Ukrainian refugees update - loooooooong post!

KeithDavies 100

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EdenAid – August 8th run

I heard about EdenAid on a radio interview - two women talking about driving to Poland with donated supplies for Ukraine and bringing back refugees. It had me in tears. 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.

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Above – Troels place. Troels in the middle of the group in the pink hat.

Troels’ briefing was a blend of orders, advice and motivational speech. You'll be exhausted but you'll 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 every two hours; when you’re on a rest slot, rest; communicate 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 was Reggie, a 7-trip veteran. Troels himself has done 9. EdenAid has only done 16 runs altogether, so a lot of this has fallen heavily on a small number of individuals.

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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 Hurst 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.

At 13:30, rucksacks squeezed in the back on top of aid boxes, 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.

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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?”

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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.

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Above, Patirck 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.

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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 Corona 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 nine hours’ driving 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.)

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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 – 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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Telekarster

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Very good story man. May I ask, what happens to these people once you've brought them back? Also, is there some sort of red tape you have to go through before you can re-enter your country with them, or can you just drive right through the borders? Perhaps you mentioned this earlier and I missed it, so sorry if that's the case.
 

KeithDavies 100

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Very good story man. May I ask, what happens to these people once you've brought them back? Also, is there some sort of red tape you have to go through before you can re-enter your country with them, or can you just drive right through the borders? Perhaps you mentioned this earlier and I missed it, so sorry if that's the case.
Since the UK left the EU, and with the increasingly aggressive stances being adopted by the current UK administration, no, we can't just bring people back across willy nilly.

Everyone we bring back has therefore been matched up with a sponsor family in the UK, and they have all their documents sorted and in order before we pick them up. (Though perhaps worth noting that some of our volunteers also help a lot in discussions with problematic UK government departments to help refugees get those documents sorted out.)

There are still hundreds, probably thousands, of refugees still in refugee centres and so on. While credit has to be given to the authorities that have managed to make such facilities available, they're not great places to be crammed in with your kids and what few possessions you've got left in the world.

When we come back to the UK, we have to get the vehicles back to Oxford. Sponsor families living in the south of England met up with us at points on that drive back to Oxford, and we hand over the refugees at those points. Those heading further north, we put them on trains, contact their sponsors to tell them which trains they're on, what times they're expected, and if possible hand the refugees temporarily to train staff where we can, for them to keep an eye on them and tell them when they've reached their stop. We also furnish them with phone numbers - ours, the volunteers on logistics/support, the sponsor families, and so on. Where they don't speak English, we also give them a note saying "I am a Ukrainian refugee. I speak no English. Please can you phone this number for me?" Rarely needed, but one of the volunteers was woken at 3am when something didn't quite go according to plan. Needless to say, she woke others, and people got moving and we were with the stranded family by about 5am.
 

Telekarster

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Since the UK left the EU, and with the increasingly aggressive stances being adopted by the current UK administration, no, we can't just bring people back across willy nilly.

Everyone we bring back has therefore been matched up with a sponsor family in the UK, and they have all their documents sorted and in order before we pick them up. (Though perhaps worth noting that some of our volunteers also help a lot in discussions with problematic UK government departments to help refugees get those documents sorted out.)

There are still hundreds, probably thousands, of refugees still in refugee centres and so on. While credit has to be given to the authorities that have managed to make such facilities available, they're not great places to be crammed in with your kids and what few possessions you've got left in the world.

When we come back to the UK, we have to get the vehicles back to Oxford. Sponsor families living in the south of England met up with us at points on that drive back to Oxford, and we hand over the refugees at those points. Those heading further north, we put them on trains, contact their sponsors to tell them which trains they're on, what times they're expected, and if possible hand the refugees temporarily to train staff where we can, for them to keep an eye on them and tell them when they've reached their stop. We also furnish them with phone numbers - ours, the volunteers on logistics/support, the sponsor families, and so on. Where they don't speak English, we also give them a note saying "I am a Ukrainian refugee. I speak no English. Please can you phone this number for me?" Rarely needed, but one of the volunteers was woken at 3am when something didn't quite go according to plan. Needless to say, she woke others, and people got moving and we were with the stranded family by about 5am.
Thanks for explaining all that, much appreciated. Didn't think about the language barrier, that must be kind of tough sometimes too I suppose. For those that have a sponsor family, is there some authority or organization making regular checkups to ensure all is well for both the sponsor and the ref? Just trying to understand better about the situation and figure it's best to ask someone who's "in the trenches" so to speak.
 

KeithDavies 100

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Thanks for explaining all that, much appreciated. Didn't think about the language barrier, that must be kind of tough sometimes too I suppose. For those that have a sponsor family, is there some authority or organization making regular checkups to ensure all is well for both the sponsor and the ref? Just trying to understand better about the situation and figure it's best to ask someone who's "in the trenches" so to speak.
Evolving all the time.

To begin with, people came forward to sponsor, and that seemed fantastic.

Then, sadly, it becomes apparent that because it's all women and children coming out, there are people volunteering that you don't want anywhere near vulnerable women and children. So then statutory safeguarding processes kicked in, which slows things up but does protect people.

The government pays sponsor families an amount to support, but with spiralling inflation and everything we are seeing a lot of sponsor families expressing a wish to end the arrangement. Understandable, but tragic.

My wife and I came back to the UK last year and are still in rented accommodation so we can't take anyone in just now. As soon as we've bought somewhere, that will be something we'll want to do. Of course, just taking in one family is a drop in the ocean, but eventually it all adds up.
 

Telekarster

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Then, sadly, it becomes apparent that because it's all women and children coming out, there are people volunteering that you don't want anywhere near vulnerable women and children.

Thanks again man. Yeah... this would be my biggest fear for them. There's a lot of creeps in this world, and gosh... that's the last thing a refugee needs to deal with, and the creeps would certainly exploit the process if they could I'm sure. Upsets me to even think on that scenario. Anyway, thanks again man. I wish the best for all of em, and I do hope they can return home some day and regain the lives they once had.
 

KeithDavies 100

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Thanks again man. Yeah... this would be my biggest fear for them. There's a lot of creeps in this world, and gosh... that's the last thing a refugee needs to deal with, and the creeps would certainly exploit the process if they could I'm sure. Upsets me to even think on that scenario. Anyway, thanks again man. I wish the best for all of em, and I do hope they can return home some day and regain the lives they once had.
We used to pick up at the refugee centres. Unfortunately, though, there are far too many vehicles cruising around those places offering to pick confused women who don't speak the local language. And if they know they're looking for a vehicle ... well, way too easy.

Now, we send a photo of the licence plate and the drivers on WhatsApp, and arrange to meet them away from the refugee centre - a McDonalds, or something, for example.
 

Telekarster

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We used to pick up at the refugee centres. Unfortunately, though, there are far too many vehicles cruising around those places offering to pick confused women who don't speak the local language. And if they know they're looking for a vehicle ... well, way too easy.

Now, we send a photo of the licence plate and the drivers on WhatsApp, and arrange to meet them away from the refugee centre - a McDonalds, or something, for example.

Man... I can sort of relate to this in a way. Back in 2013 my wife and I took our first trip to New York City. Of course, it's the land of taxi's LOL!! Anyway, long story short, what we didn't know is that there are "fake taxi's"??? Yeah.... we boarded one not knowing this. The guy took us where we needed to go and all, so it ultimately wasn't an issue, but nonetheless we found out after the fact that we had gotten into someone's SUV, who flashed us fake credentials, and being tourists we had no idea... Kind of scary when you think about it :oops:
 

stxrus

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The more I read the more awestruck I am about this endeavor.

Im not a believer but it does exist there is a special place in heaven you and all involved
 

KeithDavies 100

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The more I read the more awestruck I am about this endeavor.

Im not a believer but it does exist there is a special place in heaven you and all involved
Bless you.

I'm not religious either, but there are a couple of things that I've been inspired by, over the years.

The earliest, was the story of The Good Samaritan. My grandmother used to tell me that story over and over. So there's that.

And a few years ago, when things were really, really bad in my life - we've all been there at some point - I came across a quote from Revelations. It gets translated in different ways, so apologies to anyone religious enough to know it well, but roughly it was "Look to what remains, and strengthen it." It just seemed to speak to me. When everything is bad and seems hopeless, turn your attention to what's left and work on it, because that's where you being to re-build.

There's another thing, though, that I feel is important to note here. What we're doing does, absolutely, help others. But I think about how much I have been moved, empowered, reinvigorated by the experience, and I honestly wonder whether actually I gain as much from this anyone I'm helping.

Who knows? And perhaps it doesn't matter.
 

Dan German

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My admiration for the work you are doing is balanced by my disgust when I read about the measures required to protect refugees from predatory behaviour. Luckily the admiration wins. Well done.
 

Tricone

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God bless you and all who are working with you. May He protect and keep you.

And to all bullies and tyrants:
"Sic Semper Tyrannis."
 

Toto'sDad

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What an incredible story! An amazing tale of what a group of human beings can accomplish given the desire to do so. You, and your fellows are to be commended by all who read of your great adventure. The people you helped on both ends of your great adventure I'm sure will never forget what you, and your group have done. Bringing those folks back is just a wonderful end to your story. Though you are going again, and I wish you every success, if your story went no further, it is among the greats, perhaps the greatest ever posted here.
 




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