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Left to right is Lena and her husband Aleksandr Chajka, Petunov Oleksii and his wife Zoya Guziy, Mark and his father Denys Rolenko and Kiril with his father Mykola Harashchuk.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

Deaf Ukrainian refugees who fled to Berlin are being allowed to remain in the city, after previously being told by German authorities that they would need to relocate to other parts of the country – away from each other, and from support services such as sign language interpretation.

Members of the group of about 85 refugees, which includes both deaf Ukrainians and their hearing family members, told The Globe and Mail recently that officials were forcing them to leave the city about two months after they had arrived, and after they had already found schools for their deaf children and made friends in the local deaf community.

But on Friday, Katja Kipping, Berlin’s state senator for integration, labour and social affairs, decided the group can stay together in the city – though she said in a statement that the move should not be seen as a precedent for other deaf refugees who may arrive.

The uncertainty over the group’s status in Berlin had been stressful for the refugees, some of whom spoke with The Globe and Mail through sign language interpreters last week, before Ms. Kipping’s announcement.

Mykola Harashchuk, 39, said he, his wife and their two children were welcomed to the city. They initially stayed at a hotel, where they were promised they would be taken care of. Weeks later, he said, Berlin authorities showed up and told his family they had to go to Cologne, about 500 kilometres to the west.

He didn’t want to go. Neither did the other deaf refugees staying at the hotel. “We made friends, we made contacts, we found schools. And all of a sudden, they said we have to go to Cologne. We weren’t prepared for it,” said Mr. Harashchuk, who fled Kherson, Ukraine.

Denys Rolenko and his son Mark are part of the group of about 85 refugees that includes both deaf Ukrainians and their hearing family members.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

Authorities soon moved his family and other deaf Ukrainians into a refugee camp called Buch, north of downtown Berlin, where they lived in metal containers. Mr. Harashchuk said he and the others could feel vibrations in the floors – an unsettling sensation for deaf people.

The reason the deaf refugees were being pressured to relocate is that Germany has a system that regulates the number of asylum seekers and refugees present in each of its states. Berlin accepts 5 per cent of all refugees who arrive in the country. Any excess refugees are sent elsewhere, unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as urgent medical needs. Refugees may also be exempted from relocation if they have found housing in Berlin or have family there.

Ms. Kipping said that, when officials were looking for a solution, they found themselves in an area of tension between requirements: the clear criteria for refugee distribution in Berlin, and a promise that had been made to the group that they could stay together.

Fifty of the refugees had registered with officials over the course of the past week, Ms. Kipping said. All met the criteria to stay in Berlin, she explained, and so she decided that the remaining 35 people could stay, in the interest of keeping the group together.

Ms. Kipping also said Friday that the refugees who are registered in Berlin have new accommodations, with better fire protection and their own cooking facilities.

Petunov Oleksii and his wife, Zoya Guziy, fought to stay in Berlin.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

Last week, several members of the group bemoaned the conditions at Buch. Lena Chajka, 40, and her husband Aleksandr, 33, said they fled Kharkiv with their two children and happily stayed in a hotel for about a month. But then they too were told they had to leave without much notice.

“We wanted to remain in Berlin, and we fought for it,” Ms. Chajka said last week. “And then we were brought to Buch. The rooms were dirty, they were smelly.”

Ms. Chajka said people in the camp had grown sick, including her daughter, who she said had lost weight because of illness. “The longer we stayed there, the dirtier everything got, and the worse living conditions became,” she said. The Globe saw photographs of mouldy food refugees were given.

She said she and other deaf refugees want to stay in Berlin because there is a school for deaf children, sports programs and other opportunities. “There are interpreters, and we know the interpreters. We know the deaf people,” she said.

“Berlin is the world I can imagine living in, because it’s a welcome into the deaf world.”

Mykola Harashchuk and his son Kiril are part of the group of deaf Ukrainian refugees and family members who fled to Berlin.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

Petunov Oleksii, 45, and his wife Zoya Guziy, 35, also fought to stay in Berlin. Mr. Oleksii has a daughter from a previous marriage who is living in Potsdam, on the edge of the city, and so he wanted to stay close to her. But he also emphasized the importance of access to interpretation services.

“Most interpreters available in Germany are sign language interpreters who are certified in German sign language, but we need Ukrainian sign language,” he said. “In Berlin it’s available.”

“When interpreters are there, I can be myself and I have say in my own life. Otherwise, I’m always dependent on somebody else.”

Thomas Moritz, a lawyer in Berlin who is advocating on behalf of the group, said the news is a great relief for the refugees. He said supporters of deaf Ukrainians will continue to work to change the relocation policy.

Like unaccompanied minor refugees, he added, deaf refugees should be exempted from Germany’s transfer mechanisms.

Mr. Moritz said human dignity for deaf people starts with respecting their language and recognizing their need to participate in everyday life. Obligations to recognize these needs are established in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, he noted, and also in Europe’s reception standards for refugees.

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