Maria Markina, a singer and volunteer from Hamburg, talks about her experience of helping Ukrainian refugees, her volunteer organization, and the relations between volunteers from Russia and Ukraine.
Maria, first of all, tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you still active in opera? How did you start volunteering, and what place does it occupy in your life?
— As for my main job — it’s going on as before. Initially, I worked as a solo singer at the Hamburg State Opera, which is why I live here. Now I work as an opera singer and performance artist in various theaters in Germany. In addition to concerts and productions I teach singing. During the Corona pandemic I got a job with a women’s organization dealing with forced prostitution and labor exploitation. In German this is called “Zwangsprostitution” or “Zwangsarbeit.” Our employees provide support to women who are affected. We assist them in getting help, from legal to psychological, and we explain the various risks, but the decision always remains with the woman herself. Understanding this helped me a great deal in volunteering. These two years that I have been working there have taught me that the attitude of “I will help you because I know better” is very destructive both for those who provide and those who receive help. It took me a long time to realize that.
There were two circumstances that prompted me to volunteer. First, a war broke out, which was a terrible blow to everyone, and people just fell apart. It was completely unclear who you were and how to go on living. And any help was a salvation above all for ourselves. Many volunteers, as they said later, came for this very reason. The war happened “all of a sudden” for all of us. When the war began, there was a feeling that the world had collapsed, but thanks to volunteering we were able to come out of this horror and see the world around us. Secondly, I had had experience working in an activist group that we had set up here in Hamburg, the “Activist’s School,” which had been connected to the protests in Russia since 2011, and some of the people from this “school” later switched to volunteering. That was a political group, but our current organization is politically and religiously neutral, although, like any citizen of the country, we can and do take part in politics and protests — we go to anti-war rallies and demonstrations in support of Ukraine.
My personal story of volunteering began when I went to help with translations at the reception center for refugees, where my friends were already working. There I learned about all the documentation, and how the necessary paperwork should be done. At the same time we were volunteering at the railway station. From the first day of the war people began to come to the Hamburg railway station and organize help for those who were arriving. Along with this a live chat room was created, where one could ask questions and get up-to-date information for refugees in Hamburg. There are now more than 10,000 people in this chat room. At first this chat room provided answers to questions about registration, free food and clothes, but then it became necessary to coordinate information, and we created separate groups. It is very important for our organization to remain horizontal. We have no superiors who decide what all of the groups should do.
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