Leftist mutual aid groups help displaced people and reach marginalized groups as the war in Ukraine continues

“On one hand we do this basic work and then this bigger work of showing the systemic racism on the border with these border violence reports."

Luke Ivanovich contributed reports for this story

BERLIN—In a small bakery not far from Viktoriapark sat Tetiana, a 39-year old woman who fled Kyiv on Feb. 25 as the Russians began their full scale invasion of Ukraine. As she spoke to Luke Ivanovich, she recounted how her life had been before the war—“a totally normal life,” said Tetiana, whose last name we’re withholding for safety reasons. She described a scene where, two weeks prior to the invasion, she woke up in a “peaceful and calm” mood, with little to no stress, when she received a Facebook message from family friends in the United States and Germany urging her to leave Ukraine. It was not until after the American and German governments decided to evacuate their Ukrainian embassy staff that she began to worry about her family’s safety.

She said she “didn’t sleep all night” from the 24th to the 25th. That day, which also happened to be her son’s sixth birthday, the pair left Kyiv as her husband stayed behind to fight. 

“That day I realized that I have to live because I have a child and I have to save his life first,” Tetiana said. 

Her husband, she told Ivanovich, worked as an engineer prior to the invasion. Tetiana described him as “not a warrior, not a soldier,” but just someone who instinctively knew that he “will go to defend [Ukraine].”

She does not know where her husband is in the country but tries to keep in touch whenever possible.

On the first day of the invasion, as the sound of explosions rang out, Tetiana tried her best to stay calm so as not to frighten her young son. Tetiana recounted how she and her child, only carrying a few backpacks and a small suitcase, hurried along with so many other Ukrainians to safety. With most transportation shut down, she managed to find a neighbor who was willing to take them by car to the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station. 

“We were lucky our neighbor had a car and he took us to the train station. [At] the train station, we waited for any evacuation. The first train was to Lviv and it was thousand[s] of people, somebody crying, children screaming. It was awful. There were no men. Only women and children, and old ladies and gentlemen.”

Tetiana, last name withheld for safety reasons, holding her one backpack she filled with belongings as she fled the war in Ukraine with her 6 year-old son in Berlin, Germany on Nov. 12, 2022. Photo: Daniella Heminghaus

On Feb. 24, shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a martial law due to the invasion, able-bodied men ages 18-60 were banned from leaving the country. According to the Visit Ukraine website, there are exemptions to this: Those who are single parents to children under 18, those who are medically exempt, those who are the primary caregiver for a person/persons in need, etc., would be exempt but only with proper documentation in order to leave the country.

From there, another friend drove Tetiana and her son to Uzhhorod, where they would leave through the Slovakian-Ukrainian border. After hearing about friends who braved the cold and snowy Eastern European winter to cross the border into Poland on foot, she decided against doing so. Days later, Tetiana and her son reached the Slovakian border where they were helped by volunteers, aiding them with the basic essentials such as food and water. Six days after fleeing their home, Tetiana and her son made it to Zittau, an East German city on the border with Poland. Tetiana felt as if she did not have a choice but to temporarily relocate to Germany because she spoke the language and had a lot of friends there, so she felt she would not be alone.

Data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that Germany and Poland have taken in the most Ukrainian Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, in Europe, with Poland taking in over 1.5 million IDPs.

For a short time while they were in Zittau, the duo briefly stayed in a volunteer-run gym. There they, along with the other displaced people, were able to get food and other necessities as well as gain access to the internet.

Tetiana brought up to Ivanovich how she saw signs in Ukrainian welcoming them, which was a small but meaningful gesture amid the ongoing chaos of the first few weeks of the invasion. Afterwards, she moved into a friend’s place in Hanover before moving into a 20-room hostel, which housed other Ukrainian IDPs.

Her son, she told Ivanovich, does not fully understand the gravity of the ongoing war and treats their refuge in Germany, as well as travel across the Slovakian border,  “like a vacation.” It has been difficult adjusting for him, Tetiana said, stating that he initially did not want to attend kindergarten in Germany because he wanted to go to school back home in Kyiv with his friends. The language barrier also proved to be an issue but she and some German parents have been meeting up as their children play on playdates. Tetiana also takes her son to museums and throughout the country to help him learn as much as possible. As an IDP, she gets a free German rail pass to anywhere within the country.

Tetiana told Ivanovich that the Ukrainian Association in Lower Saxony is one of the groups helping IDPs with German documents as well as holding meetings and events.

While stories like Tetiana’s are becoming all too common, many IDPs do not have the same experience trying to get to Germany. For some, moving between European Union countries can be simple. The Schengen Area is a zone comprised of 26 European countries that did away with their internal borders to make it so that any citizen who holds a passport from one of the 26 member countries can have “unrestricted movement” in the area. Yet for others who do not hold a passport from one of these countries, let alone any European nation’s passport, trying to move around Europe can feel like attempting to enter a fortress.

In a report by The Guardian, European countries have been installing and using a wide variety of “specialized technology” to track and even deter IDPs from crossing borders. Greece, one of the main countries IDPs traverse in an attempt to get to central and western Europe, has used air surveillance, cameras, sensors and other deterrents, such as a sound cannon, to try and stop people from crossing its border. Austria, Croatia, Italy and Malta also use air surveillance, while Poland sends out automated texts telling people not to try to cross their border with Belarus. In June, the Associated Press reported that the Polish government had completed their wall along the Polish-Belarussian border. In November, according to The Wall Street Journal, Polish Army engineers begun constructing another wall of razor wire along the country’s border with Russia. Both were to deter the governments of Belarus and Russia from “pushing migrants into Europe.”

That same Wall Street Journal article mentions how at least 23 people died trying to get into the EU by crossing the Belarussian-Polish border since 2021 and how in October, a Sudanese man was suspected of drowning after his body was found in the Svislach river.

The Mutual Aid Groups

At Oranienplatz, Fumi Nine Yamamoto spoke of how the group they are a part of, BIPoC Ukraine, came about after hearing of the struggles BIPoCs faced at the border when trying to flee Ukraine.

“We started hearing the reports of really heavy racism at the borders like on the 27th, I think, so we knew a lot of people would be making their way to Berlin,” she said.

From there, Yamamoto helped to translate a coalition Zoom meeting of about “30 Black organizations in Germany,” who were planning on how best to provide aid for these IDPs. “[We] started setting up structures; at that time it was also about organizing, getting supplies, like gathering food and clothes,” and organizing transportation for those who were stuck.

Zora, from Radical Aid Force, on left, and Gabi, from No Nation Truck Collective, on right, in Berlin on Nov. 15, 2022. Photo: Daniella Heminghaus

Time reported on multiple accounts of racism at the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing in March. One of Yamamoto’s Nigerian friends had then contacted her about getting another friend’s younger brother out of Ukraine. The friend’s brother had been a college student there and missed his first year due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down in-person classes. Then the war struck, and he needed a way out. Now, as a third country-national, or a person who has become stranded in a country that is not their own and thus does not have the same freedom of movement as those who are citizens, according to the UNHCR, he could not simply cross the border as many of his classmates had.

Yamamoto recalled her friend saying, “Oh crap, my friend’s little brother is there, he’s stuck and he wants to come to Berlin. Can I give him your number?’” She got in touch with him and from that experience her number had been passed around to others in need. This is basically how she ended up making a group, which led her to others doing the same kind of work.

BIPoC Ukraine is a Berlin-based mutual aid community of BIPoCs that had fled the war in Ukraine and their friends who “focus on the situation, struggle, needs and self-empowerment of non-Ukrainian BIPoC refugees from Ukraine in Germany,” while also “standing in solidarity with previous and ongoing anti-racist struggles of migrants/refugees and accomplices.”

The group not only advocates for incoming BIPoCs but also provides translation for them as well, which is immensely pivotal in making sure the IDPs’ paperwork is done correctly. 

“Like, OK, we’ll accompany you to this immigration interview and we’ll make sure that everything is done right and that they don’t force you into an asylum system or trick you into signing papers that are not okay. And sometimes a lot of it happens in one-on-one chats or something,” Yamamoto said. Being able to translate for these IDPs is one thing, but providing them with trusted legal and community resources is another.

Other activists, Gabi and Zora (both last names withheld for security reasons) of No Nation Truck Collective and Radical Aid Force, respectively, ended up at different European borders after hearing of police violence towards IDPs over the years.

Gabi went to Greece and witnessed IDPs come to shore from boats and makeshift dinghies.

“One of the scenes in my head always is that to get a child out of a trauma or a traumatic situation, you have to play with them so that they have the image that it’s a normal situation. So what you would do when you welcome the boats is that you are already there with a lot of teddy bears and you would try to get the children and the moms first and then play with the children because this is just the procedure, how you interact with people who have been traumatized,” Gabi said. 

No Nation Truck Collective formed in 2019 as a way to counter the “racist policies of deterrence” and support those making their way through Europe’s migrant routes. It is a truck outfitted complete with a kitchen, first aid station and a solar panel-supplied cell phone charging system that can charge anywhere from 80-100 phones. For people on the move, being able to have a fully charged phone is critical. People on the move communicate a lot through Facebook and Instagram these days because staying connected “is necessary to survive.” If someone makes it through all the borders, they can provide pivotal information to the others on how to successfully get through as well.

The Collective also documents violence along European borders. 

“On one hand we do this basic work and then this bigger work of showing the systemic racism on the border with these border violence reports,” Gabi said.

Somewhere down the line Gabi met some Ukrainian activists while putting on punk shows in squats where donations went to their causes. Zora also knew and now works alongside some of these activists when she heads out with Radical Aid Force.

Shortly after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Zora and some friends went to the Polish-Ukrainian border because they had heard about the discrimination happening there. 

“We heard that there’s mostly BIPoCs who faced a lot a discrimination at the border on the Ukrainian side as well as the Polish side,” Zora said. 

She said that one friend was a journalist so they initially went to document what they saw on the Polish border side and the difficulties these IDPs faced. At the Medyka border crossing site, she saw just how chaotic and unstructured getting aid was.

“There’s tons of people who want to help but there’s no structure at all,” Zora said. She and some friends connected with others and decided to make their trips more regular as the group realized just how many people could not use the “given ways of fleeing.” Zora mentioned how people with disabilities, the elderly, and those who face racism—like BIPoCs and the Jewish community—were the groups she and her friends focused on helping. They also helped bring medical and other supplies to their comrades in Ukraine. These comrades were throughout the country, even on the front lines.

When asked how she found her Ukrainian comrades, Zora responded, “through the punk scene, we got in touch with these guys. Every time we go to Ukraine, there’s at least five more groups and people we know. And then it just gets bigger and bigger.” 

They collect donations and raise money through selling T-shirts and throwing solidarity parties. The money raised allowed them to purchase much needed generators, morning after pills and other supplies, which they then take into Ukraine. The Plan B pills often go to hospitals along the frontlines as they need to be taken in a timely manner.

Vanya, on left, and Tania, on right, of Good Night Imperial Pride, in Berlin on Nov. 13, 2022. Photo: Daniella Heminghaus

In September, The Guardian reported on how the United Nations finished up an investigation of Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine. The crimes include torture, executions, bombing civilian areas and “horrific sexual violence.” In early December, a draft resolution made its rounds in the UN calling for a “Nuremberg-style tribunal” in order to hold Russian leaders accountable for the war crimes committed, as stated in The Guardian.

Another mutual aid group, Ukraine Solidarity Bus, mentioned how they once had a chilling request for body bags. One of their members was an undertaker and therefore had the connection to get the bags and drop them off to comrades in Ukraine. Since then the group has completed requests for all types of supplies from generators to baby milk powder, boots and armor to medical supplies. They have also completed over 10 trips to Ukraine helping people not only move within the country but also out of it to Poland and Germany.

On one trip to Ukraine with Radical Aid Force, Zora and her comrades helped evacuate children who have autism. She recalled how they would have to stop almost hourly because the kids were “screaming or yelling or crying the entire time,” and they had difficulty sitting for extended periods of time. The group made sure to stop frequently so the children could get out when needed.

Zora mentioned how it annoys her when people forget or do not see that there are people who cannot go the usual evacuation journey, be it by bus or train.

“This is super annoying that they don’t really see these things, they don’t see what all the women do there, they don’t see that there’s people who cannot take the normal way they provide. There’s so many PoC, people with disabilities, women, who suffer from the given structures that actually suck,” she said. She added how she wished the media would report on this more and on the amount of sexual violence used against those in Ukraine by the Russian forces.

Groups like BIPoC Ukraine, Good Night Imperial Pride, No Nation Truck Collective, Radical Aid Force and Ukraine Solidarity Bus all work, in some ways, together for the common goal of getting people the aid they need, whether that is transportation out of a warzone, ambulances, medicines and medical supplies, a mobile command unit, generators, a giant phone charger, street medical stations, or even help with translations once they are in Germany.

Daniella Heminghaus is a photojournalist from the New Jersey Shore who covers a wide array of assignments in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. 

Luke Ivanovich is a Ukrainian-American freelance photographer that covers politics and concerts, primarily in the tri-state area. He currently runs a photo blog called Czuk Photo.