UKRAINE TRIP 10th TO 13th MAY RETURNING WITH A GRANDAD, A GRANDMA, 21 WOMEN AND 2 YOUNG BOYS

Week Five, the biggest and best week yet for Eden Aid, actually started on Monday 9th May for our Northern contingent who travelled from Penrith to Oxford in a minibus kindly funded by a generous donor. They were welcomed by the Oxford team, led by legendary Danish ball of energy Troels Henricksen, and a team meeting ensued over a glass of wine.

Alex, Stuart, Chris, Andy, Suzanne, Tim and Reggie with Louisa behind the camera

Tuesday morning started by packing the vans with the generous gift of medical supplies donated by a local Ukrainian mum Iryna and her close friends including Anna Morris and Helen Ashdown at Sommerville college in Oxford. The addition of Zimmer frames and wheelchairs added an extra layer of complexity to this week’s game of “Van Tetris!”.

The full team had assembled, and we were ready to leave. In the lead in the Headington school bus we had Andy Pitts, back for another week, and his pal Reggie Morris. Van 2 was driven by Chris Lewis, and the lovely Suzanne Pullin, in a van kindly donated by Radley School. Alex Yalland and Louisa were our young and energetic duo driving van 3. Bringing up the rear in style, in the iconic Eden Aid Land Rover, were Stuart Miller and Tim Howe. Topped up with copious amounts of AdBlue and armed with homemade tiffin and enormous snack bags baked by Helene, we were off!

Nearing the Ukrainian border

The following 24 hours of driving passed by in a blur of coffee and red bull, quick naps and the endless empty fields of Europe; France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Poland. Note to all – don’t ever buy anything in Germany, I think beer may well be cheaper than water there! The regime of two hours driving, two hours sleep worked well and kept us relatively refreshed. Sadly, halfway through Poland the Headington Bus decided it had had enough after 3 weeks of aid runs. With the van threatening to go into limp mode it was decided that Andy and Reggie would stay put and try and get the van fixed while the rest of us pressed on, doing some quality synchronized convoy driving across the increasingly deserted roads of Poland.

At around 17:00h local time we finally arrived at a deserted warehouse near Mlyny on the Eastern Border of Poland. It took no longer than “two shakes of a lamb’s tail” (that’s Cumbrian for not very long) for a Polish chap not too dissimilar in appearance from Harry Potter, to arrive and hastily unload and then pack our medical supplies, sanitary products and baby food onto four pallets destined for Lviv central hospital and hospice in Ukraine.

We then managed to get some rest, Polish style! Our eclectic lodgings felt like “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, and we thoroughly enjoyed some team bonding over a drink in the garden followed by some hearty Polish fare. In the meantime, Andy and Reggie were desperately trying to source another minibus, in Wroclaw, so they could meet up with us and continue the rest of the mission.

On Thursday morning Tim and Stuart made an extra stop and delivered an enormous bag of snacks to the Refugee Centre in Prezmysl before the team set off to Warsaw. It was a sight for sore eyes when we arrived in Warsaw to see Andy and Reggie in their brand-new Polish minibus, amazingly sourced for us by AA Europe. We picked up 11 people including a family of Grandad, Mum and two small boys, two mothers with daughters and three ladies travelling alone. All of the logistics for this first pick up were arranged by our amazing Polish partner Yaroslav. Everyone was happy to see us, but nerves and uncertainty were understandably written all over their faces.

During the many long hours ahead, we often wondered what was running through their minds, it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Poznan was the next stop, collecting three Mums and their four daughters. We snaked our way out of the city, paying scant regard to one-way systems; I think they’re optional in Poland and no entry signs seem to make excellent short cuts? It felt good to cross the border into Germany, ticking off a country as we inched closer to home. After what felt like 20 laps of the colossal Berlin Airport, we finally found our cargo of a mum and daughter and a single lady. Drivers were starting to tire at this stage and as the numbers increased the “quick changeover breaks” were becoming ever more difficult; trying to get twenty people through a rest area with one working toilet was never going to go smoothly!

A wave from the back of the Land Rover

We were running quite late now and were anxious and worried about our next stop in Hannover main station as our ETA was 3.40am and we hate the feeling of having a young mum and daughter sitting alone in the middle of the night waiting for us to scoop them up. The look on their faces when we arrived and the feeling of relief for all of us was palpable.

We were running quite late now and were anxious and worried about our next stop in Hannover main station as our ETA was 3.40am and we hate the feeling of having a young mum and daughter sitting alone in the middle of the night waiting for us to scoop them up. The look on their faces when we arrived and the feeling of relief for all of us was palpable.

Quick stop for food in Belgium with Iliia and Stepan

Sunrise appeared in our rear-view mirrors in Germany on Friday morning and, after what felt like forever, we finally pulled up to our last stop, Eindhoven Refugee Centre. The Dutch set up was brilliant and various efficient ladies located our passengers, a mother and daughter with a banjo! We really were packed to the rafters at this point and the women were so patient and understanding of us having to reshuffle people and luggage at several points. Breakfast couldn’t come soon enough, and it was great to see the two young boys happily tucking into a Burger King wearing their crowns!

We ploughed on, Antwerp traffic and delays on the French dual carriageways were not on our side but seeing those first few signs to Calais was a huge relief. It was so exciting to get our passengers to Border Control, the final administrative hurdle. We would all like to thank the amazing staff at Border control, they were fabulous, treating everyone with dignity and respect and smiling and laughing with people who were obviously nervous. Cheers and tears all round as we got all twenty-five people through with ease, it really was overwhelmingly emotional.

The sun was shining in England as we emerged from the tunnel and the younger folk couldn’t stop snapping pictures on their phones, inspired by their new surroundings. Drop offs at various railway and service stations around the Southeast reinforced what a huge team effort this is; from schools donating minibuses, to the drivers, exceptional 24-hour logistical support from Troels, Nigel, Olga and Jaroslav, the sponsors of our Ukrainian families and their friends and relatives in the UK. It really is life affirming to see so many people pulling together to do kind things for people in a desperate situation.

Drop off at Ashford International Station

Louisa summed it up well when she said “I wish we didn’t have to do this trip, but it’s one that will stay with me for life. It was a total privilege to share the journey with the Ukrainians. Their stoicism, warmth and humour are an absolute inspiration and I wish them all the happiness in the world for this new chapter of life in the UK”.

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