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Flight, arrival, participation?

A panel discussion on political realities of Jewish and Ukrainian refugees then and now

The evening event took place in extremely challenging times. Against the background of almost two years of the full-scale Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the horrific escalation of the Israel-Hamas war, the evening was dedicated to the dialogue between different communities in Berlin affected by war and refuge. In times of tightening asylum laws and hateful public debates on migration, questions of arrival and participation were discussed. 

In 1989, more and more Russian-speaking Jews from the Soviet Union came to East Berlin with a tourist visa and were allowed to stay. In reunified Germany, they continued to arrive and from 1991, the implementation of the quota refugee law to Jewish immigrants from the East resulted in the immigration of over 200,000 people from all parts of the former Soviet Union. Erica Zingher works as a journalist at taz, free moderator and podcaster. She and her family themselves came from Transnistria as Jewish quota refugees. She clarifies that “quota refugee” (Kontingentflüchtlinge) is a rather misleading term, as there was neither a big refugee movement, but rather, procedures often lasted several months and there was never a quota defined. An increasingly open antisemitism in the Soviet Union was one reason to migrate, another one the wish for a more stable, also economically, life.

The German state and society had specific expectations in these Jewish refugees. Without understanding their life experiences and the needs of normal immigrants, an unrealistic expectation of a revival of German-Jewish cultural life was raised. In the beginning, the newcomers were portrayed positively in the media as people of culture similar ‘to us’, then, they were criticised as privileged immigrants not integrating enough, later, as rich Russians and a problem – despite 45 percent of the Jewish community in Germany today being from Ukraine. Also the political climate changed and from 2007, the quota refugee law got restricted significantly.

Jonna Rock, researcher at DeZIM and author, works in a project on Ukrainian refugee women in Germany, for which she and her colleagues conducted qualitative interviews. She analyses the perception of the temporary protection status and the wish to stay of these women over time as well as the effects of forced migration on life decisions and family practices. More than 1 million Ukrainian refugees were registered in Germany until April 2023, most of them women, and nearly half of the women are taking care of children.

“It is not clear how the future protection of Ukrainian refugees after March 2024 will look like.”

Ukrainians who were forced to flee since the Russian full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022 have been granted the status of temporary protection throughout the EU, a status that for now lasts until March 2024. This means that legally they are not treated as refugees. As the Jewish quota refugee law, this is an exceptional legal status. Having been granted several rights that shall make integration easier, they are expected to organise everything by themselves and while treated as regular migrants, they practically are forced migrants with trauma.

First discussion audio in German // Speakers: Erica Zingher (taz), Jonna Rock (DeZIM) // Editors’ note: We lost some seconds of the recording so that some sentences of speakers got cut.

Over 60,000 of Ukrainians who became war refugees after 2022 live in Berlin, including parts of Ukrainian civil society who are actively involved here. The Russian war started earlier though, in 2014, a time when the war in Germany was unnoticed. Oleksandra Bienert, human rights activist and researcher, who was born in Ukraine and has been living in Berlin since 2005, still remembers the times before, when people were unable to locate Ukraine on the map. The historian also identifies a lack of historical knowledge in German society about Nazi crimes and colonial plans in Ukraine.

As a new member of the Berlin State Advisory Council for Participation, she demands to give people the chance to work in the jobs they are educated in and not to push them into ‘easier jobs’, only because of not speaking German. People should be given the time to arrive and the opportunity to participate. She also advocates granting people the same rights, no matter if they have come from Ukraine under paragraph 24 or from third countries. 

“No one needs to integrate here, we should rather remove barriers”. 

Deborah Kogan, vice president of the Jewish Student Union Germany, was born in Berlin, to a Jewish family from Ukraine. She describes how her father arrived in 1976 via Vienna to Berlin thanks to an unknown person from Israel, who had written a letter to request permission for an alleged relative to leave the Soviet Union, a common practice of solidarity. A group that had been exposed to russification and communism in their home countries, barely knowledged about Jewish culture and religion, as she describes her parents’ Christmas tree celebrations. Her own generation is a different one:

“When we talk about the new young Jewish generation, then you can see how self-confident these people have become and that they are also actively campaigning against anti-Semitism. At home, we were always told by our parents: ‘Be quiet, don’t say you’re Jewish’.”

Iryna Berezneva is the co-founder of the Freefilmers NGO and a member of Platform TU!. Her story reflects the destiny of the city of Mariupol – a city that was entirely bombed from the first days of invasion, thousands were killed and the aggressor controls the city ever since. She has nowhere to return to, her and her daughter’s home does not exist anymore. They had a rough start in Berlin. For teenagers, she says, it is very difficult and scary. They feel as if they are alone against the world and they not only lost home, but friends died, moved or are not reachable at all. 

“For me personally the problem of being involved in activism in Germany is that 80% of my resources and time are spent solving my own problems concerning my survival in emigration. At the same time I feel like a pretty privileged refugee. And at the same time I represent the group of refugees who have lost everything.”

Ukrainian civil society is used to watchdog the state and being in Berlin, activists show interest in how the implementation of laws is controlled by the civil society, Oleksandra tells. The NGO Freefimers, that Iryna is involved in, used to be active in culture, but now mainly does humanitarian work in Ukraine. Platform TU! used to organise educational projects with children and teenagers. Now, they are spread across the world, some stayed in Ukraine, some decided to move to Europe, but they are all staying in touch. Describing their activities before 22, she says:

“How can I describe it from my position in Ukrainian society? In my head only one word spins: we were free.”

The recording reflects the engaged atmosphere in the full room of Bajszel in Neukölln.

Second discussion audio in German & Ukrainian // Speakers: Oleksandra Bienert (Berlin State Advisory Council for Participation, CineMova e. V., Alliance of Ukrainian Organisations e. V.), Deborah Kogan (Jewish Student Union Germany), Iryna Berezneva (Freefilmers, Platform TU!)

We thank the translators Olena Bykovets and Sofiya Onufriv as well as the moderator Maria Kireenko (Masiyot – Bildung, Aufklärung, Kritik e. V.).

Funded by the Berliner Landeszentrale für politische Bildung


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