Ukrainian refugees arriving by the thousands at Prague's main train station
Since the start of the Russian aggression in Ukraine close to two million people have fled the country. Close to 200,000 refugees, mainly old people, women and children, have found their way to the Czech Republic –on their own, with the help of volunteers or by getting on one of the humanitarian trains that the Czech government has been sending out to the Slovak and Polish borders daily. Our contributor Martina Kroa enlisted as a volunteer at Prague’s Main Railway Station to experience the humanitarian aid effort first hand.
At the Prague main train station volunteers in orange and yellow vests help refugees getting off the trains. They provide them with information, help them buy tickets, give directions, take them to a place where they can rest, eat, and find accommodation. Many of the people escaping from the war in Ukraine are taken care of by friends, and relatives or have a destination they are heading to. Prague also serves as a transit node for people heading to other Czech and European cities. Public transport and most of the trains are free for people holding a Ukrainian passport.
On the second floor of the Prague main train station, there is a place especially set up for the women and children to rest, lie down, and have some food. The medical team from the 3rd medical faculty is also stationed here. I spoke to Olga, a young woman, fleeing what is already the second war in her life: seven years ago, from Donetsk to Kyiv, and now from Kyiv, where she hopes to return one day.
“My name is Olga. I am here with my family, with my grandmothers, my sister, and our children. The smallest one is two years old. On the 26th of February we left Kyiv for Zhytomyr, then we moved to the west of Ukraine. And then we moved from the border of Romania, where volunteers took us to an apartment where we stayed overnight, and then to the Czech Republic, to Karlovy Vary, where we stayed at a hotel that was open to refugees. We want to go to Switzerland because we saw they have simple rules for refugees. We won’t need to go anywhere; we will just have this status of refugees. We wanted to buy tickets to Zürich today, but unfortunately, we have no money. These tickets are expensive, it’s one thousand crowns for one person. That’s why we need to stay here, and we are waiting for tomorrow. With help, we will get the trip to Zürich for free.”
And who did you leave behind? Did you leave someone behind in Kyiv?
“Yes, we are from Donetsk, this is the second war in our lives, the first came when my daughter was just one year old. Then we moved from Donetsk to Kyiv. We left our apartments there and we started a new life in Kyiv. Now she is eight and there is another war. So again we must flee. But we have apartments in Kyiv, we hope we will come back when the war is over. When the crazy man Putin stops crushing our home.”
And did you leave your men in Kyiv?
“Yes, we both have husbands, and a grandfather there. But they stayed at home to secure our apartments and our place.”
Was it a quick decision to leave Ukraine?
“To move from Kyiv to Europe? Yes, for me it was a quick decision because I experienced the first war. So, we took all the essential things we could carry and we left. But unfortunately, my husband can’t cross the border, because he must stay there and fight with the army.”
The volunteers at the train station are there to help and they have a great attitude. A lot of them are Ukrainian. The Ukrainian speaking are the most helpful because the people getting off the trains mostly speak only Ukrainian and don't understand much Czech or English. One woman, whom I addressed in Czech, could only answer that she is from Ukraine, her eldest son had to stay, and started crying. She was heading to Pilsen with her two younger sons. She has been traveling for three days now. A Ukrainian volunteer, Alex, who speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, told me three days on the road is pretty much the norm.
Another Ukrainian volunteer, who has been living in the Czech Republic for the past seven years, told me she is from Kharkiv, and today she is helping refugees from her city. They didn't even have suitcases, she said, they only brought things in plastic bags. Another only English-speaking volunteer arranged a wheelchair for a 92-year-old woman arriving. Unexpected reunions also take place.
The initiative Iniciativa Hlavák is a group of volunteers that has been helping refugees on the Prague main train station since 2015. You’ll find volunteers from this group in orange vests, the ones in yellow vests are organized by the city and OPU, a refugee aid organization. They all work together though.
I spoke to Magdalena Pospíchalová, one of the coordinators of the initiative Iniciativa Hlavák, who said that perseverance and experience have been their strongest assets working 24/7 in this crisis.
“We have many years of experience helping refugees here on the main station. But now it’s different because the state is helping to coordinate the effort. That’s a very big difference from previous years. Now it is organized so that all refugee trains arrive on the first platform. So we meet the refugees and direct them to where they need to go, where they will get more information about the possibility of accommodation and explain how to go through their registration process. Also, what is very important, we help to calm them down, and offer them some food. There are even nutrition experts here. So, many, many organizations and different occupations are here.”
How many refugees a day usually arrive to the train station? How many trains, how many people?
“It’s coming up now. In the beginning there were several trains, but now it’s ten and more trains. Today there are two trains with 250 people, one train with 600 people, so it’s a flow of people. We don’t keep statistics, but now it’s more than a thousand people a day, for sure. And the number is increasing.”
And what are the emotions of the refugees getting of the train? How are they feeling and reacting?
“Above all, they are very tired. They are under enormous pressure, they are so stressed, they can’t even eat. They are, of course, glad that they’re in a safe space. A lot of them have relatives and friends here, who welcome them. Of course, they are not enthusiastic, they are tired. And you can see in their eyes that they are sad. They appreciate the help, but in a calm way. There are families and people with pets: cats, dogs, I even saw a Guinea pig. These people don’t have a lot of things and often they forget to take important things, like their pets’ vaccination certificates. That all goes to show how emotional, how stressful it has been.”
And what kind of help do they usually seek the most from you?
“They don’t know what to expect, so we coordinate everything and point them in the right direction. They ask about accommodation and we explain what they can expect here and what they must do in the following days. A very important thing -which has now changed is that they are no longer obliged to register within three days but within ten [ most recently changed to 30 days]. This gives them the opportunity to get accommodation, and then to go through the registration process. Because to get a visa, insurance, and the whole package of services takes a long time, and they are tired and nervous now. So, it’s better to be accommodated first, and then to go through the registration process.”
How many people from the train usually have someone waiting for them? Is it a big part?
“It is a big part. But it’s changing overtime. Whoever has somebody here, is free to go, they know they have accommodation. But now I think the number of those, who don’t know where they will stay is increasing.”
Material aid isn’t needed at the train station, but they still accept volunteers. Although they would be happier if it would be long term volunteering rather than just a one-time thing, any help is appreciated as the volunteers are the first faces the refugees see entering the country.