Team describe 'eye-opening' journey to save Ukrainians

‘Heart-breaking’ and ‘incredible’ were just two words to describe the experiences by a team of volunteers who went out to help those caught up in the war in Ukraine.

Setting off for Ukraine, from left: Richard Bentley, Helen Bayly-Stark, Judith Sharman and Tim Haller.
Setting off for Ukraine, from left: Richard Bentley, Helen Bayly-Stark, Judith Sharman and Tim Haller.

Helen Bayly-Stark, of Scrivelsby, has described her journey to the Polish-Ukrainian border, along with Judith Sharman, ex-marine Rich Bentley and Tim Haller, to transport much-needed supplies to those fleeing the conflict and to bring nine refugees back to the UK to pre-arranged safehouses.

Helen said that her desire to help was born out of her frustration at not being able to do more to help those in need in the besieged country, after previously loading up two lorries full of supplies and delivering them to Nottingham to be shipped abroad by aid workers:

"I wanted to do something to help, and I was talking to Judith and said all I want to do is load up a van and go out there myself, and she said she’d come with me.”

A Ukrainian lady collecting aid from one of the boxes

And so the two women set about working in their respective communities – Helen in Horncastle and Judith in Hough-on-the-Hill – to collect medical supplies, food, clothing, nappies and more.

They initially had trouble finding a van, but they finally found one they could use down in Andover and set off for the Polish/Ukrainian border with Tim and Rich.They drove to a warehouse in south-east Poland to drop off their supplies to be distributed to those fleeing the conflict, while making contact with their host families they would be bringing back to the UK.

Helen also recalled visiting a make-shift crisis centre, which was a supermarket converted into a refuge centre.

"There were just rows and rows of beds made from all sorts of things, including pallets and camp beds, with old ladies sitting on them with just a small bag with their belongings, it was heart-breaking,” she said.

The crisis centre with beds made from pallets.

"Then there were children who were making play areas from pallets and whatever they could find.”

They then made their way to pick up two women and their three children from Odessa at a railway station, and there was some nervous hours there as the families were supposed to arrive at 3am, but they didn’t arrive for more than six hours.

"We were getting really worried,” Helen recalled, “Then we finally spotted them and it was so emotional, we burst into tears and hugged each other.

“Amazingly, the families had brought a number of gifts with them to give to their host families – homemade jam, wine, chutneys, all sorts – and we were amazed that after everything they had been through, they were still thinking of others.”

On the bus on the way to the UK.

Next, the team got back on their mini bus and headed to Warsaw, where they picked up a 22-year-old woman named Oksana, who had an emotional goodbye with her mother and sister, before their final stop at a bus station to pick up a family with a mother, her daughter and her grandmother.

Helen said: “The bus station was a real eye-opener, there were so many people sleeping on benches and wandering around in a daze, and so many police officers looking out for people traffickers, it was heart-breaking.”

Then the nine refugees, team of four and all their luggage began the long journey back to the UK.

"We worked really well together and the boys did a lot of the driving, so we kept them supplied with tea and coffee and took over from time to time so they could rest,” Helen said.

The minibus

"Everyone began to open up more as the journey went on, and at one point a plane flew overhead and the women all covered their heads and started crying because they said the only time they hear a plane now is when they were being bombed – it was heartbreaking to hear.

"These are ordinary people, like us, who are educated and have jobs, yet they’ve had to just leave everything and all they know is being destroyed – it’s awful.”

During the journey, the women opened up about their fears for their fathers, husbands, brothers and other loved ones fighting in the war.

"The thing that hit me the most was when they talked about their men, they said they are their heroes because they’re not only fighting for them, but for Europe,” Helen remembered.

After several days’ journey on the minibus back through Europe, the team finally made it to Calais, where there were some tense moments at the border when the refugees weren’t allowed in because the authorities thought the paperwork was not correct.

Thankfully, any misunderstandings were ironed out and the team finally made it to the UK, and their first rendez-vous point with a host family was a service station on the M25 to drop off one of their families.

One of the sponsored boxes with its message

They then made their way to Cambridge, where Oksana was taken to her host family, and the team stayed the night so the exhausted group could rest.

Then finally, the next morning saw the remaining Ukrainians driven over to North Wales and dropped off at their host family in the Welsh countryside.

"These people were so gracious and strong, after everything they’ve been through they were so happy to be free and their resilience is incredible,” Helen said.

Helen has said that this mission is just the beginning, and that the team are now fundraising once again so they can run the same mission as soon as possible.

"Someone once said that what we're doing is just a spit in the ocean, but if everyone spits we will be able to do so much,” she added.

If anyone would like to make a donation to the team’s next Ukrainian mission, visit their GoFundMe page at https://gofund.me/be45ebc8

Donations of medical supplies, including bandages, burn ointment, Savlon, antiseptic creams, over-the-counter medicines and other vital medical supplies can be dropped off at the Big Chair Company, Just One More Bike and Horncastle’s Country Garden Pet Food.