Me, volunteer. For two changes in the skin of those who help refugees

I’m going to stretch for a while after work, so as not to fall asleep, but to gain strength. I prefer to order an alarm so that I don’t sleep until morning. Of course, the irritating sound of my cell phone wakes me up. I’m cold, I’m going to put on a dozen layers of clothes and hurry to go to the metro. At ten-thirty in the evening, my shift at the central station begins. I got involved as a voluntary helper for people fleeing Ukraine because of the war.

So far I have followed the whole crisis as a journalist, I have seen the confusion of the first days at Prague station. People were arriving, they didn’t know where to go, only a few volunteers who had experience with Syrian refugees seven years ago were on duty at night. As a journalist, I also observed help at the Ukrainian-Polish border.

There is a lot of confusion in the journalist’s head. His work is visible and recorded. But above all, he is human, and when he sees people who need help, he wants to help them. Instead, he gets in the way of true volunteers, tries not to jump on refugee stories like a hyena, and watches from a distance.

But now it’s a cold spring night and I’m getting ready for volunteering, which is organized by the Refugee Aid Organization, the Hlavák Initiative and the Prague City Hall. I signed up at a snack bar. My privilege of being born after the revolution and speaking Western languages ​​is not at all appropriate at this time. I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, I only understand badly. But when you eat and drink, you can play with your hands and feet.

For coffee and fight

To the right of the renovated Fanta Café at Central Station, a refugee support center has been set up. There are information kiosks, heated snack tents and a separate room where mothers with children or the elderly can spend at least one night on the sunbeds.

“Hello, I’m going to register as a volunteer”, I arrive at the stand according to the previous instructions. “Do you speak Russian or Ukrainian? No? So there you have a reflective vest, there is a snack opposite, the previous shift will brief you there,” the pretty brunette told me.

For snacks, tea, coffee and hot water for instant soup are always needed. It is important to ensure that chopsticks and a selection of food for children are always available: cookies, snacks or sunar. Drinking water must always be on site. Many volunteers in vests and firefighters, who take care of the warehouse and the exchange of greenhouses with hot drinks and water, help with everything.

It’s about an hour after midnight. There are only a few Ukrainian families sitting here waiting for train connections. Mainly in Germany. Someone comes here for a coffee, a tea or a baguette. But it is relatively calm, because no train from the east arrives at this time. Men in their thirties also go to the cafe. “I’m going to Ukraine to fight,” one of them tries to explain to me in Ukrainian.

Photo: Adam Hříbal, News List

Arrival at the central station.

Thanks to the peace of mind, I can also have fun with other volunteers, they are mainly students who go to help, but also those who take vacations to be able to get involved in the crisis. But there are also people like me today, that is to say those who choose night work precisely because they normally work during the day.

Today’s three-hour shift was quiet, but also thanks to the fact that after four weeks of operation, everyone knows exactly what to do. The volunteers are coordinated, communicate with the firefighters and the police and there is good training. We’ll see what happens on the next shift, which starts two days at nine o’clock in the morning, this time as someone who accompanies the refugees directly from train to train or solves whatever they need at the moment. But now I’m going home by night tram and I’m going to recharge my batteries.

Shift number two

My premonition that the morning shift on the dock would be busier turned out to be true within minutes. After nine o’clock, humanitarian trains arrive from Przemysl, Poland, the first station near the Ukrainian-Polish border. Trains depart regularly from Prague to Ukraine with humanitarian aid, bringing back those on the run.

“Take the signs here saying you help refugees, they usually need to get train tickets further across Europe or to the Palais des Congrès,” the volunteer coordinator quickly tells us. “I’m sorry my vocal cords can’t,” he said guiltily, speaking to us through a megaphone. The volunteers always have information from the police and fire brigade on how many Ukrainian refugees are traveling on which train. 150 of them are waiting this time.

The train is coming and firefighters at every door are helping people out. In each shift there are also interpreters who wear special labels who speak Russian or Ukrainian. This is why I cling to the back of my interpreter. He discovers from the first couple of mothers with a daughter of about fifteen years old what they need. They are heading to Germany, they need tickets and a guide to the right platform. I take care of it. Before leaving with them, the interpreter will add another mother and an adult daughter to their group, which they need in Ústí nad Labem.

Ukrainian refugees have free trains, but they must show their passports at the station ticket office. So I take representatives of each family who have both passports all over the station hall. One of the four women speaks English, which helps me a lot because she interprets for the rest of the group. Thanks to the train app, I learn that everyone will be traveling on the same train in about an hour.

The name of the young English-speaking woman is Tatiana. She is a university student and comes from Kharkov. That is, one of the most affected cities in eastern Ukraine. The other couple are from kyiv and have friends in Germany to follow. We collect the train tickets and take them back to Fant’s Cafe, where I show them they can have a coffee or tea and something to eat. I promise them that I know what train they are traveling on and that when the platform number appears on the information board, I will take them directly to the train.

sweat and tears

Meanwhile, my reflective vest and the rolled Ukrainian flag in my hand act like a magnet. More and more people come to me asking “Where is the toilet?”, “Where is the luggage storage?”, “What is the rate of the hryvnia-crown?”, “Where can they eat?”, ” What should they do?”, “how do they get to the metro?”, “how do they get to the Canadian Embassy?”, “are there really full accommodation capacities in Prague?” .

We solve everything by mixing Czech, Ukrainian, Russian and English. Partly helps online translator, partly hands and feet. When it’s the worst, I’ll ask the interpreter for help. But we get there quite a bit, we generally understand a few key words.

I don’t know how you can help us so much.

Tatiana, Ukrainian refugee

Olga, my mother from my “first group”, comes to see me every five minutes to ask me if I already know the number of the platform and if they can do it. I always assure him that I don’t know anything yet, but that I really think about them. Her daughter still rolls her teenage eyes and reassures her that everything is calm. I look at her conspiratorially, reassuring my mother by gently squeezing her shoulder.

I’m also going to see the other pair of women I’m caring for. Outside the entrance, Tatiana smokes, watches the shuttles that take refugees directly to the Palais des Congrès, and takes photos of the tower of the station building. “I really like Prague, I was here recently before the war,” she tells me, and her face shows great fatigue in recent weeks.

“I don’t understand how you can help us so much,” she told me, her eyes flooding with tears of emotion. I have already seen such a reaction from many Ukrainian refugees. Their gratitude for human kindness in terrible times usually feels like a freshly chopped onion on both sides of the dialogue. “You would still help us,” I assure Tatiana, and we remain silent for a moment.

In the meantime, I take another mother and a little girl on a train to Karlštejn, accompany my old grandmother on a toilet stick or take me to a metro station. I have to focus on the hell out of not getting it wrong, especially on the metro, which has separate entrances from the Central Station platform depending on the direction. The thought of misdirecting people who have been through those difficult days and weeks causes my back to sweat and a constant tension in my stomach.

Blue and yellow hearts

Finally, the platform number of the four ladies I promised to take them on the train flashes in my app. They quickly collect the things they have with them, each with their own suitcase or bag, and Tatiana also holds a small plastic cage with her cat Tim in one hand.

Olga and I share one of the heavy bags, each taking it in one ear and heading to the sixth platform. I curse in my head why that train has to be so far away, because my ear starts pounding painfully in the palm of my hand. The idea is immediately replaced by another that does not understand how two little women could have arrived in Prague with this heavy burden, and I swear on my own weakness.

The platform is crowded, there are more Ukrainian groups. Germany is their usual destination if they are not staying in the Czech Republic. An international express arrives. I say goodbye to the four women, and especially to Tatiana, who hugs me gratefully and quickly searches for me on Instagram to stay connected. I spent about two hours with them and think I’ve known them for weeks.

The shift is already fast, there is also a special room for volunteers, where they have supplies of water and small snacks. The course of the volunteers is thought out in detail. The shifts are just long, a detailed manual has been created for them, and the psychological interventions that are on hand ask if everything is okay with them.

I go to the building in the fresh air for a while. It’s a beautiful spring day. The birds are roaring like they’re dying, they probably want to compete with the highway riot. In the reflection of the window, I see myself in a reflective vest and wonder if volunteering is possible even without the selfish sense of self-satisfaction I feel.

The shift is over, I’m going to put my vest back on and strike out. When I cross the hall of the station, I realize that people do not speak to me and do not ask me anything. I’m just a person who crosses the station for everyone.

When I leave work at night, a notification rings on my cell phone. Tatiana writes to me on Instagram. “I have to learn Czech to be able to read your articles! We arrived safe and sound, finally in Roudnice nad Labem. Thank you very much for what you are doing, it is important for all Ukrainians,” reads the report in English accompanied by photos of hearts in blue and yellow For the first time in these two volunteer shifts, my heart contracts strangely and I feel my throat tighten with emotion.

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