Berlin, Germany – When Lyu Azbel first heard about Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, they were quick to react.
With professional and personal ties to the country, Azbel tried to find out if their friends and colleagues were all safe. They quickly contacted a colleague, Olena Chernova, who was still in Kyiv.
A public health researcher who has lived in Berlin for 10 years, they told Al Jazeera by phone: “It was a really worrying and scary time. I was worried about Olena’s safety. I managed to convince her to come to Berlin and she arrived one evening at the end of March, with just 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 hosted nine Ukrainians in the two homes they and their families own in the German capital, including a family of four with two dogs who stayed for a week.
“They arrived in the first days and therefore managed to find accommodation quickly. They are a very nice family and we have invited them for dinner ever since.
They also helped people find housing and secure kindergarten places.
And the Ukrainians in Berlin find something positive in a difficult situation.
“One mother recalled being on a subway and her daughter being surrounded by all these different characters. She says she was thrilled that her daughter was seeing this diversity from an early age,” Azbel said, which plans to continue supporting displaced people in Germany.
But for Morgan Rodrick, a 49-year-old software engineer also in the German capital, his experience turned out differently.
At the start of the war, Rodrick was introduced to a man he knew as Sergey through another friend who had taken him in.
Anticipating a brief stay, Rodrick invited Sergey to stay with him while he temporarily moved into his partner’s apartment.
Rodrick and his partner tried to help Sergey register as a refugee and find his feet in the city.
Two weeks turned into over a month, and while the longer stay wasn’t a problem for Rodrick, he did encounter some difficulties in his attempts to support Sergey during his stay.
“My initial assumption was that he would stay for a few weeks during which he would be enrolled in an official refugee program,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We tried to help him understand some of the official things by using Google Translate, because everything was in German. And during that time it became clear to us that he didn’t want to be officially registered or recognized as a refugee. He saw himself as a businessman who just got out of harm’s way for a while, hoping to return to Ukraine soon after.
Without registering in the city as a refugee, Sergey could not access economic aid or find a job officially, so Rodrick tried to help.
“I was planning to put him in touch with someone who could offer him a job as a driver, but after having a conversation with him about the job, it became clear to me that he had, what I would describe, as very old world values towards women.
“Since the friend who might have had work for him was a woman, my partner and I realized it might not go well, so we didn’t end up hooking them up.”
Rodrick soon had to go home to work and informed Sergey of his plan.
“He came back to get things, as well as the bag I had prepared for him, then he left. We haven’t heard from him since, it seems he’s disappeared into the world.
Influx of aid for those fleeing
Rodrick and Azbel’s diverse experiences speak more broadly to the different ways in which support for refugees in neighboring countries has evolved.
At the start of the conflict, there was an outpouring of support.
The Poles opened their doors to Ukrainians while the German National Railways transported Ukrainian passengers free of charge.
Nearly 19 million people crossed the border to other countries, including Poland, Russia and Hungary. More than one million Ukrainian refugees have been registered in Germany.
Yet the war came at a cost to European citizens, who saw energy prices more than double in some households, alongside rising costs of living amid record inflation figures.
Germany’s decision, albeit reluctant, to get involved militarily by giving Ukraine two of its tanks in January has also sparked protests.
Despite the economic toll, polls suggest 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, UK, Hungary and France, found that despite falling support for hospitality refugees in Germany and Belgium, most Westerners were still in favor of welcoming them. In.
Gabrielė Valodskaite, program assistant for wider Europe for the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said the commitment is “still there, but perhaps less visible”.
“Now the support is rather stable, more institutionalized and more effective. European, national or local institutions have had to learn to manage things over time, and now the support is more stable”.
Meanwhile, Daria Krivonos, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cultures, Center of Excellence in European Law, Identity and Narratives at the University of Helsinki, said international support from the grassroots was waning.
“I was in Warsaw two or three months after the start of the invasion, where I had joined a group of volunteers at the station,” she told Al Jazeera.
“By then it had become clear that most of these volunteers providing support were Ukrainian nationals, many of whom were living in Poland before the latest escalation.
“In the beginning, many people came to the border with Poland to help and provide basic support to the refugees. But little by little, this support from international networks began to fade. And now the situation has changed as Ukrainian nationals are now the ones filling the gaps left by the lack of help from states, big NGOs and international volunteer groups.
Krivonos said that while a shared culture was driving European support for Ukrainians, parts of the discussion around “Ukrainian whiteness” have been “a bit binary”.
“We can’t deny the fact that the whiteness and Europeanness of Ukrainians played a huge role, but in doing this it meant that we didn’t look closely at the history of labor migration. work from Ukraine, and how these working communities are now the ones hosting the displaced. In many ways, this discussion has been rather simplistic.
Support “won’t go away”
On February 24, tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets of 400 cities around the world, including Western European centers such as Berlin, Warsaw and Paris, to mark the first anniversary of the war.
As the conflict rages, “there are many moving parts involved in how this support [for refugees] can play out in the long run,” Valodskaite said.
“First of all, it will depend on how European governments handle energy costs, inflation and the overall economic situation felt in Europe as a result of the war. And then it will depend on how the refugee issue is addressed publicly. In terms of broader support, I think it may diminish or be less visible, but it won’t go away, and I believe European societies will continue to show strong support for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Eager to see an end to the war, Rodrick said his chapter with Sergey would not deter him from supporting a war-displaced Ukrainian again.
“The whole experience opened my eyes to how individual experiences are and how diverse they are,” he said.
“I didn’t understand Sergey’s motivation for not wanting to be part of the refugee asylum programs, or all that he had been through. The experience gave me a more nuanced picture of the experiences of those affected by war.