The diary of a Yorkshire volunteer taking aid to Ukraine
Wakefield for Ukraine had been running for twelve weeks when James Pawlowski married Valerie. The couple were spurred into action after watching distressing videos of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on social media.
Mrs Pawlowski, 37, her daughter Georgia, nine, and Mr Pawlowski, 46, volunteer their time alongside others locally, including businessman Michael New, known as Mick, who has worked tirelessly to collect and distribute aid to Ukraine.
At the outset, the couple thought they would have a few items a week to send. However, as the donations started to come in, it was soon obvious they would need to start sending aid directly to Ukraine from their Wakefield base.
Throughout his journey from Wakefield to Ukraine with Mr New this week, delivering aid to a Children’s Hospital in Lviv, the pair have been documenting their trip for The Yorkshire Post. Below is Mr Pawlowski’s diary of the trip.
After both finishing work at 5pm and loading the van, we drove six hours overnight to the port of Harwich, to take the ferry across to the Hook of Holland. We are grateful to Stena Line UK to Holland for providing the crossing free of charge and being so hospitable while onboard.
Just eight hours on the ferry and we start the second leg of our journey, which will take us through Holland, Germany, and Poland to the Ukrainian border, where we will be met by an escort to take us into Lviv itself. We expect this leg to take 23 hours and cover 1,200 miles.
Halfway through the second leg. We have driven through a second night, for a mammoth 13-hours, and have just reached the Polish border having crossed Holland and Germany. We are now well ready for some breakfast.
After another 8 hours of driving across Poland, we crossed the border from Poland into Ukraine.
Arriving at the border we were checked and rechecked by both the Polish and Ukrainian guards, before being allowed through. While this took some hours, it was still faster than previous visits, when the border was little more than organised chaos.
We are at a fuel service station on the Ukrainian side of the border awaiting the arrival of our escort into Lviv. Dark clouds are scudding across the sky and the weather is turning foul.
The rain has changed from light drizzle to incessant heavy rain. Across from the fuel station where we are waiting is a line of cars, trucks, and buses that stretches far as the eye can see. Bus after bus arrives to disgorge its cargo of people hoping to find sanctuary in Poland, their faces often pressed against the windows as they struggle to catch a glimpse of Poland, often with a look of resignation and uncertainty.
Two hours later, after meeting our escort - nearly two hours late due to the traffic on the road to the border - we set off for Lviv itself.
Every few miles, a sandbagged checkpoint scars the roads into each town. Steel tank traps are also in evidence, stacked haphazardly on pavements next to these sandbagged checkpoints, ready to be deployed if needed.
Every few hundred metres along the road, government billboards call for victory and new recruits to the Ukrainian army. The rain is heavy and starting to pool in the roads. The soldiers manning the checkpoints look miserable, as they huddle in their waterproofs, rain dripping from their hoods.
Arrival in Lviv
Lviv itself is still a bustling city, with the driving seemingly as haphazard as ever, despite the massive fuel shortage the Ukrainian people are suffering. Apart from seeing some evidence of burnt-out buildings from Russian missile attacks, the military checkpoints on the road into and out of the city, and the ever-present billboards, life seemed pretty normal.
However, that perception didn’t last long. Our escorts introduced us to the medical director of Lviv Children’s Hospital, Zoryana Ivanyuk, a woman of perhaps 35, who was waiting to greet us.
“We hope it [the war] will not last a very long time”, said Zoryana in her soft, excellent English, before continuing, “but we will live our lives and we are getting used to war”.
“The hospital is now taking complex medical cases from the whole of Ukraine, due to children’s hospitals in other areas such as Kharkiv and Kyiv being damaged or evacuated.”
This means that the Lviv Children’s Hospital is quickly becoming the epicentre for the treatment of children in Ukraine.
Zoryana continued: “Many of the cases the hospital is receiving involve complex congenital illnesses; amputees, or serious war-related injuries”.
The families of the patients are also living at the hospital, which is putting an extra strain on scant resources. They even have pets living there with them at the hospital.
While looking tired from the long hours and constant demands on her time, Zoryana was nothing but inspirational, with her defiantly resolute attitude. The demand for her attention was constant and the phone she carried was constantly ringing throughout the time we spent with her.
Despite the pressures and demands, Zoryana took the time to help unload the two tonnes of aid we had driven across Europe, something that we did not expect of a medical director. Other helpers included doctors and medical staff.
Zoryana was especially thankful for the medical machinery we had brought among the medical supplies. It is this type of equipment that the hospital is in desperate need of as they struggle to provide care for existing and newly arrived cases.
Zoryana explained that while they had the medical staff and expertise, the lack of medical machinery and supplies was hampering their efforts to provide surgery and critical care. The situation is compounded by uncertainty about what the future holds for Lviv. While it is currently one of the safest cities in Ukraine, Russian missile attacks are increasing in frequency and more men, women and children are injured every day.
Discussing how we could help going forward, we were told that the hospital needs food and medical supplies, but above all, medical apparatus to save lives.
Zoryana expressed immense gratitude on behalf of her hospital and the Ukrainian people for the help they are receiving from other countries. This sentiment was borne out by everyone we spoke to, including a director of a Ukrainian cultural institute, who was acting as our escort and helper.
However, we were warned that due to the quickly approaching curfew, we would need to be out of the city before 10 pm, unless we stayed the night. With a return ferry to catch, we made the decision to leave immediately for the Polish border.
Despite a kind offer to take tea with the hospital staff, we had less than two hours to cover 75km on dark and often badly maintained roads. With our escorts leading the way, we started our dash toward the border. The city had become far quieter as night approached and those people that were out seemed to be purposeful in getting to their destination.
As Zoryana so eloquently expressed, life seems to go on for the brave and stoical people of Ukraine, despite the ever-present threat of Russian bombardment. Military checkpoints have become a fact of life and we had to cross several on the road out of the city.
The Ukrainians are strong, determined people who are resolute in their belief in victory, and this is the sense you get when you speak to anyone there.
After saying goodbye to our escort close to the border, we crossed back into Poland just before 10pm Ukrainian local time.
However, we were given a parting gift in the words of the Ukrainian customs officer who checked our papers.
“Ukraine is proud, but we thank you for the help you are giving our people,” said the uniformed guard, with the customary AK47 assault rifle, slung over his shoulder.
No matter how many trips we make, we are still humbled by the resilience, determination, and gratitude of the Ukrainian people and this border guard’s kind words spurred us on our way.
After a welcome night in a local hotel close to the border, we started the slow return trip to the UK.
By the time we rested, we had both been on the go, with a few hours of snatched sleep, for over 72 hours. After making a plan to stop in Wroclaw and Paderborn on the return leg, we set out for the 1,200 mile return trip.
Following another two days with a minimum of 12 hours in the van, due to traffic jams and roadworks, we made it back to the Hook of Holland to catch our ferry.
We made it back to the Hook of Holland with an hour to spare to catch the ferry back to the UK. In front and behind us in the queue, were vans from other small organisations taking aid to Poland and Romania.
It was heart-warming to swap stories and pass on advice to each other as we enjoyed a meal onboard the ferry. We even decided to all pose for a photo after disembarkation.
Driving the 230 miles home gave me the headspace to think and ponder the last five days. I don’t think I will ever be able to thank Mick enough for his time, patience, good humour, and resilience in what was a tough trip both mentally and physically.
I should also mention ‘Big George’, Mick’s trusty Mercedes Sprinter van, which never missed a beat the whole time. To go through a journey like this once is tough. To do it twice is beyond the call of duty. We as an organisation are lucky to have such a great volunteer and I am lucky enough to call Mick my friend.
I must also mention all the people who have donated their time, money, energy and more to make each of our trips possible. We have an incredibly close band of volunteers who work their hearts out in the background, asking for no thanks. I thank each one of you.
I must also mention Saving Ukraine 2022, run by the Halifax Ukrainian Club, as they have been critical in helping us since the start. Those guys are amazing.
Pulling up at home, exactly 121 hours after leaving, we were tired but safe in the knowledge that we had made a small difference. After greeting Val on the doorstep, I disgorged information to her before even going to bed. We were working out what more we can do to help.
Zoryana had kindly sent me a long list of equipment and supplies that the Child’s Hospital in Lviv urgently needs. Now we will find a way to acquire what is needed and send it.
The fundraising and raising awareness will continue for the newlyweds, who are busy organising their next big day, the Saving Ukraine 2022 ball being held at Dean Clough in Halifax in June.
Mrs Pawlowski urged people to buy tickets or donate to Wakefield for Ukraine.
“Please help me, us, and our wonderful volunteers to continue. We need your donations, and we also need to fund fuel for more vans,” she said.
For more information, go to @WakeyforUkraine (Facebook/Twitter) or donate at: https://gofund.me/d1447e5a