Society: How a Ukrainian family experiences the Christmas season

The candles on the Advent wreath are burning, home-made stars and a nativity scene made of transparent paper are hanging on the window.

Society: How a Ukrainian family experiences the Christmas season

The candles on the Advent wreath are burning, home-made stars and a nativity scene made of transparent paper are hanging on the window. Christmas decorations everywhere, cookies and cakes on the coffee table: Rosemarie Arzt and her husband Alfons have furnished their house in Berlin-Tempelhof as Christmassy as you can imagine. Six-year-old Yeva and her mother Yuliia Holubka have also been living in the house for almost nine months and are sharing a room here. After fleeing Ukraine, they found a new home with their family.

Yuliia Holubka hardly feels like celebrating. "It's hard to even think about it," says the 36-year-old. Her husband and the rest of her family stayed in Ukraine and people there have completely different concerns. "Every day I read the news as soon as I wake up. And at night I fall asleep with it."

Berlin is the hub for people from Ukraine

"In Ukraine, we usually celebrated Christmas twice - the Catholic feast on December 25th and the Orthodox Christmas on January 7th," says the Catholic, whose husband is a member of the Orthodox Church. However, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already announced that in future only December 25 will be a public holiday. "Then Ukraine should celebrate like other countries in Europe."

She doesn't really know how she's going to celebrate in Berlin, says Holubka. "We'll create a festive mood," Violetta Gershman anticipates her. She is a childhood friend and brought the two to Berlin, where she has lived for years. "We will visit the Christmas Garden, see a Christmas circus and also a Christmas program in the Friedrichstadtpalast," the friend lists.

Holubka shares her fate with hundreds of thousands. Since the beginning of the war, Berlin has become a hub for refugees from Ukraine. Around 360,900 people have already arrived there. "However, the vast majority of them have traveled on to other cities," says a spokesman for the social administration. Around 85,000 to 100,000 Ukrainians stayed in Berlin and mostly found private accommodation, at least temporarily. A part has also returned.

At home, people are constantly on the alert

But at the moment the situation is very difficult again. The need for places in accommodation is increasing again significantly. More than 2,100 people are currently still living in the Tegel arrival center and are waiting for accommodation, the spokesman said. Around 3,300 Ukrainians live in refugee accommodation.

Holubka wants to stay in Berlin for the time being. Her hometown Schytomyr west of Kyiv is largely intact. "A school and a dormitory have been destroyed," says Holubka. "But there are always problems with the gas, water and electricity supply. The noise from the low-flying planes is also bad. You never know whether they are Ukrainian or Russian planes," says Holubka.

People are always on the alert. "Children have to take an emergency backpack with them to school with food, drink and a blanket in case they have to go back to a bunker," says Holubka. "Parents now choose the school for their child based on which has the best bunker," says the young mother.

First grader Yeva goes to a Berlin elementary school in the neighborhood. She does not need additional German lessons. What do you like best about school? "The craft room, the play paradise, and the library," Yeva gushes. According to the education administration, around 7,000 Ukrainian children and young people attended a school in Berlin in November. Around 4,400 of them went to so-called welcome classes to first learn German.

Farewell to the host family

Yeva keeps crawling onto Rosemarie Arzt's lap, cuddling and playing cards with her. As familiar as if it were grandma and granddaughter. Rosemarie Arzt has filled an advent calendar for Yeva, it is a wooden, former screw cabinet with many small boxes from her father's former carpentry shop. "The calendar is the best thing for Yeva. The first thing she does every morning is open a drawer," says the hostess.

These are the last days that mother and daughter spend with Rosemarie Arzt and her husband, because the two have found a two-room apartment nearby. "We renovated everything for a month and can actually move in now," says Yuliia Holubka.

"There will be nice memories, for example baking with Yeva," says Arzt. Whether the time was sometimes exhausting? "We're used to having guests," says the singer at the Deutsche Oper. The family has often taken in young artists. "And we have anti-cyclical daily routines. That's why we sometimes haven't seen each other for days," says Arzt. In the meantime, Yuliia had also been a great help to her. "In the summer, when I was very ill, she would sit by my bed for hours."

The German bureaucracy takes some getting used to

At the job center, she was suggested to expand her commercial training. "Actually, I'd rather do festive hairstyles," says Holubka, who had already earned her living doing it in Ukraine. She is currently learning German, she already understands a lot, but is still too shy to speak.

She has already completed an integration course and, above all, learned a lot about German history and the fall of the Wall. In the meantime, she has also gotten used to life with the German bureaucracy. "It was surprising to me at first that there are letters and paper for everything," reports the Ukrainian, who was able to complete most of the formalities digitally in her home country.

"It was also strange at the beginning to constantly have an "appointment"," says Holubka about the job center and other authorities. She didn't know that from her home country. She sees the internationality in Berlin as particularly positive. "So many different nations live together here - without any problems," says Holubka.

Holubka does not know whether she will be able to return to Ukraine. "I would like to live at home close to my family, but I also want my daughter to have a happy childhood without war." Although Yeva only experienced a few days of war, she jumped at every loud noise at first. "When she learned that she should kneel on the ground during a bomb attack, she cried a lot," says the mother.

"Now, before moving into her own apartment, Yeva's biggest concern is the advent calendar. She's afraid that she won't be able to open all the doors," says Arzt. "But I promised her that she could visit us every day."