As over half a million Ukrainians have fled their war-torn country since the Russian invasion on February 24th, humanitarian efforts to assist refugees have intensified right across Drogheda and East Meath, with thousands of essential items collected and ready to transport to the Polish border.
Four local women, with no obvious common link but decency and kindness towards fellow humans, have all rallied the troops to gather vital goods to send to those in need on the far side of Europe.
Agata Laszczynska says she is blown away by the response to a simple call on Facebook for emergency supplies.
“I just knew I had to do something as my best friend’s family is from that side of Poland, and when I posted this on Drogheda Dolls, I just asked for a few things, and was prepared for a few boxes in the shed, and now my whole house is full, people have been so amazing,” says Agata, who moved to Drogheda from her native Poland 12 years ago. “It was so emotional to have people dropping things off and telling me why they want to help. One woman from Croatia remembered what it was like when they had war in her country.
“Another little girl came up and handed me her €1.50 pocket money, as she just wanted to do something – I was trying to hold back tears when she put it in my hand.”
Agata is in touch with people near the Ukrainian border and they are able to tell her what goods are most needed.
"Here we have nappies, babies' bottles, children’s clothes, sanitary items for women, toiletries, then plenty of dried food like soup, porridge and the like,” she explains. “We then also have lots of medical supplies – bandages, plasters – as they are desperately needed too.
“My husband (Dr Tomasz Laszczynski) is a GP in Drogheda and they will provide some more medical supplies from the hospital before the courier leaves.”
Another item they badly need is men’s shoes – military shoes size 41 to 47 – and Agata says this really hammers home the desperate situation in the country.
“These are ordinary young men who are going out to fight for their country, and don’t have the correct footwear – I can’t believe I am saying that in our lifetime,” says Agata, her voice cracking with emotion. “I still remember military on the streets in Poland when I was three, and that was peaceful; I can’t imagine what it would like to be a young mother with children, and bombs dropping all around you.”
Helping to carry the hundreds of boxes to the courier’s van are a handful of such young men, but in St Mary’s school uniforms not army fatigues.
The most poignant volunteer of all is 5th year student Nazarij Kalguzsnij, whose extended family are all back in his native Ukraine, his own grandfather unable to leave the country as he is aged 60 and therefore eligible to be called up for National Service.
“I came to Ireland in 2014 when I was nine years old, and back home, I have my mother’s parents and grandparents, my friends, my relatives – my older sister Natalie, who is a classical musician – and they are all trying not to panic, as that is what the enemies want,” says Nazarij, who is originally from Western Ukraine, close to the city Uzhhorod.
“They are seriously thinking of moving here, and even though it is safer at the moment in the West, it would be better to have them here with us.”
The 17-year-old student says he tries not to worry, but it is difficult not to.
“We are warriors in this fight; my family will fight if they are called, as there is no other way we can do this,” he says, with wisdom older than his years.
“I am very upset at what is happening my country, but I knew this war would come one day.”
The true cost of the fighting on normal people is apparent with news from friends of Nazarij’ family.
“They just built an apartment in Donetsk and were just about to move into it when it was bombed,” he explains. “It is just gone, with everything they own, and now they have to flee.”
He says words cannot express how grateful he is to the people of Drogheda for what they are doing.
“Everything helps; words, spreading awareness, weapons of course, but little drops build the ocean, and all these goods people are donating will make a huge difference.”
Three of Nazarij’s teachers are on hand to carry boxes, along with several of his schoolmates from TY.
“We’re here to support his family and community in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, as we just can’t believe this is happening, and have to do something to help,” says teacher Ms Jennifer McKenna, who is helping with Ms Michelle O’Brien and Ms Siobhan Griffin.
“I was totally overwhelmed when I saw the amount of stuff arriving, so we offered student support and we hope it become a bigger thing with other schools.”
They all agree it is very surreal in this day and age to be doing such a thing.
“The lads we have here, if they were in Ukraine, might be asked to fight with their older brothers, dads or uncles,” adds Ms O’Brien. “We can really identify with this heartbreaking situation, so we will do all we can.”
Nazarij’ greatest wish is for the Russian troops to push back and surrender, and for all of this to be over quickly with minimal bloodshed.
“What is happening here in Drogheda is incredible, and I am proud to say I live here, and have wonderful neighbours, particularly Polish people,” he adds. “I hope the Russian people in Russia will start to hear the truth and this will end before too long.”