Berlin, Germany – When Lyu Azbel first heard about Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, they reacted quickly.
With professional and personal ties to the country, Azbel tried to find out if their friends and colleagues were all safe. They soon got in touch with a colleague, Olena Chernova, who was still in Kiev.
A public health researcher who has lived in Berlin for 10 years told Al Jazeera by phone: “It was a really disturbing, scary time. I was concerned for Olena’s safety. I managed to convince her to come to Berlin and she arrived one evening in late March with only a small backpack. My young child, who is not very cuddly at all, hugged her. Today she is part of our family.”
Over the past year, Azbel, 36, has taken in nine Ukrainians in the two homes she and their family own in the German capital, including a family of four with two dogs who stayed for a week.
“They arrived in the first few days and therefore managed to find accommodation quickly. They are a very sweet family and we have had them for dinner ever since.”
They have also supported people in finding shelter and securing places in kindergarten.
And Ukrainians in Berlin find some positives in a difficult situation.
“A mother remembered being on a subway and her daughter surrounded by all these different characters. She says she was thrilled that her daughter saw this diversity from a very young age,” said Azbel, who plans to continue supporting the displaced in Germany.
But for Morgan Rodrick, a 49-year-old software engineer who also lives in the German capital, his experience turned out differently.
In the early days of the war, Rodrick was introduced to a man he knew as Sergey through another friend who had hosted him.
Anticipating a short stay, Rodrick invited Sergey to stay at his home while he temporarily moved into his partner’s flat.
Rodrick and his partner tried to help Sergey register as a refugee and settle in the city.
Two weeks turned into more than a month, and while the extended stay was no problem for Rodrick, he encountered a number of challenges in his efforts to support Sergey during his stay.
“My initial assumption was that he would stay for a few weeks, after which he would be enrolled in an official refugee program,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We tried to help him understand some of the official stuff using Google translate as everything was in German. And it became clear to us that he did not want to be officially registered or known as a refugee. He saw himself as a businessman who had just been out of danger for a while, hoping to return to Ukraine soon after.”
Without registering as a refugee in the city, Sergey had no access to economic aid or official employment, so Rodrick tried to help.
“I was going to put him in touch with someone who could offer him work as a driver, but after talking to him about the job, it became clear to me that he has what I would describe as very old-fashioned values towards women.
“Because the friend who might have some work for him was a woman, my partner and I realized this might not work out, so we ended up not hooking them up.”
Rodrick soon had to return home for work and informed Sergey of his plan.
“He came back to get some stuff, as well as the bag I packed for him, and then left. Since then we have not heard anything, it seems as if he has disappeared into the world.”
Outpourings of aid for the fleeing
Rodrick and Azbel’s varying experiences speak more to the different ways that refugee support has evolved in neighboring countries.
When the conflict started, there was an outpouring of support.
Poland opened their doors to Ukrainians while the German national railways carried Ukrainian passengers for free.
Nearly 19 million people have crossed the border to other countries, especially Poland, Russia and Hungary. More than a million refugees from Ukraine are registered in Germany.
Yet the war has come at a cost to European citizens, who have seen energy prices rise more than double in some households alongside other rising living costs amid record inflation rates.
Germany’s decision, albeit reluctantly, to commit itself militarily by giving Ukraine two of its tanks in January also sparked protests.
Despite the economic toll, polls have suggested that while support for Ukrainian refugees has fallen slightly, it has remained high in the West.
A global survey conducted by Ipsos in January in nearly 30 countries, including the US, Germany, Poland, the UK, Hungary and France, found that despite a dip in support for welcoming refugees in Germany and Belgium, most Westerners were still in favor of including it. in.
Gabrielė Valodskaite, a program assistant for the wider Europe area for the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said the commitment “is still there, but perhaps less visible”.
“Now the support is quite stable, more institutionalized and more efficient. European, national or local institutions had to learn how to handle things over time, and now the support is more stable.”
Meanwhile, Daria Krivonos, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cultures, Center of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives at the University of Helsinki, said international grassroots support is waning.
“I was in Warsaw two or three months after the invasion started, where I joined a group of volunteers at the station,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Even then it was clear that most of the volunteers providing support were Ukrainian citizens, many of whom lived in Poland before the latest escalation.
“In the beginning, many people came to the border with Poland to help refugees and provide basic support. But slowly this support from international networks began to fade. And now the situation has changed with Ukrainian citizens now filling the gaps left by the lack of help from the states, larger NGOs and groups of international volunteers.”
Krivonos said that while a shared culture was behind European support for Ukrainians, parts of the discussion around “Ukrainian whiteness” were “a bit binary”.
“We cannot deny that whiteness and the European character of Ukrainians played a major role, but in doing so we failed to look closely at the history of labor migration from Ukraine, and how these labor communities are now the ones hosting those who are displaced . In many ways, this discussion was rather simplistic.”
Support ‘isn’t going away’
On February 24, tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets in 400 cities worldwide, including Western European hubs such as Berlin, Warsaw and Paris, to celebrate the first anniversary of the war.
As the conflict continues, “there are a lot of moving parts involved in how this support (for refugees) can play out in the long run,” Valodskaite said.
“First, it will depend on how well European governments deal with energy costs, inflation and the overall economic situation in Europe as a result of the war. And then it comes down to how well the refugee issue is being addressed publicly. In terms of broader support, I think it may be less or less visible, but it will not go away, and I truly believe that European societies will continue to show strong support for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.”
Rodrick was eager to see an end to the war and said his chapter with Sergey won’t stop him from once again supporting a Ukrainian displaced by the war.
“The whole experience opened my eyes to what individual people’s experiences are like and how diverse they are,” he said.
“I didn’t understand Sergey’s motivation for not wanting to be a part of refugee asylum programs, nor how much he had been through. The experience gave me a more nuanced view of the experiences of those affected by war.”