A free train to Hannover is now the last free outpost for Ukrainian refugees fleeing war

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By Anna Conkling
Refugees with children walk along a platform after fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine at a railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on March 25, 2022.
Refugees with children walk along a platform after fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine at a railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on March 25, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Sergei Grits

A train to Hannover is all that remains of Europe's free transportation for Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border. 

Now, the German city takes on the responsibility of being the last outpost for refugees left with no money, and its role is vital to the support of those who recently fled Vladimir Putin's war. But as Russia's war in Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, there are fears the train service could be cancelled.

For now though, it continues to take off every two days from the Polish border, departing thePrzemyslstation at 22:30, and making its way slowly to its destination. The train takes at least 15 hours to complete its journey if everything runs smoothly.

First, it stops at the Frankfurt Oder station at the German-Polish border, letting those who want to go to Berlin off. Then, the train continues to Hannover-Messe Laatzer, a station located in the city's suburbs, which now acts as a haven. 

As Ukrainians step off the train, employees of Germany's national train company, Deutsche Bahn, police officers and NGOs workers help refugees access food, first aid, and temporary housing for those with nowhere to go.

Many of the volunteers who meet refugees at the station are fellow Ukrainians who moved to Hannover due to the war. 

Travelling to Hannover was 'forced decision'

Oksana Starychenko is originally from the Donetsk region of Ukraine, which has been under Russian occupation since 2014. She moved to Kharkiv shortly after the 2014 invasion, her first experience as a refugee of Russian President Vladimir Putin's wrath. Now, nine years later, she is a refugee once more.

"I hardly remember the first days of the war," Starychenko told Euronews. "I could not even think it was possible in the 21st century. I remember only 2 March when I started to understand. It was my 30th birthday, and I was already abroad," she added.

In April, Starychenko moved to Germany, and three days later, she began volunteering at the train station with the Ukrainian Union of Lower Saxony, the state in which Hannover resides. Each week, Starychenko goes to the Hannover-Messe Laatzer station to meet refugees, one of which is a woman named Olena, who is from Kherson.

Kherson experienced heavy fighting within hours of Russia launching its invasion on 24 February, as Russian and Ukrainian forces fought on the streets. The city was under Russian occupation until 11 November, when Ukrainian forces recaptured the city. But Olena and her family were some of the fortunate ones, able to get out of the city just a few weeks into the war.

“We left Kherson with strangers. It was difficult to find a driver. Some asked $300 per person, some had scheduled transportation for three weeks in advance,” she said. Eventually, they arrived in Western Ukraine, where they stayed for nearly three months. Then Olena and her husband decided that she would flee across the border with their two children, respectively 11 and 16, while her husband, a member of the military, remained in Ukraine.

Coming to Hannover was a "forced decision" for Olena, one that was "more difficult than those that we make deliberately." The family went first to Poland but left after a week because they couldn't find housing. 

"Now, it is not likely we will return home," she said. Germany, she added, has been a source of comfort.

'We held on and did not complain'

The volunteers that work with Starychenko are predominantly Ukrainians. Many of them are also refugees and work under constant reminders of the horrors which they fled every day. 

Iryna Pobidash came to Hannover from the village of Demydiv in the Kyiv region. Shortly after the invasion began, Russian forces occupied the village, and like many in those early days of the war, Pobidash lived under terror for eleven days.

When the town was liberated in early March, the women in Pobidash's family were forced to leave their homes. They decided on Hannover, where Pobidash's daughter lived, and took the free train that she now works to support. She recalled that at the time, there was no heat in her train carriage, and none of the charging outlets worked, but they "understood it was an evacuation train, so we held on and did not complain". 

Pobidash began volunteering at the Hannover train station in late August and has continued since. Amid the daily chaos of the train station, she credits her career as a teacher for her ability to stay calm and patient. 

"It is easy for me to explain to people how to find their way around the station, guide them to the train or tram, calm down those who are nervous, treat them with food," she said, adding, "I feel the brightest emotions when I watch my colleagues work."

'It is my moral duty'

The work of the volunteers is tireless, and while Starychenko believes that the Hannover train will continue to be free next month when the war will cross the one-year mark, nothing is certain. Christina Merzbach, the spokeswoman for Hanover, told Euronews that Lower Saxony has already met its quota for Ukrainian refugees, with 8,000 calling it home.

As a result, Merzbach said, "a forecast is not possible, but at the moment, we don't expect more refugees from Ukraine" This, despite the potential of Russia launching a new phase of the war that could result in a new influx of refugees in Europe.

Regardless of whether the free train remains, Starychenko argued that Ukrainians will find a way to get to Hannover, and stressed that she and her fellow volunteers will be there to meet them.

"We cannot afford to leave our citizens in trouble because our mentality is built on compassion and mutual assistance. If you ask me exactly why I am helping all these months, I will answer: because I can't do otherwise," Starychenko said.

"I don't understand how I can sit on the sidelines when there is a war and people are dying at my home. It is my moral duty, as a citizen of Ukraine, to help other Ukrainians," she added.