BERLIN (AP) — Yan Skvyrskyi talks on the phone to his mother in Ukraine at least 12 times a day, spends sleepless nights worrying about her but fears it may be too dangerous to help her flee the war-torn country right now.
“We are all very nervous and we try to do everything we can to get our families out,” Skvyrskyi told The Associated Press. “There are these sirens from morning till night, reminding people to go to the bunkers. They live 24/7 under stress and fear.”
Skvyrskyi belongs to Europe’s more than 1.5 million-strong Ukrainian diaspora — more than 1 million live in Poland, over 300,000 in Germany, and about 250,000 in Italy, with smaller numbers in other countries. They’ve been in panic mode since the war started a week ago.
While many Ukrainians in Germany — a lot of them from Jewish communities — arrived after the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, those in Poland came more recently, often after 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, looking for work or for higher education at Polish universities. Ukrainians have been coming to Italy mostly as labor migrants for about 25 years. The women work as maids, cleaners, nannies or caretakers, the men mostly in transport or construction.
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Some have returned to Ukraine to fight the Russian army, others are collecting medicine, food and clothes which they pass to relief groups at the Ukrainian border, and many are trying to organize their families’ and friends’ escape out of Ukraine.
Skvyrskyi, 38, who works in sales in Berlin, immigrated to Germany when he was six. His parents returned home years later and now live with his brother and their two little grandchildren in Dnipro, central Ukraine.
Together with members of the Jewish Chabad community of Berlin, which he belongs to, Skvyrskyi has been organizing buses and daily truck shuttles with medical, hygiene, and basic food supplies to the Ukrainian border. They bring back refugees to Berlin.
“A major part of the 50,000 Jews living in Berlin are from Ukraine,” says Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal from the Chabad community, which he says is being flooded with calls and messages from Ukrainians — both in Ukraine and fleeing their country.
“Many of them are coming to Germany and coming to Berlin because they are convinced that their economic future is best here,” he said.
On Thursday, the U.N. refugee agency said more than 1 million people had fled Ukraine. Most are women and children, as men of military age are not allowed to leave Ukraine.
Several thousand have reached Germany. In Berlin, hundreds arrive daily on trains from Poland after crossing from Ukraine. The city’s mayor said around 20,000 refugees are expected in the near future, and authorities are reopening shelters built during the big migrant crisis in 2015-16, when more than 1 million people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan reached Germany.
Many private initiatives have sprung up, too.
The Chabad community has accepted over 20 families and is expecting at least another 100 in the coming days, Teichtal said. In addition to those brought by families and friends, some refugees have found their way to the Chabad synagogue independently, knocking on the door and asking for shelter. An Israeli man who lived in Ukraine until the war broke out has been sleeping in the synagogue since his arrival earlier this week, and further rooms and welcome kits have been prepared for those expected in the coming days and weeks.
Vlad Pinkskij is another contact point for Ukrainians in Berlin. The 46-year-old, who emigrated from Odesa when he was 14, has a relocation agency that has mostly been helping Russians find jobs and start new lives in Berlin. Now fellow German-Ukrainians are begging him to help them bring their families.
Pinkskij’s already given his eight-seater van to a friend who’s been driving back and forth to bring refugees from the Polish-Ukrainian border. He converted much of his big office space into bedrooms, buying mattresses, blankets, sheets and even stuffed animals — two big smiling monkeys — in case children move in. A Telegram group he opened a couple of days ago for those wanting to help has more than 800 members and is growing.
While Pinkskij’s immediate family left Ukraine three decades ago, he’s still working endless hours every day to get as many people out of the country as possible.
“These are people who need our help now,” Pinskij said, nervously pacing in his office in the city’s Steglitz neighborhood. “Six days ago, they had an apartment, a house, a garden, a car, a life, husbands. And now they are here. Without men, without apartments, all alone.”
Among those he’s helped reach Berlin is Lilia Kosovich, 60, the wife of a good friend from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. Together with her daughter-in-law, Khrystyna Kosovich, 30, relative Iryna Kozoriz, 29, and two 5-year-old girls, Kamila and Anastasia, she left home on Friday and drove to the border, where all five waited for hours before they could enter Poland.
They are currently staying with another friend, but Pinskij showed them the newly arranged bedroom in his office in case they want to move in. They still seemed too shell-shocked to make any decisions. Asked about their husbands, who chose to stay and fight the Russians, all three started crying.
“We are getting a lot of help here, and Ukraine gets a lot of help,” Kozoriz said through her tears. “But we need more military help because if Ukraine loses, then there is a serious risk that (Russian President Vladimir Putin) will go much further” and invade other European countries.
The two little girls hugged their crying mothers and grandmother with big frightened eyes, not really understanding what’s going on. They had been told they were all going on a vacation to Germany — only for a few weeks.