Ukrainian activists on volunteering in Germany: things have changed over one year

  • 2023-07-03
  • Daria Shyshko

24.02.2022 was the most glooming and shocking day for every Ukrainian worldwide. I remember when I woke up at 5 am at my grandfather's place and heard the explosions in Odesa Oblast. I knew it. The war had just begun. However, Natalia's story was different. Two days before the war started, she was flying back from Kyiv to Berlin with mixed feelings about whether she had made the right choice by returning to Germany and not extending the trip to her hometown, Odesa. Although the Baltics and Poland have emerged as Ukraine’s staunchest supporters with armies of volunteers, The Baltic Times Magazine found that the voluntary initiatives aiming to assist displaced Ukrainians abounded ubiquitously.

Becoming a voice for Ukraine when it was unpopular

Natalia moved to Germany in 2017 - when she was nominated for a scholarship to study Good Governance and Public Policy at the German University. It was long before Ukraine became a centerpiece of political news and the next hope for democracy. 

“It was different back in the day. No one knew much about Ukraine except for the corrupt environment in the country and nepotism. I was the first generation of Ukrainians actively involved in developing Ukrainian democracy and becoming an ambassador of a new wave of Ukrainian political youth,” Natalia says. 

“It was interesting to notice the shift in people's perceptions about Ukrainian governance when President Zelenskiy was elected as the fourth president of Ukraine. He translated the sense of national identity and unity – no matter where you were – working in Poland or studying in Germany, building a business in Zhytomyr or making techno music in Kyiv – you are Ukrainian, a part of a big family. “I felt like I was a part of something bigger than me. I felt proud,” Natalia adds.

Volunteer work with the first wave of Ukrainian refugees in Berlin

The worst reality was that many German residents could not believe there was a refugee crisis – that Ukrainians left everything they had and hopped on the train into the unknown. 

“I knew I had to be there. When your country is at war, and you are a thousand kilometers away, the first thing you want to do is figure out how to help your citizens. I was one of the first volunteers who went to the store and bought a social worker vest, put it on, and went to the central train station. I will always remember the first train of Ukrainian refugees coming to Berlin. At one point, all of a sudden, I heard the train transmitter saying in Ukrainian: Dear Ukrainians, welcome to Berlin! It was a surreal moment for me as a Ukrainian living in Germany for six years and hearing my fellow citizens' acknowledgment in the capital's central station. It was surreal. Then came the worst. People were falling out of the train once it arrived. Can you imagine people standing in a small crowded space of a train for 15+ hours and then finally being able to get out? When the train arrived, many volunteers gathered around to be there for them and help.”

 “Around 300 volunteers were willing to assist in any way during the war's first days. Everyone wanted to come and support Ukrainians, people from all backgrounds and nationalities. A lot of Russians were there too. Once refugees arrived, we were trained on what to do and asked to be soft and subtle once we started interacting with them. People were very traumatized after the long travel road,” Natalia recalls. 

“Some Ukrainians came really with nothing. You could see them wearing pajamas and having no belongings or possessions whatsoever. People were escaping the bombs and missiles flying by hiding under their homes. It was terrible.”

Volunteering in 2023: what has changed?

Ukraine had been in the first stands of the news for a solid half a year, getting all the world’s eyes drawn to the atrocities, and war crimes committed by Russian soldiers. The help was relentless, sometimes chaotic, but consistent. Do we see people donating their time, money, and energy to the Ukrainian cause just as much today? What are the social tendencies around the war topic among Germans? 

I’ve asked this Lisa Plitkova, a representative of Vitsche, an association of Ukrainian youth in Germany that advocates for the representation of  Ukrainian social, political, and cultural changes, to share her opinion. 

“It’s quite hard to generalize the volunteer dynamics over the year within Germany.  It was definitely not a linear process but It’s important to highlight the fact that back at the beginning of the war people didn’t know how to help and what to give. So, they were giving out everything that was needed and not in large volumes. A year later, I can assure you that even though people are not volunteering just as much as they used to, the help became more effective and precise. No one is running around in a panic about what to do anymore. I also want to add that volunteer work can be considered a luxury for people to engage in. Not only do you have to have free time and energy, but your financial position should allow you to continue donating or spending more. Not everyone can do that. That's why we should talk more about involving some economic or social benefit to people who dedicate part of their life to helping others regularly.”

Changing the narrative of the war perception now

“As a Ukrainian activist and volunteer, it has always been crucial to deliver specific points to our European partners,” Lisa adds. '”The war started not on the 24th of February in 2022 but on the 20th of February 2014. The Russian invasion in the east of Ukraine was a precursor for further escalation, resulting in the full-scale invasion we are all witnessing now. It's important to remember that the war developed largely because back in 2014, the world didn't react to it with the same intensity as it did in 2022. Due to this mere fact, any inclination toward pushing Ukraine to negotiate with Russia will lead to a bigger crisis and more deaths. When we are clear in this department, we can talk about how to build sustainable and strategic ways to help Ukraine and create a new vision for the country through volunteers.”