TUM student Clara Sabel drove to the Polish-Ukrainian border eight times.
Bachelor thesis briefly interrupted: TUM student Clara Sabel drove to the Polish-Ukrainian border eight times.
Image: Antoine Leboyer
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TUM student Clara Sabel: volunteer work for Ukrainians“There’s incredible range in what these people are going through”

Clara Sabel is studying mechanical engineering at TUM. But since the start of the war, she had been driving in aid convoys to the Polish-Ukrainian border. On the return journey, she carried people fleeing the conflict. With us she talks about what it means to put her own life on hold – because there are more important things to do.

You are just back from a trip to Chelm, near the Polish-Ukrainian border. What are your impressions of the people you are bringing to Munich?

These human encounters are so impressive. They are people like you and me. And they are proud people who do not want to give any outward sign of the terrible things they have experienced. Many of them try hard to support our efforts. On one trip to Munich I had a lawyer with me. She told me about cases she had dealt with. Of course that’s kind of cool.

You were there on behalf of the private aid organization Civil Relief Munich.

One thing that is important to all Civil Relief Munich volunteers: they’re passengers. We make a point of not saying “refugees”. We do all we can to treat them with dignity and respect.

You make the trips from Chelm to Munich surprisingly uncomplicated.

Well, when children are involved the situation is a bit different. On the last trip there were a lot of children in my convoy. The youngest was three or four years of age and the oldest was 13. And yes, I’ve even had a five month old baby in my car. Some kids cheer up the minute they see the chocolate bunny that we placed on the seats at Easter. The little bell keeps them busy for an hour if not longer. Others fall asleep right away. But some also cry when we set off.

So it’s not easy emotionally.

For us volunteers it’s part of the job. On top of that you have the car sickness. I was especially touched in cases where children also had health conditions. I had a severely autistic child in the car. There was also a boy with leukemia who played with his phone for the whole journey. I only learned about his illness when we got talking. You couldn’t notice anything. There’s incredible diversity in what these people are going through.

You have witnessed unbelievable suffering. Why have you carried on?

I see myself as part of the European community, and not so much as a German. After all, we have joined together as the European Union. So I think we should stand together not only in peacetime, but also at times of war. At the beginning I felt very powerless. I’m a student and I don’t have much money to donate. But then I got involved. When you take aid supplies to the border and drive back with people in your car, you no longer feel as helpless in the face of war.

Once they’re in Munich: what happens next for people fleeing the war in Ukraine?

We haven’t dropped anyone off at a refugee shelter. We have a department for matching the people with host families. That means: every car takes the people to the home of a pre-selected family that is contacted by telephone. They arrive at a welcoming home, get into a warm bed and sit down at the breakfast table the next morning. This makes a world of difference for people who have been sleeping in a refugee camp at the Polish-Ukrainian border. It’s a great feeling to know that my passengers are not only in safety, but also in good hands.

What is the situation like when they arrive in Munich?

Once the host family was waiting at the door and said: “Hello, we’ve heated up some spaghetti Bolognese. We hope you’re hungry. Come in, let us take your bags.” And then there was a little boy the same age as the Ukrainian child who made friends with him right away. Seeing something like that is a gift.

You’re actually a student. How do you find the time for this work?

At the moment I’m writing my bachelor thesis at the Chair for Carbon Composites at the TUM School of Engineering and Design in Garching. In every call with my supervisor I spent the first couple of minutes talking about what was happening. He and everyone else at the chair showed a lot of understanding for my situation.

Students would obviously find it difficult to donate money or offer a spare room for people fleeing war. What can they do if they want to help?

What students can do better than anyone: offer their time. Especially in the Civil Relief Munich host family team, volunteers are urgently needed to call the pre-registered host families in the Munich area as soon as the passengers are documented at the Polish border. This ensures that all of the passengers arriving in Munich have a family to host them.

How does that look in detail?

It’s usually a five to ten minute call. In some cases there are issues to clarify such as possible pet allergies, for example if someone is bringing a cat with them. There is also a constant need for drivers, too, preferably ones who can drive to the Polish-Ukrainian border during the week at short notice. And students generally have more flexibility in their schedules.

What are your thoughts on the future?

I always dream that the war will be over one day. And that we can run the convoys in reverse – so that we can take the people home to Ukraine. Of course you can say that this is a utopian dream – but it’s a beautiful thing to imagine.

More information:

  • Clara Sabel, 22, was born in Munich. In her bachelor thesis at TUM she is investigating how resin systems harden under microwave radiation.
  • She has made eight trips to the Polish-Ukrainian border. For each return journey she has spent 32 hours at the wheel.
  • En route to Munich, she has not only had human passengers in her car. She has also transported dogs, cats, hamsters, ferrets – and a turtle.
  • The private aid organization „Civil Relief Munich“ elies entirely on donations.
  • Clara Sabel was one of more than 100 volunteers, later joined by 1200 volunteer drivers and around 40 vehicles. Every day two aid convoys depart for the Polish-Ukrainian border from Munich.
  • TUM Venture Lab Podcast Entrepreneurial Realities #22

Technical University of Munich

Corporate Communications Center Katharina Horban / Verena Meinecke
meinecke(at)tum.de