EDENAID – AUGUST 8th RUN

I heard about EdenAid on a radio interview. I was on my way to the barber’s, had the radio on and two women were being interviewed about driving to Poland with donated supplies for Ukraine, and then bringing back refugees who had been matched up with sponsor families here in the UK. Their account had me in tears. The theme of the programme was women-only teams, and I was praying there could be a space for me on it. Thankfully, though only this trip was exclusively women, not all are.

I got home, Googled, emailed, and in due course was welcomed into a company of committed, enthusiastic, caring, dynamic, positive people, determined to do SOMETHING in the face of global events and an apparently incompetent or uncaring government.

My first run was August 8th, departing at 13:30 from the Oxfordshire home of Troels, who is leader/co-ordinater/guru/driving force. Getting there involved a 3-hour train journey, which is not ideal before a 24-hour drive, but there we are. Others, coming from further afield, arrived the night before and stayed over.

Fellow newbie Simon picked me up at the station. He’d driven down the night before from the north-east and stayed over at Troels’ place. Over coffee and cookies, we introduced ourselves to each other. We had a retired army officer, a retired police officer, a pharmacist, an osteopath, a finance director, a plumbing and heating engineer, a couple of small business owners, a lawyer, a teacher… The common thread was that determination to at least do something.

Above – vehicles assembled at Troels place, Monday August 8th. Troels in the middle of the group in the pink hat.

Troels’ briefing was a blend of orders, advice and motivational speech. You will be exhausted, but you will love it; all use the same satnav system so we’re all going the same route; stay together in convoy to support each other; change drivers rigidly every two hours; when you’re on a rest slot, rest; communicate throughout via WhatsApp; don’t be a macho idiot – if you’re tired stay so and we stop and swap drivers. Staying together as a convoy was particularly emphasised.

My co-driver, Reggie, with the delightfully cute Ukrainian dog Troels has taken in.

This run, there were 7 minibuses going out. Usually, it’s been only 2-4, but the school summer holidays had allowed the loan of some school minibuses, for which we were incredibly grateful, from Stowe School, Cheltenham Ladies’ College and The Hurstpierpoint School. EdenAid already had three Polish minibuses on rental, so we would take those three back carrying aid donations and use the loaned minibuses, and one owned by EdenAid, to take aid out and bring refugees back.

So far, the group had brought back 384 refugees, and assorted pets. This run would add 28, and therefore take us over the 400 mark. Predominantly, these have been women and children.

At 13:30, we all piled in, rucksacks squeezed in the back on top of aid boxes, and started up. Someone, perhaps unused to a left-hand drive vehicle, stalled four times, which prompted a barrage of good-natured ribbing. Troels filmed us as we headed off, our positions in the convoy all prescribed. Stay together, and good luck.

The thing is, getting out of Troels’ place was a bit tricky, and there was traffic, so seven minibuses were not all going to get out in one go. By the time we re-grouped on a nearby dual carriageway we realised two had gone missing. We were trying to re-find each other on WhatsApp, prompting Troels to write, less than fifteen minutes after we’d left him:

“How can you be lost already??”

Heading down toward the Eurotunnel, one vehicle diverted to Gatwick to pick up a driver, Patrick, flying in from Jersey, and then we re-grouped not far from the Eurotunnel terminal.

Tickets were all pre-paid, sorted by our wonderful – and again all-volunteer – back-up team. We got through there and were ready to board the next shuttle, and then the clutch went on the minibus driven by Ian and Patrick.

An on-the-spot repair was clearly out of the question, so we unloaded all the aid on that one and squeezed it into the other six, while also clearing room to put a couple of seats up so that we could carry Ian and Patrick. All sorted in a matter of minutes, and with some wonderful support from Eurotunnel staff the stranded one was left there for the AA to recover later.

Above – redistributing aid boxes after the clutch failed

Reggie drove our minibus down to Folkestone, so I drove it off at Calais. Driving on the right was not new but I hadn’t driven in northern Europe before. Heading through the night I passed road signs for destinations familiar predominantly from war films – Dunkirk, Arnhem, Nijmegen.

In the early hours of the morning, we stopped at a service station in Germany. I summoned up any memories I could find and attempted my first ever communication in hesitant German:

“Eine café bitte?”

The response, a polite but bored:

“Yes, sir. Small, medium or large?”

Above, middle of the night fuel stop. Hope no-one else needed a pump!

And onward.

Our strict 2 hours on, 2 hours off rotation was now incorporating Ian and Patrick as spare drivers, their minibus having been left on the UK side of the tunnel. Simon and I had a rest period in the rear facing seats of one of the minibuses. As I put my eye mask on to get some enforced rest, I remember looking at the stacked boxes of aid and observing that they perhaps hadn’t been packed as securely as they might have been.

About half an hour later when the driver was forced to brake hard, Simon and I were rudely awakened by boxes slamming into our chests, in my case, and somewhere more sensitive in Simon’s!

Another stop, in Poland, and several of the guys piled into the Polish version of a full English breakfast – eggs, toast, bratwurst sausage, tomatoes. It looked delicious, but I wasn’t sure I wanted all of that in my stomach with ten hours still to go so I just had a croissant and a coffee.

And on we go.

Patrick sat beside me for one drive and we talked for two hours about life, careers, marriage, children. I couldn’t believe my driving stint was over – the time flew by.

On my next stint, Ian came and sat with me. We have both had careers in the NHS, so that was another two hours easily passed.

Above, Patrick Jones and Ian Harrison, who sat and talked me through successive stints through Germany and Poland.

For most of us, the destination was a place called Bielsko-Biala, where we would deliver our aid for onward distribution. Ian and Simon, though, in their bright red minibus loaned by Hurst School were to head to a different point, much closer to the border. We heard about their adventures later.

The rest of us reached Bielsko-Biala around 1pm, almost exactly 24 hours after we set off.

Tired, we wove through unfamiliar streets, following our satnav, until we were told our destination was a hundred metres ahead on the right.

At that point, a siren sounded, and I cursed that we were going to need to pull over for an emergency vehicle this tantalisingly close to our destination. But no, it was the village fire engine, being sounded to trumpet our arrival. We parked up and clambered out and were welcomed with handshakes and lots of heartfelt welcomes and thankyous.

We unloaded all the aid and I was impressed with how much there was. Nappies, sanitary towels, surgical dressings, suitcases, children’s car seats, tinned food, crutches, walking frames… all sorts of stuff.

Photographs, more expressions of thanks, and we all clambered back in for the last leg, to the hotel. For some reason I, and I think others, had it in my head that it was another 90 minutes or so to the hotel. It wasn’t. It was another 4 ½ hours, with the first couple along small meandering B-roads that just seem designed to frustrate us, after we’d spent 24 hours covering ground at a good speed.

At the drop point in Bielsko-Biala. We were welcomed in by the siren of the local fire engine. I was quite emotional. Everyone in this pic is grinning. I think I was just trying not to embarrass myself by bursting into tears!

I was running out of steam badly. Reggie was asleep beside me, and Patrick asleep in the back – where we now had seats again instead of boxes. I didn’t want to wake either of them – we were all tired and this was their rest slots – but I was really struggling. Finally, much to my relief, Patrick woke up, stretched, and said “Keith, are you alright?”

We pulled over at the next rest stop, thankfully a mere two kilometres further on, and Reggie took us the rest of the way to our hotel, the delightful Hotel Karona in Tychy, where we ordered beers that felt hard earned.

It was a couple of hours before Tim and Simon made it back from their drop, which was a mere hundred metres from the border. They were following their sat nav and at one point were aware of two men on a hill watching them with binoculars. A little further on, the same, and then they were flagged down and told they could go no further by a Polish border guard. Tim commented on the man’s fluent English.

“Yeah. I used to live in Peterborough.”

Unfortunately, neither that connection nor the purpose of our presence there made any difference – Tim and Simon were not allowed any further down this road. They doubled back, and found another way round to their agreed rendezvous. When they finally got there it was a compound containing damaged vehicles. From time to time, men appeared, looked at them and went away again. I think it was an at least mildly discomforting experience.

They had to wait two hours for the arrival of the people they were to hand over the aid to. They were coming from Chernobyl, around a nine hours’ drive away, and then a frustratingly slow process getting across the border. Because men of fighting age stay in Ukraine, the battered van that arrived to meet Tim and Simon contained a young woman, her mother and her grandmother. The aid was transferred to their van and off they went, to cross back through the border and then nine hours home through their war-torn country.

Back at the hotel dinner that night was a tired but happy affair, with lots of laughter and camaraderie, but an early night!

In the morning, six of us were up early to drive to Lublin Airport for the flight home. The others would set off slightly later, heading for Warsaw to pick their passengers for the drive back to the UK.

They paused for a full two hours near Dortmund. A lesson learned on the previous 16 trips is that somewhere around there everyone needs to rest before the drive into France, through the tunnel, and then back round the M25. It was a warm night, and some of them simply slept on the grass at the service area.

They came back through the tunnel about 8am on Thursday morning. I’d been watching the WhatsApp communications since 6am so I could tell them all well done. (I wasn’t the only one, by a long way. Reggie was also watching, and Reggie’s wife, Annie, had been a regular presence on the WhatsApp communications ever since we’d set off, from their home in Oxford, which was uplifting at three in the morning.)

Ian posted the above on our WhatsApp group. Beneath it, he wrote: ‘That’s you lot.”

His fellow Kiwi, John, responded: “Epictetus? Which minibus was he driving?”

The guys brought back 28 refugees this trip, plus two dogs and a cat. That takes EdenAid’s tally to 412. We couldn’t have done it without the generous support of the schools that loaned us minibuses – hugely appreciated. Below, on the Eurotunnel and almost home – Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Stowe School and The Hurst School.

Notwithstanding that I’m going again next week, it felt like the experience of a lifetime, an adventure that, unbelievably, all happened over only a couple of days, with thirteen complete strangers, all of whom simply wanted the same thing – to feel we had done something to help.

To close, it’s about these people:

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