Escape from Zaporizhia: How a judo club saved Ukrainian students

Escape from Zaporizhia: How a judo club saved Ukrainian students

EI have “a bus full of children. Need help”. That was the wording of the first contact that Robertson Linsner remembers. And Linsner and his colleagues at the Judo Club Wiesbaden (JCW) were able to help. Almost six months later, the more than 30 Ukrainian children and young people and their two supervisors, Stanislav Bondarenko and Kyryll Vertynskyi, are already part of the club’s core.

The Hessians routed the old, yellow Ukrainian school bus as it fled in mid-March by remote diagnosis from the Republic of Moldova, from where the aimless emergency call came, via Romania and Hungary after a stopover in Vienna to Wiesbaden. At the wheel was trainer Kyryll Vertynskyi, 37, who had used the ancient vehicle to escape from the contested Zaporizhia at a speed of 80 km/h.

„Megacooler Support“

The bus crew consisted of his students, between 11 and 17 years old, girls and boys from the judo boarding school in the Ukrainian city, which is currently becoming notorious due to the Russian shelling of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant of the same name. Former competitive athlete Stanislav Bondarenko, 35, followed a few days later with 13 children and teenagers crammed into a sprinter.

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war in Ukraine

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At the time, the 42-year-old Robertson Linsner “actually had no function” in the club, but he knew how to get things done from his job at the German Red Cross (DRK). And has since acted as a kind of integration officer within the traditional club, which will celebrate its centenary next week. “With mega-cool support” from the city of Wiesbaden, according to Linsner, it was possible to help.

The refugees, all of whom fled the war in Ukraine without parents, were housed at the Evim youth welfare and the Johannesstift youth welfare center. At both contact points, they live in their own residential units, in pairs or fours, and are offered a regulated process.

struggle with bureaucracy

Intensive German courses are also part of the program so that they can go to school after the summer holidays. And of course training. Linsner reports with a laugh: “We’ll take care of that.”

The judoka from Ukraine have at least one training session a day, usually two. And of course they also want to compete in competitions. Where the problems of German sports law begin. The people of Neu-Wiesbaden were allowed to take part in the Hessian individual championships, but not in the team competitions in the league system. Because there are special foreigner restrictions that do not stop at Ukrainian refugees.

“A lot of contradictions in the statute”

When asked, Detlev Herborn, office manager of the Hessian Judo Association (HJV), makes no secret of the fact that there are “many contradictions in the statutes”. In mid-September and the end of October, however, there are two general meetings in the HJV, after which the competition rules could look different. “Applications have been received,” reports Herborn.

Philipp Eckelmann, the first chairman of the JCW, hopes for a corresponding change in the statutes, which would support the integration efforts of his association. Jobs have already been found for the two supervisors Vertynskyi and Bondarenko, himself once a world-class judoka who won several international medals. Both now live with their wives, who were able to follow.

The perspectives of the unaccompanied young people seem “more difficult”, as Linsner admits. “Will the parents stay in Ukraine? At least the mothers will follow?” Questions to which the Wiesbaden judo helpers currently have no answers.

The fact that the principle of “help” was well received by those who had been helped was proven not least at the Judo Club’s holiday camp in its Otto-Schmelzeisen-Dojo, the training facility named after the legendary club founder in the sports hall on the second ring.

“It was touching to see,” reports Linsner, “how the Ukrainians took care of our disabled young people.” Being there for judoka with a handicap is also part of the club’s philosophy at JCW.

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