Ukraine war inspires humanitarian response

4th of August 2022
Ukraine war inspires humanitarian response

The war in Ukraine has spurred business owners across Britain to support efforts to ease the suffering of people fleeing into neighbouring countries. And some have literally gone that extra mile … by not just collecting humanitarian aid but delivering it themselves, reports Hartley Milner for ECJ.

Paul Prowse was watching TV news footage when he was moved by the desperate struggles of a women with two young children trying to board a packed train out of embattled Kharkiv. Paul glanced at his own kids playing nearby and then turned to his wife, saying: “I’ve really got to do something.”

Little over two weeks later, the 43-year-old garments manufacturer was setting off on a 3,500-kilometre round trip to east Poland on a mission to bring comfort to traumatised child refugees
who had seen things no child should ever have to witness.

Paul had received a donation of 65 soft toys, along with thousands of pounds in other aid, to deliver to a refugee centre in Rzeszów, a historic city less than an hour’s drive from the Ukraine border. The journey took him almost three days, driving until late into the night and catching what sleep he could in the cab of his fully loaded 3.5-ton van. After unloading, he went with the centre’s assistant director, Dariusz, to hand out the toys to the children.

“It was heartbreaking,” Paul told ECJ. “These kids were very young, barely toddlers, some of them. Many had been brought to safety by relatives or family friends because their parents had wanted to remain in Ukraine to help the war effort. Others had been parted from their families by air strikes and rescued from the rubble by complete strangers. I dread to think how many of them are now orphans or will become orphaned if the conflict goes on for very much longer.

Donated by businesses

“I have to say, it appeared the kids were being well looked after at the centre. Some were even engaged in play together, but Dariusz told me they would suddenly break off and cry out for their mummies and daddies or awake at night screaming. Having two young children of my own, I couldn’t help but well up myself. It’s not possible to witness such sadness without it affecting you.”

But Paul said the children’s little faces lit up when he handed out the furry gifts. “Most of these kids had left their homes with little more than what they were wearing at the time, without even
their favourite doll or teddy,” he said.

“Now they have a comforting toy to hold close when their terrible experiences return to haunt them in their dreams. Even the most withdrawn among the children was clutching their cuddly new friend when I left.”

Paul delivered more than 800 items in all, including other toys, clothing, sleeping bags, blankets, footwear, toiletries, soft drinks and non-perishable foods, all donated by retailers and businesses in the Birmingham area where he has his industrial wear supply company. He had planned to take the goods to Lviv in west Ukraine, but the city was under attack from Russian warplanes and missiles, which made it too dangerous. At the time of going to press, Paul was preparing to make “at least one more” trip, to supply a refugee centre in Romania, which shares its northern border with Ukraine.

The plight of refugees is “even more horrific than you see on the telly”, according to Yorkshire businessman Eddie Fenmore, who did manage to get into Lviv. Eddie, who runs a storage company, collected more than four-and-a-half tons of donations, which he delivered with a friend, Evelyn Stanbridge, in two hired vans.

Eddie said: “It was so distressing to witness such suffering; all these poor people, mainly women with young children or elderly relatives, clutching what possessions they could carry as they trudged wearily towards the Polish border. Their ordeal had not ended when they reached the border because they then had to queue for hours or even days to get across. Some of them were so exhausted they were slumped down on the ground or curled up trying to get some sleep … and it was so bitterly cold with snow falling at times.

Overwhelmed by numbers

“But what struck me most were the faces of these poor people. There were no tears, nothing obvious in their expressions to betray what they had been through. I suppose deep down they were thinking about their menfolk who had stayed to fight, or relatives and friends they had to leave behind and whether they would ever see them again. Or perhaps they were simply emotionally drained. There were just so many of them, all hungry and exhausted. Charity workers were going up and down the lines doing what they could for them, but they were clearly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.”

A committed Christian, Eddie had decided to deliver his supplies to Christian Aid in Lviv. There he met a volunteer at one of the refugee shelters set up in the city’s churches. She had fled the fighting with her young son and mother-in-law. Eddie said: “This girl, Ivanna, told me things they had seen that I wouldn’t want to repeat, but she said Ukraine was grateful for all the help they were getting from other countries. It made me realise that, yes, the support we delivered was just a drop in the ocean … but every drop counts.”

That was much the view of another British businessman who was also able to deliver aid directly into Ukraine. Charles Blackmore, founder of London-based commercial intelligence specialists Audere International, drove one of two ambulances full of medical supplies to Lutsk, a city in the west of the
beleaguered country.

“When you drive through checkpoints, when you drive through cities in curfew, when 70 per cent of the city of Lutsk – which is 200,000 people – has left the city, you’re going into a ghost town,” he said. “And when you see what is happening, to be able to bring the aid to the people was a very important journey.”

And the Ukrainians showed they were as hospitable as they were grateful for the supplies. “To be given this incredible reception by the deputy mayor of the Volyn Oblast, the region where we were going, where there were speeches and patriotic songs, and the appreciation, made the journey worthwhile,” he said.

The idea to deliver ambulances came out of a contact with an American friend, who said his grandfather was Ukrainian and that he wanted to do more to help than just write a cheque. “So I said: ‘Let’s buy a couple of ambulances, one each, and let’s both first take them down, take them into Ukraine and see the end result’,” explained Charles.

The ambulances were sourced through a charity in the UK and filled with two tons of medical supplies. On arriving in Lutsk, Charles was told the vehicles and supplies would be going straight on to the battlefront. “And they, I suspect, are going to get a lot of use if the situation continues as it is right now,” he added.

Audere has been supporting Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, helping with evacuations and conducting five resupply operations. Charles said it was important that the company, which did business in Russia and east Europe before the war, should “put our shoulders to the wheel” and assist the beleaguered country in any way it could.

“What impressed us most was the cheerfulness and the resolve of the Ukrainian people,” he said. “And it’s very important that we stand even closer behind them and give them more support, and we’re going to look to do that ourselves.”

Medical supplies

Rules around delivering humanitarian relief to support Ukraine have been greatly simplified. Businesses looking to take goods out of England, Scotland and Wales may be able to use a temporary process to avoid customs delays. From Northern Ireland, in most cases, they will only need to make a declaration when crossing between GB and the EU. However, there are restrictions on items that can be moved this way, so it is wise to check before setting off, and also check the goods movement regulations of the country the aid is going to and of those along the route.

Duty and other border taxes may be payable on entry into other customs territories, such as the EU.
HM Revenue and Customs has issued special guidance on making aid deliveries directly to Ukraine (at › guidance › taking-humanitarian-aid-out). But it also strongly advises that financial donations should be made through the Disasters and Emergencies Committee Appeal and other trusted charities and humanitarian aid organisations, rather than sending or driving donated goods directly to the region.

Sean Ryan, media director of charity Save the Children, agreed, adding: “The best way to help is to make a cash donation. Collecting supplies like means transporting heavy goods hundreds of miles, whereas cash can reach people quickly to buy what is needed.”


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