They still have time. And in that space a story emerges on the train platform.

M. takes out his phone: his grandfather young, his grandfather old with M.’s mother, with a joyous smile and a funny cap, family pictures in slightly faded black and white, black hair, expressive eye(brow)s, long robes. His grandfather was 16 when he escaped home to join the “Rostov” battalion in WWII, fighting Nazi Germany. Two huge suitcases, more bags, a 9-month-old baby and two adults on the sunny-hot train platform, almost summer. Time stands still for a moment.

Before, I meet M., his wife L. and the little A. at the info point. Their questions are simple, their bags heavy. I show them up to the platform, dragging a maxi-suitcase behind me. They still have time, and in that space a question that I don’t recall invites M. to tell a bit of his story. M. is from Azerbaijan, his wife is Ukrainian-Azerbaijani, and they haven’t had it easy. After 20 years in Mariupol (him, if I remember correctly), they had to leave in 2014, away from the war, and since then had been building some normality in Kharkiv. And then…

Their escape from the big war led them first to Azerbaijan, bringing the little boy back to the house where M. was born. But they weren’t welcome there – there is the whole Europe for you, they were told. No place for you here, besides a 90-day tourist visa. Now they are going to Northern Germany. He shakes his head, at everything happening, this can’t be possible. Solid and light. I imagine his grandfather, who walked 4 years to Berlin (I can’t confirm that information) turn around in his grave. Back in the present, they want to know about life in Vienna, and standing there I think that it’s not that bad here. After all, I love this city and feel it deep. The air is filled with pride, grief, incredulity and new beginnings. Contagious smiles, curiosity and baby energy. We exchange numbers to keep spaces open, I leave though I don’t want to.

Scene cut.

They were on vacation in Sri Lanka, when they returned it was 24 February and war. (Whether it was really the 24th or another day on this eternal 24 February doesn’t really matter.) Then, their bag with all the childrens’ toys gets stolen in the train to Vienna. We joke about the power of the bible that lay inside. Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany – geographies condense in split seconds. Volunteering here is problem-solving and logical thinking on steroids, clearing out debris of assumption and everything one as no idea about. I’m happy that someone’s waiting for them, in the German city of one of my best friends.

Scene cut.

She lies under the drip stand, the container is white, an almost-summer breeze. Unexpected medical emergency. Kiev. Pain. I feel at ease with the young doctor while I translate and enjoy being in this parallel reality. Later we walk to the pharmacy, O. with her child, a friend staying in Poland with hers. The friend: for two months we sunk into a depression, now we want to distract ourselves. Travel, be in a different place. The shopping street is full of people. You have to survive after all.

Scene cut.

This baby is 7 months old, lying in the arms of his mother. I won’t forget H.’s words, the child wasn’t even 5 months old when it entered the basement. I don’t inquire further, one word is enough: Mariupol. When H.’s phone can’t be found there’s a moment of panic, but all good. The only object you take with you, when you leave with nothing. The family of 5 – mother, daughter and 3 kids – has a lot of luggage, with things gifted in Zaporizhzhia and beyond, the tiny baby at the focus of everyone’s attention. I remind myself of our job as volunteers: do all we can to help with the most basic needs: a stroller for the baby, coupons for the hotel, food and our presence. Our reassurance. What follows, are moments of metro (“is that our train approaching? omg the wind is so strong”), city-centre streets, fancy reception, hotel corridors, metro again, food at at the train station (Tageszentrum). A homeless person is asking for help in the metro, the mother: we also consider ourselves homeless. In the silences I chew on questions that I could ask. I don’t find many, while my brain probably joins the family in processing the reason why we crossed paths in life. The kids are distant. I want to reach them, and I don’t even try hard enough. Then I learn that Ukraine has lowered the military conscription age to 16.

I’m dumstruck by a banality. Of how most of us look “normal”, maybe exhausted, while storms rage inside. We’re all just humans, but with whole world to uncover. These hours, translating and volunteering at the train station have been a school of life in making the invisible visible, subtly, while helping. Of being present, giving everything you have, receiving the gift of gratitude (albeit in a reality that shouldn’t be here), looking back in the eyes. Of laughing despite everything, setting boundaries, sharing bits of lives. Of walking away and letting go.

At home I remember M., I head over to Wikipedia to check up on the battalion:

The 339th Rifle Division was first formed in late August, 1941, as a standard Red Army rifle division, at Rostov-on-Don. As it was formed in part from reservists and cadre that included members of the Communist Party from that city, it carried the honorific title “Rostov” for the duration. In late November it was part of the force that counterattacked the German 1st Panzer Army in the Battle of Rostov and forced its retreat from the city, one of the first major setbacks for the invaders. During 1942 the division was forced to retreat into the Caucasus, where it fought to defend the passes leading to the Black Sea ports. In 1943 it fought to liberate the Taman Peninsula, and then in early 1944 to also liberate Crimea. In the following months the division was reassigned to the 1st Belorussian Front, with which it took part in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

Decades and centuries of past are condensed into the already tiny space left since 24 February. It is hard to bear, but while I walk down the escalator, back to others and the anthill of a station, I swear to myself that I want to dive deep into history. In the end, it is my history too.

8 things that no one taught you about helping people with aha-moments, and without burnout

Oh the psychology! In March, after going through a deep state of shock and “adopting” a family from Kharkiv, I started volunteering to help Ukrainians seeking refuge in Austria as well as those passing through. At the main train station in Vienna, later at the registration center (Austria Center Vienna) and the arrival center, and sharing infos and ways to take action all along. So, here a first part with some learnings that no-one taught you about before – about your emotions, working with traumatised people (without some degree in social work) and the superpowers of sandwiches. Yes, sandwiches and other 3D stuff.

Continue reading “8 things that no one taught you about helping people with aha-moments, and without burnout”

It’s a marathon, she says over Zoom. Into the microcosm of the arrival centre.

It’s a marathon, she says over Zoom. And we just nod, later we laugh about some things I don’t remember. The translators’ container in the arrival center has two tilted-open windows, letting in the humming, rattling buzz of the microcosm born on March 4th.

Ebbs and flows, the world on the other side of the street – a different galaxy, and new faces keep peeking in in lemon-yellow vests. The white walls house a collection of “Train of Hope” name stickers (I love it), some flyers and a living map of the center. The map is built out of colourful lines and arrows and cryptic acronyms and yellow matchstick men* – the volunteers. I’m struggling to put experiences into words, then I remind myself that I’m a writer.

Continue reading “It’s a marathon, she says over Zoom. Into the microcosm of the arrival centre.”

Leadership feels like gardening sometimes – the leader I am and want to be

When my intolerance against #newleadership, #distributedleadership and the like grows into a big cloud, I decide to make it rain down in something useful. In an early morning in bed, before rushing to the office, I write about what really matters for leadership, beyond the stunning beaming, buzzing, blaring buzzwords. This is my experience after years of leadership in the civil society space:

#1A leader is visionary. A compass. An inspiration to team members. As a leader I’m driven by a vision and I communicate it, I share my passion and sometimes my story (with new people), I set the direction (but don’t plan the details) & create goals and then get everyone on board. I’m not afraid of taking risks. I don’t delegate decisions if it’s me who has to take them. I communicate clearly – also the bad news, give all the info necessary, ask direct questions to clarify things. Responsibility towards the team starts with myself: I’m organized and I find ways to keep an overview. A leader demonstrates confidence, and thus makes others feel secure.

#2A leader is also human. Between the funny parts and the „being overwhelmed or still figuring out things“ parts. I’m authentic and honest at all times and I invite the team to be that too. Successes and failures go together. I bring in non-work things and the sharing of personal stories, but I don’t speak of “wellbeing” or other buzzwords if I don’t have a plan there; I don’t create false expectations, bubbles separate from the world. Yes, I speak of “war”, I don’t pretend.

#3 As a leader I am by definition team-focused, I have „my“ team I’m working in, I’m well rooted in it, I feel responsible for it and my role is clear to others. I get to know my team members, I’m interested in them. I manage projects, build partnerships, but I LEAD people (and EMPOWER them to lead all along, a precondition to modern leadership). Having a team also means to empower team members to get the best work out of themselves, to help them figure out how to bring in their passions & background in unique ways and adjust tasks accordingly.

#4 Presence is key for leadership. For me it means leading meetings regularly and also processes visible to the team, speaking up, giving strategic input. I constantly try to bring order into the chaos, sharing overviews and insights into strategy, breaking down the big things happening and staying on top of key news so we can actually act on them. It’s also about sharing what I know, reminding of resources, leading by example – in reporting/transparency, inclusion, good organisation etc. Empowering with honesty and transparency.

5# I foster ideas / am quick in picking up ideas from the team, I invite people to try out new things (if time permits). I take any concerns seriously, respond to feedback (am generally responsive), give advice and invite the team to ask others or me for advice, and importantly I create spaces. Bringing people together to avoid working in silos – this is a huge thing, this is coordination. And it brings efficiency and motivation. Also, inviting discussions about norms and how we want to work together. I contribute to the resolution of conflicts (especially when I’m the reason). I keep an eye out for people who are disconnected, I reach out and offer support.

Leadership feels like gardening sometimes, and it’s exciting to see a team (and just the individual humans in there honestly more) grow.