US military community group Ramstein shelters dozens of displaced Ukrainians
The Ukrainian boy wore Stitch flannel pajamas and a big smile as he blew out the eight candles on his cake.
Two weeks before his March 16th birthday, Daniel wondered if he would even throw a party. His family fled the Ukrainian capital of kyiv by car shortly after February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion.
“How can I celebrate it in the car?” he said to his mother. “We have nowhere to go.”
But it turned out that Daniel and his family had a place to go. The Bledsoes, an American military family who live near Ramstein Air Force Base, are hosting them until they can settle in Germany.
“Now we’re having this party,” said Anya, Daniel’s aunt, as her American hosts and Daniel’s extended family gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” and eat cake and ice cream. “I think it’s the best we can ever give this kid.”
Daniel and his relatives are among more than 60 Ukrainian refugees who found a temporary home in the Kaiserslautern area thanks to a non-profit group started by US military wives in Ramstein days after the outbreak of war.
Operation Ukrainians at Ramstein helps Ukrainians as they start a new life in Germany, said Jessie Bledsoe, wife of the Air Force and one of the group’s directors.
The group has hundreds of volunteers, helping with transport to Germany, providing translation into Ukrainian, Russian and German, and collecting, sorting and dropping off donations to ensure refugees have the essentials when they start again. .
“We act as a bridge between when they leave Ukraine and settle in our local community,” said Bledsoe, whose husband is an Air Force officer in Ramstein.
An acquaintance from Colorado who was once a missionary in Ukraine spoke to the Bledsos about Anya, whose real name is withheld due to fears for the safety of family members still in Ukraine.
Anya was an English teacher at a private school in kyiv. She left with her husband, mother and the couple’s 2-year-old twin daughters; his brother and his wife and their two children, including Daniel.
The former missionary flew to Germany, drove with Bledsoe to pick up Ukrainian refugees in Moldova and helped connect the group with charities in countries bordering Ukraine.
Russia had already invaded Ukraine in 2014, leading to an eight-year war in the eastern region known as Donbass. But in the last week of February, Kremlin forces crossed borders in an assault that claimed more than 3 million refugees in less than a month.
Thousands of displaced Ukrainians are arriving in Germany every day, according to the German Interior Ministry. As of Wednesday, nearly 239,000 had registered in Germany, Reuters reported.
Most of the refugees are women, children or the elderly.
Ukrainians can enter without a visa. Once registered, they can receive full government support.
Americans are helping Ukrainians register locally, a process that takes weeks.
“We estimate four to six weeks (stay) in foster homes,” Jessica Top-Simons, an army wife and one of the Ukrainians on the operation, told Ramstein directors.
Top-Simons is home to a family who fled the Donbass to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa in 2014 and were forced to flee again.
Top-Simons and Bledsoe met while looking for a way to support Ukrainian refugees. After witnessing the comfort shown to the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who passed through Ramstein last fall, they said they knew the military community’s capacity for generosity to those in need.
The group estimates they received more than $50,000 in donations.
Currently, 27 families in the Kaiserslautern area are hosting Ukrainian refugees, said Air Force wife and group leader Shelby Dobbs. Most are American but a few are German, Dobbs said.
Fifteen other host families await their arrival. The need for hosts continues to grow, Dobbs said.
To house, active-duty members need their unit’s approval and off-base residents in government-leased housing need their landlord’s consent, the group said.
A few commanders did not approve the requests, but some agreed after learning more about the group, Bledsoe said.
“Once they realize… all these steps that we go through to make sure our foster families are protected, then they’re more likely to be okay with that,” she said.
The US European Command said there was no official policy on welcoming Ukrainians.
“Any assistance must comply with host country laws and local accommodation guidelines,” a command spokesperson said last week, adding that most residential leases require landlord permission for additional guests.
The Ukrainian Operation in Ramstein carries out frequent wellness checks on Ukrainians and their host families. Dobbs is “always on call,” she said, to answer questions or concerns.
Top-Simons, a trained therapist, said the group can also connect refugees with counselors who speak their language.
Some of the refugees show “tell-tale signs” of trauma such as hypervigilance and fear of loud noises, she said.
“A lot of them (are facing) grief,” she said. “They all have anxiety about the future.”
For Anya, Daniel’s aunt, anxiety often keeps her awake at night. She worries about her husband and brother and the uncertainty of war. She feels the pressure of being the sole breadwinner in her family.
But she is grateful that she and the rest of her family are safe.
“I still don’t believe there are such people who would help in this way,” she said of the Bledsos. “I couldn’t hope for anything more than that.”
When they celebrate a birthday, share a pizza or her mother’s borscht, “being here is like a vacation,” she says.
“But I just can’t let go of all my feelings and completely relax,” she said. “I have just returned to Ukraine, what is happening there.
“It was a wonderful life. It was perfect.”
Operation Ukrainians in Ramstein can be contacted via Facebook under their group name or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.