BERLIN – Tamara Cycman would hardly describe herself as a social activist.
A decade ago, while most of her friends were out in the streets of Israel protesting the high cost of living, she found excuses to stay home.
In 2015, a year after she had relocated to Berlin, many of her peers were mobilizing to help the Syrian refugees pouring into Germany at the time. Unlike them, the 37-year-old graphic designer “did nothing,” as she bluntly admits.
“I had just come from Israel and didn’t want to hear or see the news,” she recounts. “I just wanted a normal life.”
So, what spurred her into action now? “It’s hard to explain,” says Cycman, “but for weeks we kept hearing that something was going to happen. And then it did happen, and there were all these refugees suddenly here on our doorstep. These were people who until not that long ago had jobs and homes and cars, who were being forced to sleep on floors in strange countries. I just felt that I had to do something.”
More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the Russian invasion began on February 24, mostly to the bordering countries of Poland, Moldova and Romania. Berlin Central Station has become a key gateway for tens of thousands who have chosen to move further west, with the train station’s lower level recently repurposed into a welcome center for them.
Most of these refugees are women and children, since most men aged between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine. Many of them opt to stay in Berlin, but many also move on to other destinations from there.
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A few days after the war erupted, Cycman was looking at photos a friend had posted on Instagram of refugees getting off the trains and being greeted by German volunteers who were offering them food and hot drinks.
“Something about those photos really moved me,” she says. “I mean, I literally live 10 minutes away from there. I knew that distributing food was not something I wanted to do, so I tried to find out whether anything special was being done for the children who were arriving. When I learned that there wasn’t, I decided this would be my contribution.”
Two-and-a-half weeks ago, this Argentine-born, Jewish-Israeli-Berlin transplant put aside everything she was doing, walked over to the train station and found a spare 50-square-meter (540-square-foot) space on the lower level that wasn’t being used. She earmarked it for her children’s corner. This one-woman initiative would soon evolve into a project employing hundreds of volunteers working around the clock for the benefit of thousands of refugee children.
On that first day, Cycman grabbed whatever she could find in her home office and threw it into a trolly. “I took water colors, construction paper and scissors, and headed back to the train station,” she recounts. There, she arranged all her supplies on a table she found that wasn’t being used.
As each train full of refugees arrived at the station, she waited outside and invited the disembarking women and children to come spend the hours they needed to kill until their next train took off at her crafts table. “That first day, we worked until the last train arrived at 1 A.M.,” she says.
As the days progressed, the operation expanded as donations of toys, games and children’s books started pouring in. Cycman also started receiving requests from people who wanted to volunteer. Today, she has nearly 400 volunteers registered in the special Telegram group she set up for the project.
The children’s corner operates 24 hours a day, doubling as a shelter for mothers and children during the night. It has enough space – as well as mats, sleeping bags and blankets – to accommodate 20 people sleeping on the floor at one time.
Cycman now has nine deputies helping her out, making sure, among other responsibilities, that at least half a dozen volunteers are on hand during every one of the three daily shifts at the children’s corner.
She also has volunteer “detectives” stationed outside whose job it is to keep out predators and other questionable characters.
On a visit last week, two volunteers greeted new arrivals at the welcome desk, which was overflowing with giveaways for the children. In addition to colored pencils, construction paper, books and stuffed animals, there were also leaflets in Russian cautioning the mothers to be wary of strangers offering them places to sleep.
Cycman retrieves a rather large stuffed dinosaur from a crate under the desk. “You see this?” she asks. “One of the things we discovered early on was that it wasn’t a good idea to keep big toys or stuffed animals here, because the kids would grab them and their moms would force them to return them because they didn’t have enough room in their bags. So, we came up with a solution.”
She points to a nearby container stuffed with small backpacks. “We give these out to the kids, so that they can then take whatever they want without having to worry about finding room in the bags they brought from home.”
A few mothers are seated on benches in the corner, scrolling through their phones. One of the volunteers, who happens to be an artist, is assisting children seated at the crafts table with their drawings. The entire space is decorated with pictures drawn by children who have passed through this space. Many of them feature the Ukrainian flag or are inspired by its colors.
Born in Buenos Aires, Cycman immigrated to Israel with her family when she was 3 years old and grew up in the central city of Rehovot. A graduate of the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan, she left Israel for Berlin in 2014.
“I hated Bibi,” she explains, referring to Israel’s then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “and I didn’t like the direction Israel was headed in. I just felt that life would be easier somewhere else.”
She chose Berlin because of its reputation as an international design center. For the past four years, she has been living in the Moabit neighborhood – where the central train station is located – together with her German partner.
Although she has no children of her own, Cycman says she has always enjoyed a special rapport with youngsters. “I’ve been babysitting since I was 10 years old, and I’m always the one who hangs out with the kids at the Passover seder or at the family wedding.”
A freelancer, she has meanwhile put all her art projects on hold so she can devote herself full-time to her children’s corner. “How long I’ll be able to get away with it, I don’t know,” she says. “I already have one client who warned that if I missed another deadline, he would demand his money back.”