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Seán Dolan (back left), Martin Madden (back right), Olivia Feehan (front left) and Joby Redmond (front right) are helping refugees travel to Ireland from an aid centre near Ukraine. Céimin Burke/The Journal

Irish volunteers at the Ukraine border: ‘We're great at helping, but need to do more. It’s a tragedy’

At a major humanitarian aid centre close to the Ukrainian border a small team of volunteers are helping refugees travel to Ireland.

Céimin Burke reports from the Poland-Ukraine border

EVERY NIGHT IN a disused shopping centre, just 11 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, hundreds of refugees try to sleep in narrow beds while fluorescent lights constantly burn brightly above their heads.

The former Tesco in the Polish town of Przemyśl is the largest aid centre in the region and is a major hub for people fleeing Russia’s invasion. It offers shelter, medical aid, food and a chance to arrange transport to another location. 

Everyone there wants to leave as soon as they can. To help them achieve this, scores of volunteers from all over Europe are in the centre every day, offering information on their country and arranging buses, lifts, flights and ferries.

Each country’s desk is marked out by its flag and decked out with maps and posters explaining key information in Ukrainian and Russian. At the desks, volunteers engage with refugees and act as translators while others busily scan laptops for potential routes and information.

It’s almost like a giant travel agent expo, where people can sit at a desk and speak directly to someone who is from where they are considering travelling to.

At the Irish desk Olivia Feehan from Eyrecourt in Co Galway is outlining options to a 16-year-old boy who is here alone, without parents, while Tanya, from the UK, acts as a translator. 

Right next to them the Portuguese volunteers do the same job for other prospective travellers; immediately after that there’s a Swedish station, and nearby, the well-manned German desk is handling several enquiries. 

Meanwhile, a Danish volunteer wanders around holding up a sign advertising seats on a bus to Denmark that’s leaving in a matter of hours. 

“The German set-up is the best,” explains Joby Redmond, “they run buses all the time and a lot of Ukrainians want to travel there.” 

Joby began the Irish operation around a month ago with nothing but his phone and €1,500 worth of donations to pay for Ukrainians to travel to Ireland.

“When I arrived there was no Irish presence here. The UK had a presence, Germany had a presence. Spain were absolutely amazing; they ran tonnes of buses quickly. They were also the first ones to cop on to the trafficking. They were the first ones to put in place different strategies to try and stop it.”

Joby claims the local police aren’t doing enough to stop human trafficking, with little checks on vehicles entering and exiting the carpark. 

Early in the war people from around Europe came to border areas and directly offered lifts to arriving Ukrainians. Most had noble intentions but traffickers also took advantage of the chaotic situation and lured away people who were seeking safety.

The situation prompted a statement from the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with the UN Refugee Agency.

In a bid to stamp this out Polish authorities banned all unauthorised people from transporting refugees.

It also stepped up security at the aid centre and limited entry to refugees and volunteers, all of whom wear a wristband that is scanned when they enter and exit.

However, after a Covid test and a passport check I managed to get into the building thanks to the blessing of the right person.

Inside the centre

Despite its dramatic shift in purpose, the shopping centre remains strangely similar to many that are dotted around Ireland. There’s a ring of smaller units near the entrance and a giant open space in the latter half. 

Where once there were aisles of grocery shelves there are now long lines of beds. Supplies are stored in an area right at the very back. A Polish soldier stands in front of it, guarding the entrance.

Outside the giant bedroom, people queue for the toilets as old women fall asleep in chairs. A canteen, boxed off with timber pallets, serves food while around the corner children play football. “The kids love football,” Joby says. “There was a great game yesterday where the girls bet the hell out of the boys.”

From a unit that could have once been a bookshop or a butcher’s, a smiling woman waves at Joby and beckons him over. She’s lying at the end of a row of beds alongside one of her daughters, who is around four or five years old. The two of them seem to be having a good laugh.  

The woman flashes Joby her phone, which is showing a map of Kerry. It’s as if she and the child had been studying the peculiar-shaped county right at that very moment.

“You’re excited to travel to Kerry?,” Joby asks; with beaming smiles the pair nod and agree. Two smaller children are fast asleep further up the row. The Irish team have arranged for the family to travel to Kerry via Frankfurt.

It’s all funded through money raised by the volunteers.

“We’re sending a lot of people through Kerry from Germany because I’m sure that Kerry people are just waiting for them,” Joby explains.

“Everybody wants to work. There’s a lot of people in hospitality, construction. Everybody that’s sat in front of me has said that they want to get in and they want to work. All they need is just a little help. And I know everybody at home is doing everything they can.” 

‘We don’t rush decisions here’

Olivia and her friend Seán Dolan packed up a van with supplies and travelled to Ukraine after organising a hugely successful GoFundMe campaign. The charity drive has collected nearly €35,000 which is being used to pay for Ukrainians to travel to Ireland, including funding flights, trains, buses and money for the journey. 

“Some people come with some research done and other people don’t have a clue. They’re just going around to each desk getting as much information as possible,” Olivia explains.

The 30-year-old is a psychotherapist who works as a student counsellor in TUS Midlands. She has taken time off work to be in Ukraine and is very grateful to her employers for allowing it.

“As a therapist some of your core skills are empathy, compassion – just holding that space for people. When people sit down at the desk, sometimes they’ve just arrived at the centre, and they’re looking to get a flight really quickly. 

“Often when people sit down at the desk, when they sit down is when this rush of overwhelm comes over them. And that can be a very vulnerable time, because now it’s like: ‘I’m here’. And when they do that, everything kind of comes at once. 

“So, I think my skills are definitely applied in reassuring people. Just compassion, as much compassion as possible, trying to think of what they’ve been through. 

Holding that space, allowing them to take their time, allowing them to go away, think about it and come back. We don’t have to rush any decisions here. 

“Being aware of people’s emotional states as well – with the shock and trauma that they’ve been through – just to make sure that they’re grounded in their decision about moving to Ireland, because it is further away from Ukraine than mainland Europe. So, to make sure that it’s not a rash decision.”

Ceimin 1A The cost of the Ukrainian's travel to Ireland is funded through money raised by the volunteers. Céimin Burke / The Journal Céimin Burke / The Journal / The Journal

While Olivia works on the desk, Seán concentrates on jobs such as transporting refugees, grocery store runs and a host of other jobs including cleaning and loading supplies on and off vehicles. 

Joining Seán in these tasks is the other member of the Irish team, Martin Madden. Martin is originally from north Belfast and, despite his family relocating to the US at a young age, the 38-year-old still retains some of his northern accent.

When I’m at the centre the team is in discussions over whether Seán and Martin should drive to Austria that evening to help a disabled woman to catch a flight.

The price of flights in airports close to the Ukrainian border has surged since the war broke out and there’s also less availability. Because of this the team has had to arrange journeys to other countries, particularly Germany. 

Seán, who is from Cloghan in Co Offaly, was moved to organise the fundraiser during the bombardment of shocking news that emerged when Russia launched its invasion. He had previously been planning on volunteering in central America.

“I was listening to the radio every day and I had to turn it off. I have so much energy and I always wanted to do volunteer work… And then I was thinking. This problem is staring me in the face,” he explained.

“We really focused on fundraising… We went around to businesses in Galway City, around to places in Offaly, we had posters designed. We started on St. Patrick’s Day, and by the end of March, we had over €20,000 raised.

We know if we make it really, really transparent for the donor, we know that we can do good things.

The initial plan was to transport a van full of supplies from Ireland to Ukraine but after research revealed this wasn’t an effective way of donating he and Olivia switched the campaign to focus on donating cash for flights and other transport and helping on the ground.

He says he’s been struck by the extraordinary resilience of the Ukrainian people he has met despite many of them suffering serious injuries or showing signs of severe trauma. 

“Some of the kids are extremely pale. Some of them have really darkened eyes, from lack of sunlight. The women are strong. It’s remarkable really. 

To think that you’ve lived in a bunker and your whole town has been suffocated and brought to its knees, and you’re still able to move on to the next step in your life without any mental trauma on the surface.

‘Planes, trains and automobiles’

Joby is scathing about various issues at the centre including what he says is inadequate security, poor sanitation standards and a dearth of psychological support for refugees. 

He also says large NGOs should be more active. Wash stands around the centre are emblazoned with Oxfam’s logo but that appears to be the charity confederation’s only visible presence here. “They don’t need soap, they need a route out,” Joby says.

“Unicef. They only got here yesterday. ‘Where were you for the last two months?’ I said to the guy.”

When I toured the centre Unicef was in the process of assembling its office in one of the corner units.

Oxfam says it is working to set up safe travel routes for refugees and supporting partner organisations who are providing vulnerable families with essential items as well as legal support.

“I want our Irish agencies to be here because this is our forte. This is what we do best, welcoming people. I believe it’s genetic, Irish people are great at helping, but we need to do more. It’s a tragedy here,” said Joby.

He also urged the Irish Red Cross to speed up the process of approving people to be able to offer Ukrainians accommodation. The team has already successfully matched Ukrainian families with Irish people who are willing to house them and are eager to do it more. 

“I understand about vetting, I understand about suitable accommodation. But when you see what’s inside that centre, and you see where they’re coming from inside Ukraine, where they don’t have their homes anymore…” Joby says.

“Here it’s bed after bed after bed squished up against each other. There’s people snoring. The lights never go out. The noise never stops. They’re sleeping with animals.

“We’ve had so many outbreaks of norovirus here. We’ve had cases of pneumonia, nobody even talks about it anymore. ‘Oh, a kid got sick. Okay, well just clean up.’ 

“The mayor did come in once after the first outbreak of norovirus. He sent his team in to clean the place and they just put everybody out in the street. They were out in the street and were told to go to the train station.” 

He also blasts the spike in the cost of flights and accuses the Irish government of falling short, saying it should be organising “buses, planes, trains and automobiles”.

‘The finest people I’ve ever met’ 

The entire team agrees that more volunteers would make a huge difference at the aid centre.

“There’s a place for so many people here, whether it’s practically, emotionally, driving. There’s definitely space for more Irish Volunteers,” Olivia says.

martin Martin Madden after getting a make-over from a group of children in the Humanitarian Aid Centre.

“The Irish have a really great name here. We have Americans and Ukrainians and other volunteers, bringing people to the Irish desk saying ‘you should go to this country’.

Other countries are vouching for us as well. We have a really great name, so it would be great to have more Irish Volunteers here.

For Martin, volunteering in Przemyśl has been a life changing experience. 

“I’ve had several people here tell me the same thing. It’s like they’ve been endowed with some sort of abilities that they don’t have in real life,” the 38-year-old explained.

“These are all the finest people I’ve ever met in my entire life. The most interesting people that I’ve ever met in my life. We all get each other’s jokes, references. We all get along. It’s just fantastic.”

He likens it to the famous scene from Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of The Third Kind, where people from all over were drawn to one location by a mysterious force.

The California resident, who works in hospitality, is funding his accommodation through donations from friends and family and the wider public. 

The spare cash is used for essential items such as toiletries. And other less essential items such as a make-up stand that he supplied this week. This prompted kids in the centre to give him a make-over, including painting his nails blue and yellow like the flag of Ukraine.

“The one thing I didn’t think to buy was make-up remover,” he says, explaining why the colours remain. 

Martin becomes emotional as he outlines that he suffers from bipolar depression but the meaning he gains from working in the centre has led to a dramatic improvement in his mental health. 

He skipped his flight home in order to extend his stay. “It’s too heavy. It’s too meaningful. And you’re needed,” he explained. 

It’s fucked up. But it’s brilliant at the same time. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life after this. I really don’t. It’s totally rewired my brain.

“If you’re thinking about coming here, be prepared to work. Be prepared to clean the bogs, be prepared to get sick, physically ill, three times over and be prepared to have your heart broken and put back together several times a day. Several times a day.”

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