Please join us for a fundraising event at Poulton Hill Estate on Sunday 15th May. 11.30am - 2.00pm
Wine and raffle.
Minimum £50 donation per person in advance.
Please read below for details and some background on our fundraiser. Thank you.
Alexander Thomas, son of Poulton Hill Estate owner Max Thomas, has been working on the Polish/Ukraine border since early in the Ukranian conflict.
Alex is a fluent Russian speaker who had just finished his PhD at Oxford and was on his way to take up a post-doctoral fellowship at Moscow University just as the conflict began.
He made his way, instead, to the border town of Kharkiv where he and others have founded the Kharkiv and Przemyśl Project (KHARPP). Their work, in collaboration with MAD Foundation, is focused on providing support and humanitar-
ian relief in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, and in the Polish city of Przemyśl, situated on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
As cities on the eastern edges of their respective countries, both Kharkiv and Przemyśl are the epicentres of the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He and others in the team have in a remarklably short space of time established a well-run and tightly focused charity project that is daily making a huge difference to the lives of fleeing refugees
Here Alex shares with us a day in his life on the border:
My day starts reasonably early in our volunteer flat. It’s a 1-bed flat which often sleeps 5 in the room. There is a chronic shortage of accommodation in the city and we don’t want to take up any space which would otherwise be taken up by refugees, so there is a moral imperative to bunk up as much as possible.
Mornings are spent doing admin in the flat or in the café opposite. We work out what the medical requirements are for Kharkiv and we place orders form items from Western Europe. We collect supplies which were previously ordered and which have now arrived before arranging ongoing delivery into Eastern Ukraine. We buy suitcases and power banks ready to give to the next influx of refugees and follow on up refugees remaining in Przemysl who still need our assistance.
Admin over, we head off to the station. There are usually three trains a day coming from Ukraine. There is no early morning rush to the sta-tion because of Ukraine’s overnight curfew so the first train doesn’t usually come in until early afternoon. Timings are uncertain and there are often long delays. This week we heard that the bombing in Lviv had affected the train lines so we were not sure that trains would make it through yesterday, but although very late, they did arrive. Sometimes trains don’t make it at all, so we never know quite what to expect.
The trains are always full. Four-person carriages often disgorge 11 people. As the eastern regions of Ukraine are now officially being evacuated, arrivals are now largely made up of people who have been on the front line since the beginning of the conflict. They are visibly far more affected than earlier arrivals because they have seen and experienced so much and over a longer time. Many new arrivals are trau-matised. Many are overtly suffering from PTSD. As they disembark I can see that they are shaking and dazed. Many refugees crossing the border now have been stuck in Mariupol in basements for the past six weeks as relentless bombing continued overhead. As humanitarian corridors open up (for short periods), so they arrive. There are no trained psychologists on site here to help them so we do our best, but it is extremely demanding emotionally and inevitably you know that your best is never going to be enough.
Obviously there is a language barrier which adds to confusion and difficulty. As Russian speakers we are in a unique position to offer help and support. We all have high vis jackets with ‘Translator’ on the front so we are easy to spot. Often we will have a long queue of travellers waiting for our assistance. Word of our services has spread widely in Eastern Ukraine so refugees know that we will be there and will help them to communicate and solve any immediate problems. We help them to decide where they want to go next, which country they want to go to, what work they might do, how they might get to their chosen destination. For people in a traumatised state, these are big decisions to make. Many do not know where they are going to go or what they are going to do. Some people will have friends and relatives in Europe, others will not.
As a charity we often arrange and pay for their first night’s accommodation in the town, buying some time for recovery and for making plans before their refugee journey starts once again. Sometimes we also buy tickets for their onward travel. At the back of our mind is the need to free up accommodation in Przemysl for the next trainload of arrivals so we are always juggling.
The other key contribution we make to refugees is a very practical one: suitcases. People step off the train clutching what remains of their previous life, often in one large shopping bag, so we provide the cases so that they can continue their journey more easily and with more dignity. This is particularly important for the large number of elderly who arrive on their own and are not physically strong enough to carry large bags - wheeled suitcases are an obvious and practical solution. Every day we buy more suitcases and every day we need more. We buy as many as we can carry, 20 or 30 at a time, and they are gone in minutes. We want to be able to provide thousands at a time.
The other immediate relief we provide is power banks. Refugees are, by the nature of their plight, on the move constantly at the beginning of their journey and need to communicate with loved ones left behind in Ukraine as well as to be able to plan onward journeys effectively. Keeping mobile devices charged is vital. There are no handy plug sockets available while travelling so a power bank is an essential way
of keeping phones charged and communication lines open. The Ukranians fleeing war are usually self-sufficient and know how to move around Europe, they just need the means of being able to do so. If we tell them which Apps to download and make sure they have power to be able to use their phones, they are resourceful and will often be able to do the rest themselves.
There’s no shortage of nappies, baby food or paracetamol. These and similar items have been donated in such large quantities that there is a good supply for refugees. They are also in abundant supply in Poland. But donations of suitcases and power banks are really needed. The unit costs are high - £30 a suitcase and £10/£15 for a power bank, and that’s why we offer such targeted support as these essential items are not being provided by anyone else. Our other main expenses are on emergency hotel accommodation and train, bus and flight tickets, along with the ineviable and unpredictable day-to-day costs of problem-solving issues with individual refugees as they occur.
Once those jobs of providing cases and power banks are carried out, and immediate onward travel arrangements are made, we are able to spend more time with those who are elderly, disabled or in shock and who need more help and guidance.
Seeing old, elderly people who are very immobile and in poor health is particularly distressing for me. They have been forced out of their homes, are often in their 80’s, on their own and have been travelling for days on end, potentially not having slept for 5 or 6 days. When we see them they are often dirty, exhausted and traumatised, carrying their life in a plastic shopping bag. I find it unforgiveable that they are being placed in this situation. It should never have happened. I can’t imagine my own grandmother, who is a similar age and state of health, being forced out of this country on her own. A lot of the time these elderly people are travelling solo into a foreign country and can barely walk. They are totally dependent for survival on the kindness of those around them. Of course these are also people who will be less likely to speak foreign languages or accustomed to foreign travel.
We have had a number of people with dementia arriving. Some don’t know where they are or why they are there. They are understandably very confused and disorientated, occasionally one or two become aggressive. We don’t have dementia specialists on site so it falls to us to do our best. The local Polish people, including the Red Cross, do a bit but they are not Russian speakers and this limits their ability to offer the support and assistance that is so desperately needed.
We have built up some useful networks over the past few weeks. For example, we had lots of deaf people coming through at one point so have built links with a global deaf charity and are now better placed to help the deaf, but we are learning on the job. With people in trauma we do the best we can and the medics on site often take them to be looked after, but again, the medics are not usually Russian speakers so it is far from ideal. There was one woman recently who was so distressed that she became extremely aggressive and in the end the police had to arrest her. She was a little old lady in her 80’s, completely on her own.
Our initiative focuses not just on the border crossing in Eastern Poland but also in Eastern Ukraine. We are supplying food, medicine and any other pressing needs – predominantly petrol and car repair parts. We co-ordinate the bulk buying of food pallets and medical supplies We have a depot for deliveries and have established a tried-and-tested supply network. Drivers who were hauliers before the war now drive in and out of Ukraine 24/7. In my experience so far, everyone is helping each other and working together for the common good - for exam-ple the hauliers do not charge us for delivering supplies to the front line.
We usually get back from the train station at 1am exhausted and drained. Sometimes we have a beer and catch up on social media but often we just crash out. It is emotionally tough – but the point is that the war is not over. Bombing continues, dying continues and the refugees continue to arrive. I don’t have time to think about myself until it’s over.
If you are interested in donating, please use the links below: