Please here is your free money

It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and I’m waiting with Lena in the hall of Stadsloket Zuid, Amsterdam. A boy about seven years old walks with an imaginary gun and meets a girl about five years old. She wears a gray checkered dress, white stockings with teddy bears on her knees, white shoes. She starts talking to him and Lena says, “They’re from the Ukraine. That dress” –she listens inside– “I got it here and she is very happy with it and now the boy says he is the guard”. Yes, I see it. He spreads his arms and jumps from side to side, the girl is not allowed to pass. Oh no? She lunges for a pike and runs down the hall, with the boy in pursuit. I am! I am! Yes, ochrannik! They are overflowing with joy.

Some people come for their driver’s license or passport, but otherwise just Ukrainians, mostly women, well dressed, luxuriously made up. I remember what Lena’s daughter Masha said when she recently stayed with my son Tobias and we were discussing the situation in Berlin at the table. Thousands of Ukrainian women have been arriving there every day for weeks and, according to Masha, you could recognize them on the street by their fingernails. “Always painted, usually red.” She showed off her own nails, also painted fiery red. That was a few days before the photo of Boetsja’s woman’s hand went around the world. The hand of a dead woman with nails painted red, on the dirt road. Her ring finger had been broken.

Lena’s nails are painted white. Wear little makeup, just a little bit of lipstick, in a soft color. Her hair is short and undyed and she always wears long pants and sturdy shoes, in which she can walk quite a bit. “What do you think?” she says when nearly an hour has passed and it’s still not our turn. “Would this be correct?” Last week she was registered at the address of our neighbors downstairs, she lives in her basement, and today she has to go back for some paperwork, so she can open a Dutch bank account later.

Not well. We have been directed to the wrong queue and the people at Stadsloket Zuid find it so annoying for us that we can now go directly to the correct department. We are greeted by two young women behind a computer screen. “You’re the lady huh… Olena huh… Vladymyrova?”

“That’s me.”

We’re both a bit tense, because of what still needs to happen before that bank account can be opened and what documents Lena accidentally left behind at her home in Dnipro the day she fled. She then she had the presence of mind to even bring her birth certificate, but you never know.

“Well, Mrs. eh… Vladymyrova, here I have it for you” – one of the two young women swipes a card under the glass partition – “a bank card on which the municipality of Amsterdam will deposit your support allowance retroactively…”

“Huh?” Lena says.

“…and then again on May 1, 475 euros per month.”

So simple? I ask.

“So simple,” says the woman. “The municipality of Amsterdam recently decided to do this. It saves you and us a lot of hassle.”

“Beautiful,” Lena says, in Dutch, and when we step out into the sun, she says it again. “Handsome.” Guttural sounds are also good. She suggests going out for coffee. She pays.

Then we walked through the city on the way home. The Japanese cherry trees are in bloom and high up against the blue sky the seagulls are screeching. “They shout differently here than in Dnipro,” says Lena. “There they go ah, ah, ah and here they go ah, ah, ah”. In Crimea, where she used to go on vacation, they sound different again. She then quickens her pace, because it’s almost half past one, her boss won’t know where she is. Your boss hers? She has been back at work since Monday, via a secure Internet connection. She asked this morning off. Lena is an accountant in a Ukrainian bank. Some colleagues are in Poland, one has fled to France and is therefore in Amsterdam. “No problem, that distance,” she says. “We were already used to it because of the corona.”

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