A volunteer convoy including electric cars headed out to bring Ukrainian families to safety
The Ukrainian family I was about to drive back to Ireland were already standing by the car when I walked out of my hotel in Poznan, western Poland, at six o’clock in the morning.
There were four of them: Olga, a mother in her late 30s, her own mother, and Olga’s son (14) and daughter — possibly one of the cutest eight-year-old girls you have ever seen.
The first thing I noticed was the boy’s jacket. The sun hadn’t had time to warm the air, but he was wearing only the lightest of windcheaters.
The second thing was the luggage. This family, who had fled the bombing in Kyiv only the day before and, as I would later learn, had fled Donbas a few years ago, had just one small suitcase and a number of plastic bags.
This was the sum total of their possessions. This was all that they had saved to bring to Ireland. Worse, much of what they were carrying was food.
They weren’t alone. There were 15 cars and a van parked outside the hotel. All had Irish plates and all had groups of Ukrainian women and children standing beside them; 72 guests who had made their way, mostly from Kyiv, Mariupol and Odessa to be driven to Ireland.
There were 39 children in the overall group, including a three-month-old baby. Most of those assembled looked tired. Some were obviously scared. It may have been my imagination but some looked relieved. Somebody else was in charge now. Somebody was bringing them to safety.
Then there were the pets. If an animal is a treasured part of your family, escape by plane is not an option. So those we rescued from the ongoing war included three dogs, five cats and, unlikely as it may seem, a rat.
It must have seemed strange to our guests that, of the 15 cars parked in a row, 10 were Teslas. Two weeks earlier, when the idea of the convoy occurred to me, the first thing I did was reach out to the other members of the Tesla Owners Group.
Fortunately, John Casey, the president of the group, not only agreed to come along but also helped organise the trip. More fortunately still, Caroline Dowling, an accomplished Irish businesswoman, a one-woman powerhouse, a Tesla owner and a director of Unicef Ireland, also agreed to help.
By far the most difficult part of the pre-trip planning was getting the trust of refugees and refugee centres. One of the most evil consequences of the war is that Poland has become a hotbed of sex-trafficking.
As a number of well-meaning Irish groups had learned to their cost, refugee centres will not accommodate those claiming to want to help unless they have cast-iron credentials. Women on their own were, and are, justifiably scared of getting trafficked.
We paired up with the Ukrainian Crisis Centre, an Irish community of Ukrainians helping Ukrainians. Through them we were accredited by the Ukrainian Embassy to Ireland.
In the few days before we arrived, the numbers see-sawed. We learned that scared people have difficulty making choices. Many are traumatised. At one stage, we were afraid we would be going home with empty seats. And then we had 100 people registered. Our final number was 94, but we only had 72 seats in the cars.
A quick conflab and a nobody-gets-left-behind policy was agreed.
The extra 22 would follow by plane a few days later.
The next few days were defined by fast driving, largely silent passengers and bouts of Ukrainian music over the car sound systems. Some of us put in 18 hours of driving at a stretch but nobody complained. Our guests were relieved to be out of cities that were being bombed and the Irish drivers were all too aware that their minor inconvenience was nothing compared to what our families had been through.
Despite breaking a few speed limits, we only made it to Cherbourg with the good grace of Irish Ferries, who delayed the boat by 45 minutes. Many of us, myself included, crawled in with our families with only a few kilometres of range left on our batteries.
By then our guests were very definitely “our families”. Each driver took personal responsibility. The people in their car were the people in their care.
On arrival to Ireland we had two choices: to take personal responsibility for our families or to trust the system; Ipas (International Accommodation Protection Services) which looks after short-term accommodation, and the Red Cross, which takes care of vetting and medium-term accommodation.
We chose to trust the system, but we weren’t just letting our families go. The 20 volunteers who made the convoy happen have formed a support group for those we have brought to Ireland. The WhatsApp group used to organise the convoy is now used to source accommodation, organise day trips, push-chairs, dentists, and anything else our families need. Olga’s son won’t need to take out his windcheater again until the weather gets decidedly warmer.
Some of our families have already been placed in what will be their home until the war ends. Some are already on the trail of jobs.
The most striking aspect of this entire exercise has been the welcome that has been given to our families from every Irish group and individual we have come across. The unstinting mobilisation to assist those fleeing war has time and again made me proud to be Irish.
Which leaves just one more question. Will we go out again? Right now, we’re busy looking after the families we have brought over. Once we’re happy they are being looked after we’ll discuss the possibility of “Convoy, the Sequel”.
Tom McEnaney is a media consultant, a former journalist, and founder of IODP, an Irish NGO working with disadvantaged children in Belarus