A place to live
In spring, Ukrainians Valentina, Katharina and Kirill fled their homeland and landed in Munich, where they were taken in by Giovanni Schalk, a referee at FC Bayern. As we head into the New Year, we ask how life has developed, and what their wishes and hopes are for 2023. A story about arriving and about carrying on. A story about how it is still important to help. And a reminder that war still causes a lot of suffering.
At the end of our conversation, Valeria pulls out her smartphone. She desperately wants to show us something. For a few moments she searches through her digital memories, then a video runs across the display: a snow-covered park full of sculptures, all colourfully lit up. Orbs of different sizes glowing blue, violet, yellow on the ground, a statue of a horse standing proudly on a plinth, resplendent in red, and the virtual walk continues, past installations and models, sometimes a little gaudy, but on the whole beautiful. The park was opened exactly a year ago in the heart of Kharkiv, admission was free for everyone, people enjoyed meeting in the colourful winter wonderland, Valeria tells us. In December 2021, everyone was looking forward to Christmas - in Ukraine, too. In December 2022, the heart of Kharkiv lies in ruins.
It's a Sunday evening in Munich, Valeria and her five-year-old son Miron are visiting Valeria's mother Valentina for a fortnight shortly before Christmas. Nine months earlier, the 57-year-old had fled Kharkiv with Valeria's older son Kirill and Valeria's sister Katharina to escape the Russian war of aggression, which exactly a year ago had seemed unthinkable to so many. Grandmother, daughter and grandson are watching an FC Bayern basketball game together today, because trips to the Audi Dome have become a cherished constant in the difficult day-to-day life as the months have gone by. Valeria asks not to be photographed, but she would still like to tell the family's story: "I am so incredibly grateful to the people here in Germany, we are all so grateful. I never expected so much help and support for us."
„From the first day I started exchanging emails with Giovanni, I was surprised by how much sensitivity and willingness to help he showed.”
As the first bombs hit Kharkiv, Valeria had been looking for options for her family. Her husband is still not allowed to leave Ukraine today, she herself stayed with Miron - but she wanted the others to be safe. The refugees found a temporary home with Giovanni Schalk, a member of the FC Bayern refereeing team. In the meantime, they've got their own flat. "From the first day I started exchanging emails with Giovanni, I was surprised by how much sensitivity and willingness to help he showed," Valeria says. "It was a difficult time: my family wanted to find a place to live - and we succeeded."
Able to laugh again
After Miron has tried his hand at shooting a few baskets on the court in front of the Audi Dome, his grandmother takes him by the hand. He walks past the wishing tree that's being used to support girls and boys in Kharkiv as part of the FC Bayern Basketball team's "Helpside" campaign on this day. A coincidence, but fitting: In times like these, it's anything but a matter of course that children like Miron can attend a basketball game without a care in the world. At the Audi Dome, he's given a bag of popcorn, and with an ever-increasing sense of adventure, he spends the time until game starts by exploring the stands that are slowly filling up. The world is never big enough for children - but at home it's currently very dangerous. She always has Miron by her side, Valeria tells us: "If there's trouble, we can hide together." it wouldn't have worked for his 15-year-old brother to stay in Ukraine: Teenagers want to be independent, to meet their friends - "but we can't be worried about him all the time". Therefore, with a heavy heart, his mum sent him away with his grandmother.
As an exception, Kirill, like Katharina, is not on the family outing this afternoon - he has a basketball game of his own, with TSV Ottobrunn. Of course, it hurts a mother when she rarely sees her son at a time like this - but Valeria is also glad that Kirill has so many appointments: "That's a good sign." Twice a week he has training, twice a week he leads practice sessions for 12- to 14-year-olds himself, then at the weekend he has a game, plus he tries out all sorts of things after school, from chess to the saxophone. When the war started, he was very frustrated, Valeria says, "he hadn't laughed in a long time". Teenagers have enough to deal with themselves as it is, but to then also be thrown into such an extreme situation makes everything unnecessarily more difficult. A new country, new language, new school, new friends - and always this distance, Valeria explains. "But the people here really do everything they can to make him feel at home. And Kirill is now able to laugh again."
The game begins, the spectators make a racket with clapboards - Miron covers his ears. During breaks in play, mascot Ben fires T-shirts from a cannon into the crowd, sometimes imitating a huge recoil. It's all show, no question, and you don't always have to talk everything down, even in these times. But for a moment, one is struck by the thought of how all this might affect people who have to experience the real horrors of war.
A spectator in the stands calls to Valentina - they know each other, they meet regularly. She's asked where her daughter Katharina is, where her grandson Kirill is. The 57-year-old shakes her head and says in German: "No. Not here." It's more difficult for older people to adjust, Valeria tells us, observing the scene: "My mother is a communicative person, but the language is complicated." Nevertheless, she's learning diligently with the others and she understands a lot, it's just talking that's difficult for her. "She's very brave," says Valeria, "she will make friends here too." Valentina is certainly not unnecessarily shy: before the game, she runs into Marko Pešić, and the manager of the basketball team immediately poses for a few selfies with her.
Invitation to Kharkiv
Katharina is not at the Audi Dome on this particular Sunday because she's giving a concert with her Bach choir. At home in Kharkiv, the young woman studied music and also gave lessons herself. Now she practices four times a week with her current choir, which does her good, says her sister Valeria. "She had her studies at home, her friends, her music, her life - but it's wonderful that she's now got a chance here to further develop her singing." Valeria enjoys the visits to her family in Munich. They give her courage, they show that life goes on, that solutions can be found together. "I develop alongside them, even when I'm far away," she says. She currently lives with her husband and Miron in Lviv, as far away from the front as possible. They keep in touch with Munich via video calls, often several times a day. This year, Christmas will also be a virtual family get-together.
They decorated their flat in Munich with stars weeks before Christmas Eve and also decorated a tree. They visited Christmas markets together and tried everything to ensure that the children could enjoy a worry-free season of Advent. "They should be able to feel joy if it is possible," reflects Valeria. What does she wish for this Christmas? Peace, she says, it's obvious, she doesn't have to think about it for long. "But I'm afraid it's not realistic that it'll happen in the first half of 2023." Who knows how long they'll have to go on living like this? "We need a Christmas miracle," says Valeria.
Generally speaking, the Ukrainian says, they would just be happy "if we could have the choice again. The choice of where we live, how we live, where we can be together". At the moment, Valeria explains plainly, "for us it's purely a matter of surviving, of saving ourselves. To be able to choose again how to go on - that would be a gift." And ideally, one day hopefully in the not too distant future, she would then like to invite all the people who have given so much to her family in the past nine months: "Giovanni and everyone from FC Bayern's refereeing department, everyone who's helping us - they should all come and visit us!" For a winter walk through a colourful Kharkiv. As soon as it's been rebuilt - and the city's parks can shine in a new light.
© Fotos: Daniel Delang
This article appeared in the current issue of the FC Bayern members' magazine "51" (in German).
President Herbert Hainer wishes all FC Bayern members and fans a Merry Christmas: