A war begins...what to do?
|A graffitied building in Berlin Mitte.
Living 7km from the Polish border, we knew that a large influx of refugees would be heading our direction. As owners of a guest house, albeit a non-functioning guest house in dire need of rennovations, as well as, a recently-formed non-profit with a welcoming-project for refugees and international guests*, the best way to respond to the situation quickly became obvious. We would make our empty spaces, nearly 20 bare, dusty, cold rooms, as comfortable as possible and build in all other necessary facilities. With no plumbing in most of the house, no central heating, and possibly non-functioning electrical wires, there were many hurdels to overcome. I must give credit to my partner/husband, Manuel, for his determination to stride beyond every obstacle, and simply say, "YES!"
I remember waking up around 7am on the morning of February 24th, the monring of the invasion, and directly opening the New York Times on my cell phone; did it happen? Did Russia really invade the Ukraine? Yes, they did. For many mornings to follow, I began the day in the same fashion, turning on the wifi on my phone and checking the news. What had happened now? In the first week, my partner and I were hoping that the war would quickly come to an end, that those who had fled could turn back home. As the days passed and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure seemed to mount exponentially, it became clear, directly turning back home was no longer an option, there would be millions of people fleeing harms way. It seemed that Russia’s main goal became the entire destruction of a country, with little concern for civilians and those attempting to flee.
Like many people living in Europe, we asked ourselves what we could do. During the first week of the war and within a matter of minutes, we laid out our plan. In some ways it was a plan that we already had "on reserve." Manuel had often voiced that if catastrophe were to strike (what he imagined would be global-warming disasters forcing people out of their homes and land), we would make our plentiful space available to displaced peoples. We hadn't previously imagined that it would happen so soon and be due to war in Europe. Almost immediately, we typed up a call for help. We would need electricians, plumbers, people to build a kitchen and bath, people to clean, assemble and move furniture, and more. We sent an email out to our local "Oderartig" network of appximately 400 members, a diverse group of creatives, empaths and mostly ecologically attuned individuals who live in the Oder River region. (The Oder River is an international water border, dividing Germany and Poland.)
The response was immediate, and the next day people were at our door, tools and cleaning supplies in hand. A sandwhich board outside our house also drew in neighbors. Over a three-week period, our house was full and busy. I was accustomed to a large empty house, but now I was up early making coffee and greeting people. A whiteboard in our front entrance, which Manuel kept updated, listed all there was to be done. I spent most of my time coordinating work and workers, sending people in the right direction and connecting them to the right tools. Often, I had, Esther, my 13-month old daugter on one hip. Electricians and plumbers did show up, and worked pro bono, like all others. A friend and neighbor spent many long days building a new kitchen. A number of donations came in as well: furniture, clothes, drapes, towels, a boiler and water heater. Many asked what else they could bring, and what else they could do. A local artist, filled a number of our bedrooms with her uplifting illustrations. Selfless service became the name of the game and it was moving to see how many people showed up willing to do whatever needed to be done.
We are grateful to the dozens and dozens of people who came to help. It seemed a nearly impossible stretch to get the place in order in 3-weeks; without YOU it would have been impossible.
Here is a video showing some of the volunteers, the spaces and our guests. Further below are photos with descriptions.
You can also watch the video via Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/702808983
*We founded our non-profit, Haus für Kunst, Natur und Kultur gGmbH at the end of 2020. In the last quarter of 2021, we founded a welcoming initiative, Wir Zusammen! (Us, together!), for refugees and internationals arriving in our region.
The bathroom off the main entrance at the start of the rennovations. We wanted to add a shower and an electrical outlet, so that we could plug in an eclectrical heater. The central heating in most of the building is defunct. The radiator pictured is no longer connected to a heating system.
Two lovely volunteers help with the plumbing. There were a total of six volunteers who spent ample time in this bathroom, re-plumbing, re-wiring and tiling.
Setting the tile for the new shower.
Daniel wires a new electrical outlet so that we can plug a heater in. A new wire had to be run from the basement.
The bathroom after its make-over! Unfortunately we still had to finagel* quite a bit with the water heater so that it stayed on while in demand; that is, continued to heat the water while running, which is very important when taking a shower on a cold day. On April 7th, Manuel and Daniel rewired the contraption, and were successful in fixing the system. * I just discovered that finagel is an americanism from the 1920s, so here is the defintion: To obtain, arrange, or achieve by indirect, complicated and/or intensive efforts.
|Three volunteers help to move furniture from one of the industrial halls into the main house. Daniel, far right, speaks Russian fluently, and has also helped extensively with translation and communication.
Bijan hangs lamps in the bedrooms. An Electrician helped to rewire outlets in all 14 bedrooms on the 2nd floor.
Our neighbor, Lotte, helps to build a new kitchen. Wood and tools were previously stored in this location. With running water and fully tiled, this room lent itself to becoming a kitchen - and a successful kitchen at that! Lotte is also helping to build a 2nd toilet on the 2nd floor, near the bedrooms.
Andreas also spent many long days in piecing together the new kitchen.
The Kitchen before it was a kitchen: in 2021, the space functioned as a dying lab for KuNaKu residential artists: Dan Farberoff and David Beghar Perahia and their project, Common Views.
March 2022: after rennovations
Even the Oderberger Fire Department donated a refrigerator and cabinets, which went into the room just outside of the kitchen. This room offers our guests more space to store food and a second microwave and fridge.
Volunteer, Sonja Schwarze. She spent many long days cleaning many rooms.
Volunteer, Lena. She spent many long days cleaning many rooms.
Fourteen bedrooms were cleaned, electric was rewired and put in functioning order again, walls were repaired and painted, and furniture was brought in. Paintings and illustrations were added at the end of the process.
Sasha, one of our Ukrainian guests, with two donated illustrations from local artist and illustrator, Gabi Erne, from Hohensaaten.
Free Shop: We prepared a corner of the front entance of the house for clothing donations. Donations from dozens of people have passed through our doors. Our guests were especially thankful for extra layers of warm clothing. Germany is not the warmest place on Earth middle of March and April.
Volunteer, Anna, setting up and preparing shelves for our free room.
Volunteers, Cat Aman and Elsa Loy, pack the shelves with donated clothes.
Elsa and I continue sorting clothes.
Gas Heaters: Due to old electrical wiring we can use a maximum of one electrical heater per floor. Manuel spent quite a lot of time researching heating options. He finally settled on these portable gas heaters that have a propane gas tank at the back. We purchased five new heaters. They have several safety functions, including measuring oxygen levels in the room and turning off if the oxygen drops below a certain percentage. We ask our guests not to use the heaters at night and to air the rooms regularly.
Ukrainian volkunteers help make signs for the house. The three young guests came together with their host, Evelyn.
Two of our neigbohrs, Ute and Christina, were also regulars during our house revamp. In addition to cleaning multiple rooms they put a finishing touch on all of the bedrooms: lace curtains which they bought themsleves and hung. I would have not though of the lace curtains, but must admit that the rooms looked more welcoming afterwards.
Volunteers bring furniture to the second floor of the main house, where most of the bedrooms are located. Here are a few photos of the second floor landing in its process of transformation.
After we were able to sort out the furniture and furnish 14 or so rooms, we created a couple of sitting areas and a puzzle area in this second floor landing. It has been too cold to sit long in the space, but once it warms up a bit the space will serve as an additional community space.
Our intial guests had only the toilet at the main entrance. We quickly set to work to bring a second toilet in wokring order. Our neighbor, Lotte, put in new plumbing for the toilet and for a washing machine.
Thank you for making the seemingly impossible, possible!
We love you!