Prague: hotels become homes for Ukrainian refugees
“Welcome, buongiorno, dobry den, dobry ranok”- these are the first words guests hear when entering Legie, a three stars hotel located in the heart of Prague.
Lada, the receptionist, is a linguistic talent. She switches from one language to the other at an incredible speed, while welcoming the hotel guests with a big smile and all the information they need for their stay.
Since February 24th, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, the hotel, run by a partner of Česká obec legionářská, has opened its doors to the refugees and Lada and the rest of the team have worked incessantly to ensure they have all they need.
“It was a quick idea to help and the hotel was empty because of Covid. In Prague there were no tourists. So we had the capacity to help,” says Marcela Tolarova, assistant secretary of Česká obec legionářská.
When the first group of people arrived at the hotel it was Sunday afternoon of February 27th and Marcela and her husband were in Wenceslas Square to participate at the demonstration organized in support of Ukraine.
They received a phone call from one of their colleagues asking them to go unlock the door.
“We came to unlock the door but then we were thinking, what will they do? The hotel is not working, there is no one, no staff, how will they eat? How will they get to the rooms? It was pure chaos.
We stayed there for more than 36 hours. At 2pm I went to shower in one of the rooms and as soon as I felt the water on me, I started to cry. I was just punching the wall because there was nothing we could do at this time. Nobody knew what to do and how to help,” recalls Marcela.
In fact, before the outbreak of the war, her organization was not responsible for the hotel management, so Marcela and the volunteers had to learn the job very quickly.
Until nowadays the challenges are many, but the happiness of the women and children they are able to help is their greatest motivation to continue improving their work.
Among the hotel’s guests there is Juliana, a 38 years old woman from Zhytomyr. She arrived in Prague with her mum, her son and her sister on March 4th.
The day they left, their city was bombed.
“Now I am smiling and I am happy because the girls and boys [of the hotel] do everything to make us happy. When we arrived we were shocked, we cried all day, we couldn’t sleep, we couldn’t eat. We were watching the news from Ukraine all day and it was terrible. In Ukraine we have our lives, jobs, friends, our hobbies, our heart, our soul,” tells Juliana.
It is also thanks to the help of a psychologist -whose professional support was guaranteed by the organization- that Juliana was able to slowly start her new life in Prague.
In Ukraine, she worked in the marketing department of an international company that was shipping cars from the US. Now, she is putting a lot of energy in her Czech classes as she hopes this will give her more chances to find a job in Prague as soon as possible.
“For now, I try to help in the administration of the hotel with Ukrainians because these people are amazing and they help us begin a new life. I don’t know what the future will be, but for me it is a good chance to start my life from the beginning,” says Juliana.
Alice,15, from Dnipro, is also among the guests. She was one of the firsts to arrive at hotel Legie on February 28th, together with her mum and two girls from Mariupol. They traveled by train to Poland and from there, they came to Prague in a car organized by volunteers.
“I am going to the 9th grade and I am still following my Ukrainian classes online.
The teachers teach between bombs and sirens,” says Alice.
She likes Prague, but in the future she would like to become a film actress in Ukraine.
“I am also attending Czech classes, but I want to go back. In Ukraine there are my friends, my father, my grandmother and I miss them so much.”
Currently the hotel – that hosted more than 200 refugees since February- accommodates around 100 of them. In addition to a room, they are supported with free food three times a day and a room with a kitchen and some children’s toys to hang out.They also have a PC room with wifi connection, a psychological support and Czech language lessons with a teacher from Zhytomyr, who escaped with some of her students.
For now, Česká obec legionářská (CSLO) is supporting these activities with his own budget, the money earned by the tourists- who occupy two floors out of five of the hotel- and the hotel operator. However, without the state support- which was promised since March- in one month they will not be able to provide any more help.
The situation of hotel Legie however, is not an isolated case.
Just a few minutes away, hotel Marianeum -run by Caritas Czech Republic- faces similar challenges.
“With Ukrainians it started on day one. We managed to give them one floor and we put the other guests on another floor, so they could communicate between the rooms,” tells Martin Cvrček, managing director of hotel Marianeum.
They provide refugees with accommodation, a kitchen, SIM cards, medicines and an online page that they can always access to seek further support.
Currently, the hotel reached their maximum capacity of around 50 people, but without the state support, their service will be forced to stop at the end of May.
For Caritas, as well as for CSLO, the hotel is their business that helps support their social activities and they cannot risk to miss the earnings of the summer season.
So while all the guests are trying to secure themselves a place to stay in the Czech capital, for Marina Gribenik,42, -from Mykolaiv- and her dog, the challenge might be harder.
“Now I am here [in the hotel], but my case is complicated because I am alone and I have a dog. I could not have left her there. It is impossible. She is my family,” tells Marina.
On February 24th, the sound of explosions woke her up. It did not take a long time for her to realize that the war had started.
“In my house, there was no bomb shelter, there was just a normal shelter but it was a mass grieve withouth ventilation and an only way out. So during bombing, me and my dog we sat in the bathroom. One day my apartment was destroyed by a Russian missile. It went through the window. The only things that were left: the kitchen and the bathroom where I sat with my dog,” recalls Marina.
The next day, she left for Odessa and then took a train to Budapest, Hungary.
From there, thanks to a friend who knew Martin very well, the manager of hotel Marineum, she left for Prague.
“Most of my family lives in Russia. Nobody called me, nobody offered me help and people that I met for the first time, they helped me much more than my family that I thought was supporting me.
I did not believe I could live in a place like a hotel for a long time and feel at home, but here I found understanding and support for me and my dog and it is very important” says Marina.
Since the beginning of the war on February 24th, more than 300.000 Ukrainians have arrived in the Czech Republic, a country where Ukrainians represent the largest national minority. Some of those have found temporary accommodations in hotels like Legie and Marianeum.
Photo: Teresa Mauro
Příspěvek vznikl v rámci kurzu Foreign Correspondence pod vedením doc. PhDr. Alice Němcové Tejkalové a Ph.D. Mgr. Veroniky Mackové, Ph.D.