refugees to the western German city, is visibly moved. "This is a special day for all of us. The children immediately ran to the playground. One of them told me: 'It is so strangely quiet here. There are no sirens wailing at all'," she said.

Linda Mai standing in the warehouse
Linda Mai (left) is the main organizer for the Blue-Yellow Cross in CologneImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

A refugee center created from scratch

Mai is one of many people in Germany who are helping refugees from Ukraine. But the pharmacist, who came to Cologne from Ukraine 20 years ago, has also become the voice of Ukraine in the city.

The chairwoman of the board of the German-Ukrainian aid organization Blue-Yellow Cross has organized peace demonstrations with thousands of participants in Cologne and given speeches calling for solidarity with her home country. And in a day-and-night campaign, she has set up the city's largest aid center.

"I can hardly sleep at the moment, I wake up at night, and then I just get up and start working again; this is a way for me to deal with my pain," she said. "I am incredibly grateful to all the people who had nothing to do with Ukraine before and are now helping out here. I believe that the good Lord has sent us these great people, especially young people. This willingness to help is overwhelming and simply phenomenal."

Blue-Yellow Cross is the first point of contact

Before the war, the Blue-Yellow Cross aid organization was organizing carefree summer vacations for Ukrainian orphans. They brought youngsters aged 8 to 16 to Cologne, where they went to the zoo, rode roller coasters in the Phantasialand amusement park and visited the Cologne Cathedral.

Since February 24, the start of the war, the organization has turned into a center to collect donations of baby food, first aid kits and sleeping bags. In its 1,600-square-meter warehouse, dozens of volunteers sort through the aid packages which are arriving by the minute.

Every day, five trucks set off from Cologne in the direction of the Polish-Ukrainian border, where the goods are loaded onto Ukrainian trucks and taken to the war-torn region. Already, hundreds of tons of goods have landed in Eastern Europe, and this is just the beginning. More transports of Ukrainian refugees to Germany are also planned.

Linda Mai's mother and sister are still in Ukraine. When asked about her hopes for the coming days and weeks, she faltered, and the 47-year-old's voice began to tremble. "I hope that not so many Ukrainians have to die now because a dictator wants to achieve his personal goals. This crime must stop — now. My homeland is burning," she told DW.

Viktoria in the warehouse
Medical student Viktoria came to Germany three years agoImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

'I'm doing something useful'

Ukrainian national Viktoria, who requested her surname not be used, is one of many who spontaneously decided to help. For the past few days, the young medical student has been staying with friends in Cologne, where she has been helping out in the warehouse from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Her job is to organize the collection and distribution of medicine and dressing materials for Ukrainian hospitals.

"It gives me strength to do this, it's a bit like therapy for me. I'm not sitting at home crying now, I'm doing something useful," she said. "It also gives strength to my family and friends in Ukraine to get up every morning. Because they know that we are also fighting for them every day here in Germany."

Refugees welcome at German-Polish border

Viktoria is now pushing her own limits; she still works shifts at a hospital where she is on emergency duty. 

"Thursday last week, I was on overnight duty at the hospital when I got a text message from my mother: 'We are being bombed. I love you.' And then I had no contact with her for 30 minutes and thought she was gone. That was terrifying. Since then, I can't even keep track of what day it is," she said.

With tears in her eyes, Viktoria spoke of how she came to Germany three years ago. Today, she speaks almost perfect German. But now her life has changed. " My hope is that this war will finally end. And I finally see my parents again," she said.

According to figures released by the Federal Statistical Office from 2020, 263,300 Russian nationals were registered in Germany. And due to the large number of German nationals who moved here from former states of the Soviet Union because they have German roots, an estimated 3.5 million people living in Germany speak Russian.

The other day, Viktoria was approached by a fellow helper who told her he has a Russian friend. He asked her whether she thought she would be willing to forgive Russia someday. "Every day a little less," she told him. "There is simply too much pain."

This article was originally written in German.

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

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.