To Ukraine and back again
Six refugees, three dogs and an epic journey
Wednesday 20:00 CET Wroclaw
‘Woah, it’s been a pretty big day’, says Warner.
He and his friend Robin are just pulling back onto the motorway near Wrocław for the last stretch of the day. They are about to make their first overnight stop after having set off from Groningen at six in the morning. They passed Bremen, Braunschweig, Leipzig and are already 150 kilometres into Poland.
‘We really haven’t made too many stops yet’, Warner says. ‘Only once or twice to use the bathroom and once in Leipzig for a quick refuel of chicken nuggets and coffee at McDonald’s.’
It’s no joy ride. The students are part of a four van convoy that is making its way from Groningen to Przemyśl, the town on the border of Ukraine that became a hub for refugees escaping the war. Their van is loaded to the gunwales with humanitarian supplies. ‘The plan is to deliver part of the supplies to a monastery in south eastern Poland, and the other items will then be passed on to refugees in Przemyśl who need them’, Warner says.
The journey is organised by Stichting Oekraïne Express, which sees vans organised by the foundation and paid for by donations depart the Netherlands once a week. Volunteers at the refugee reception centre in Poland make sure the convoys take supplies that are actually needed. In this case: suitcases, underwear, baby food, nappies and non-perishable food.
And so, last week, Warner and Robin were supposed to source as many pairs of underpants as possible. ‘Have you ever tried to buy four hundred pairs of undies?’ Warner asks. ‘It’s not easy! First we tried Makro, but they only stocked men’s underwear.’
The two ended up at a Polish Action in Wrocław. ‘We were just over the border, pulled in and bought nine hundred euros worth of underwear’, Warner says. ‘The guy at the till was a bit confused about the four large shopping baskets that were filled to the brim, but he spoke good English and when we explained who and what they were for, he just scanned them without too much thought.’
The students prepared for the trip as well as they could, but they were still slightly apprehensive. Would they be on time? What if the van broke down?
Luckily the foundation, having already organised four trips, gave the students an extensive briefing about what to expect. ‘Apparently even while at war, Ukrainians are awfully polite. When offered something, they’ll say no three times before accepting it hesitantly the fourth’, Robin explains from the driver’s seat of their blue Renault.
Thursday 16:00 CET Rzeszów
It’s a completely different van on Thursday. All the underwear has gone and in its place there are six people, who have brought – albeit in the van of another volunteer – their three dogs and a cat.
The students woke at six that morning, after having spent the night at a hostel in Rzeszów. They left just after seven, to arrive at Przemyśl around eight. There, they unloaded their cargo at the monastery where the nuns have taken charge of storing and sorting out the donations. ‘It’s really wonderful in Poland’, says Robin. ‘Everybody seems to be trying to do their bit.’
The convoy is then told to report to a big orange tent in the car park of a former mall turned refugee centre. ‘It’s a well-oiled machine’, says Robin. To protect refugees after reports of human trafficking, the students are even given ‘tracking bands’ with a QR code that links them to the QR codes of the people they’re taking with them.
A Ukrainian contact makes sure refugees who express a desire to go to the Netherlands get a place in the van. All in all, twenty-three refugees are travelling back to the Netherlands with the convoy. They’re from Kharkiv, Bucha and Manhush near Mariupol, mainly young women and children – all men of military age must remain in Ukraine. ‘It’s clear that some of our passengers are still in survival mode – understandable when you and your family are escaping war’, offers Robin.
Thursday 23:30 CET Leipzig
Refugees or not, Germans still want their paperwork filled out properly, discovers Robin that night.
The students pull in at a hotel in Leipzig, which was booked by a member of their party earlier in the day. After some rather bureaucratic hassle – the drivers and their passengers all need to register – it’s approaching midnight before the group can finally get some rest. ‘I was flabbergasted’, Robin says. ‘We’re almost thirty people and have just driven through the dark across Poland with people who have fled their homes. And then you’re telling us we need to follow this silly rule. Come on!’
That’s not the only issue they face. ‘The poor cat only uses the bathroom if it has a litter tray, but the hotel doesn’t provide one, we’ve found out.’
A solution is found through Warner’s girlfriend, who’s from Leipzig. ‘He called her and she called a friend, who called another friend who happened to have a cat toilet for us’, says Robin. ‘Safe to say it has been used.’
And now – finally – the students are in their hotel room, getting ready to go to sleep.
Friday 18:00 CET Groningen
‘Surprisingly’, says Robin of the previous day, ‘the refugees were not particularly nervous. We shook hands and helped them pack their luggage into the boot. Our passengers slept for the first few hours of the journey and once they realised we were competent drivers, that we could be trusted, they became rather chatty.’
The students have just gotten back half an hour earlier and now they are ready to open a cold beer and reflect on the journey.
The last leg, from Leipzig onwards, was smooth sailing: all that was left to do was deliver their passengers to various host families and reception centres across the province of Groningen. ‘It was lovely. As we got closer and closer to the Dutch border, you could sense the mood in the van becoming more relaxed.’
The first stop was Oude Pekela, where twelve people from the convoy were dropped off at a former care facility that has been retrofitted as accommodation for 250 Ukrainian refugees. Four from Robin and Warner’s van, and the three dogs, too. ‘All of the passengers were just very happy to be here, to be safe’, Robin says.
From there they drove onto Noordwolde, where the remaining two passengers were deposited. The remainder from the other vans were awaited by families at De Rietschans in Haren and in Stadskanaal in the east of the province.
And now it’s all done. Robin, Warner and the other drivers feel extremely satisfied. ’There is a real sense of pride amongst the group of drivers that we actually managed this’, he says. ‘We don’t want to be the heroes, but it does feel good that we were able to undertake this trip and really do our bit for those whose lives have been upturned.’
It’s not a trip you can undertake every week, says Robin. ‘But otherwise I would be back in Poland without a doubt.’