LifeBook Minibus Helping in Ukraine

In March 2022, LifeBook sent a minibus to the Polish/Ukrainian border to deliver supplies and evacuate refugees. In this article, senior editor Steve Edwards describes some of the challenges we encountered and the people we met along the way.

 

Back in February, the world watched aghast as Russia began its ‘special military operation’. As its military machine rolled over Ukraine’s eastern border and ever onward, it triggered a westward exodus of people from their homeland. The conflict escalated, claiming lives, splitting families and destroying infrastructure, and the exodus became the largest European refugee crisis since the Second World War. Millions fled in search of safety and protection, and the scale of the resulting humanitarian crisis was huge.

Moved by the scenes unfolding in news reports, people around the word felt an instinctive, visceral urge to help. Some gave money; others donated labour, time or ingenuity. Amongst them were little platoons and small armies of white vans that set off on mercy missions, loaded to their roof racks with donations.

LifeBook felt the same stirring to act, but time was on no-one’s side: people were fleeing at the fastest rate seen in Europe this century. In a matter of hours, however, our sales manager, Tessa Marshall, had sourced a white 15-seater minibus and hatched plans to drive it to Ukraine.

Somewhat alarmingly, the bus decided to break down as it left the sales forecourt. Mild panic ensued until Tessa happened upon a blue school minibus for sale. Deal done, our little blue bus was soon ready to take up the challenge.

Our primary aim was simply to get the van to Ukraine and drive people to safety. There was a rationale behind this. When people just turn up with vehicles full of clothes, food and toys, it presents a certain challenge. Clothes can end up sitting in the rain and food goes to waste because there’s rarely an infrastructure in place to sort and distribute it. Much better, LifeBook felt, to get there and help with the evacuation than to complicate the work of aid agencies.

Fate, however, and the kindness of strangers, had other ideas.

Firstly, people really wanted to donate, and they reached out to Tessa with supplies and money. As the little blue bus filled up, we decided to accept contributions that we knew would be of use. In no time, we had everything from shortbread, jerry cans and gazebos to snow shovels and Imodium!

Automotive optimism was dashed again when the bus broke down less than 20 minutes after leaving to catch the ferry and had to be nursed to a garage. Kindly mechanics worked, free of charge, through the night to replace the gearbox until it was ready for the six-day drive that lay ahead.

Two drivers tag-teamed it at the wheel to drive the bus to Newhaven and on through France, Germany and Poland to Hrebenne, on the Ukrainian border. With assistance from a network of friends and colleagues, the bus was able to deliver its supplies and begin the work of getting refugees out of harm’s way. As waypoints and requests for help arrived via WhatsApp, the bus would depart to take Ukrainian women and children to refuges far from their troubled homeland.

More people needed help, of course, than the little blue bus could ever have carried, but, over 5 days, it travelled 6,200 kilometres and moved 32 people (including 2 babies) and 1 dog to safety. Some had come from as far away as Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. One boy had spent weeks hiding in shelters after his apartment was shelled, and 13 people were blind as well as homeless. All carried wheely bags, laundry bags and backpacks, and what those bags contained was as much as the refugees still owned.

It was a humbling experience for LifeBook to be able to help, but not always an easy one. The drives between the Polish towns of Hrebenne, Kraków and Łódź, and Pforzheim, in Germany, were long and again marred by mechanical breakdown. As before, however, the kindness of strangers showed itself as passers-by and friendly mechanics kept the bus on the road.

After five days, the Helpukraine22.org charity adopted the bus to assist its own wonderful work. It has also been used to deliver Easter eggs to Ukrainian children and to transport supplies of animal feed. Since then, the bus has been refitted as a mobile medical centre and is now helping those most in need deep within war-torn eastern Ukraine.

LifeBook’s intention had only ever been to offer help, but one message we received summed up the impromptu nature of what had taken place and what had been achieved – “I don’t know exactly who you guys are, but what you’re doing is amazing.” Those words apply to everyone who drove in those ‘little armies’ and to their supporters at home, and LifeBook is proud to have been able to play a part in their inspiring effort.

Written by Steve Edwards, LifeBook senior editor

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