I recently interviewed Mike, a first-year student who has been on an incredible journey. Every word I could say to introduce this story is needless, other than offering strong encouragement to read and reflect on what is contained in this insightful and compassionate account…
Tell us about your journey? I recently travelled to Poland with my twin brother Keith, taking donations which had been given to us by local people, shops, and church groups. We also received monetary donations from friends, OneSpirit colleagues, classmates, support staff and tutors. All donations given to the Ukrainian people who had fled from their homes following the invasion by Russia. The idea came about when my brother Keith and I saw the images on the news-the horrendous plight of fellow human beings. People forced to flee their homes due to indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian areas. Many civilians including women and children were being killed and/or severely injured. The Ukrainian people had to leave with barely anything of their own and go to a bordering country as refugees. Facing an uncertain future to be safe.
Keith and I initially wanted to go into Ukraine, to give donations and first aid equipment to those who had to stay in Ukraine to defend their country. As the Russian attacks advanced, and the danger escalated, we soon realised that this wouldn’t happen. We instead planned to offer our help at the border of Poland and Ukraine. We contacted a lady called Marta, who is a member of a Polish charity called OgOlnopolski Strisik, Kobiet (OSK for short). She agreed to meet us at the border and ensured all donations went to Ukrainian refugees. Marta was introduced to us by a lady who lives in Bridgend in South Wales, who saw on a site called Neighbours that we were planning to do this trip. Keith and I decided that we would drive the 1190 miles to Warsaw in Poland and then onto the border town of Przemysl. The trip took us somewhere between 18 and 22 hours. But it was a sacred time.
We decided to use my vehicle after trouble getting a van that we could insure for travel to Poland (most insurance companies that we spoke to covered European countries but not Poland). We packed up my car from floor to roof with donations of nappies, baby food, medication, clothes, hygiene products, pet food, and more. Setting off on 17th March 2022. We got to Harwich and caught an overnight ferry, we were able to get a cabin on board and slept the night, we arrived in the Hook of Holland in the early morning. We then found our way to Frankfurt in Germany, with the help of trusty GPS, stopping overnight at the Frankfurt Galluswarte Hotel. A beautiful and very friendly venue. Everyone was so interested in what we were doing. We set off early the next morning and decided that we would make a push for Poland which was 10 hours away. The journey was tiring but enjoyable, our British number plates were visible to everyone and periodically people would toot and wave at us. We travelled through Poznan, Konin, Lodz and into Warsaw, arriving at 7 pm, absolutely shattered. It was at this point that met Marta for the first time. She took us to her home, where we stayed for the night. Marta had cooked us a traditional Polish meal, called bigos stew (made with pork, polish sausage, sauerkraut, mushrooms, grated apple, and vegetables). It was truly amazing. The following morning Marta took us to the train station at Warsaw and Przemysl. Our final stop.
What was it like when you arrived? When we arrived at Przemysl. There were lots of women and children, and some men. The sheer number of people was initially quite overwhelming. There were a lot of family units, women with children and grandparents. Some people were huddled together crying. There were several aide agencies around and NGOs, handing out food and warm clothes. Marta was able to introduce Keith and me to some of the refugees, who told us, that their homes had been hit by rockets and that friends of theirs had been killed, they themselves barely getting out of the area with their lives, they were scared and traumatised. A Lot of the people had similar stories to tell, some with very graphic detail of dead and severely injured people. A lot of people spoke about the dreadful smell in the area. We decided not to stay too long, I think there is a fine line between being of help and being voyeuristic. We gave out a lot of the donations we had, including pet food, because a lot of people had their pets with them (mainly dogs). The emotional impact on myself and Keith was visible, there was just so much sadness and loss. Some people had friends and relatives to go to, while others had no plans at all. All the people we spoke to want to return to Ukraine when the war is over. It’s so difficult to put into words the raw emotion, my words cannot convey the brutality of the outcome of the Russian Invasion and their targeting of civilian areas. The main question that we held throughout the journey, and still ask now is simply, ‘Why?’.
When we travelled to the train station in Warsaw, reports started to arrive that a maternity hospital had been destroyed by Russian rockets and that a lot of pregnant women and children had been killed. People were visibly shocked, there was audible crying and screaming. ’How could they do this?’-Marta told us this is what people were asking, others shouted that Putin was a war criminal. I have never been through anything like what these people have been through, but I can say that the picture etched in my mind of abstract terror and suffering will remain with me and my brother for a long time. I have never come across so much despair and sadness. I cannot convey in words the horror of this situation. We left the station after giving out aid, none of us speaking, just lost in our own thoughts, trying to make sense of it all, where there is none. As if to consolidate these feelings, a day later we learned that a theatre had been bombed by the Russians. This theatre was filled with the pregnant women and children that had survived the bombing of the Maternity hospital.
How did the idea for the journey come about? Keith and I were watching the news- images of Civilian areas targeted, people: women, children, and men being killed, through indiscriminate bombing and shelling. The images showed utter devastation. People trying to get to safety by fleeing to neighbouring countries like Poland. Desperate people, being displaced through no fault of their own. Their homes destroyed. Children bewildered, scared and crying. It didn’t take us long to decide we wanted, had to do something to help. We worked out that driving to Poland would be the best option so that we could take a lot more donations/aid for the Refugees. Knowing that any trials we faced on the long journey would be nothing like the suffering of the Ukrainian people.
What were the highlights? Although we came across much suffering, there were highlights. The journey itself to get to Poland was enjoyable, and we met other people from the UK who had the same idea as us. There were a lot more people from the UK than we had expected. So much goodness and compassion became evident. This was the positive side of how humans can act to help others. The hospitality afforded to us by Marta was exceptional, she took us (two strangers) into her home, fed us, and let us stay the night. Marta is a true earth angel, filled with the positive qualities of what it is to be human. In addition to Marta, all the Polish people we met were so kind and helpful. The reception we received from the Ukrainian people themselves was staggering, given the predicament, they were in and what they had been through.
Was there anything you found challenging? I thought the journey would be the challenging part of all of this, I can tell you that this pales into insignificance when we saw and spoke to the Ukrainian people and learned more about their suffering. It was hard to not burst into tears, fall into a comatose state, even to run away, as we embraced the scene that greeted us. My brother and I have never been in this kind of environment before, it was a challenge to remain rational and some semblance of positive. The emotional impact will remain with us for life. We were not prepared for anything like this, we had no experience to measure it against. The suffering scars you. Driving home was a challenge, we both wanted to stay and help. Our thoughts were with those trapped in Ukraine. We were driving home to our safety, and normality, something the people we were leaving behind would have given anything for, it felt very selfish. Keith and I told each other that we would return soon.
Has the journey taught you anything you’d like to take forward in your ministry? I will take forward stillness and presence, which comes about from intentional healing work on many levels, as well as opening to the greater presence within life. The qualities of being and empathy, which were highlighted in what my brother and I did when meeting the many Ukrainian people, we created a space for them in our hearts and thoughts. We found that people wanted (in some cases, not all), to talk, deep listening was fundamental. This listening offered some support. Intelligent field of Love, I endeavoured to see the Divine in all, this required me to centre into my own sense of Divinity. One of the big things for me was the understanding that Ministry comes in many forms. The trip solidified my intention and commitment to be of Spiritual service in the World. The trip also made it abundantly clear to me (although I had elements of this prior to ging to Poland), the reasons why I want to be an Interfaith Minister, it helped me to understand the broader scope of ministry and spiritual service. To be of healing and peace amongst all the upheaval, and distress.
The experience has without doubt helped me to grow and mature Spiritually. To present myself from a premise of deep love and compassion. Undertaking the training journey with One Spirit, has given me the skills to demonstrate a generosity of Spirit, through active participation, willingness to share one’s own experience, and open mindedness toward the views and experience of others. I wanted to avoid being voyeuristic, and endeavoured to treat people with dignity, respect, caring,inclusiveness and fairness. There are many other things I could take forward into my ministry.
What are your next steps? My brother and I wanted to travel to Poland again to drop off the remaining donations we had been given. Our plan this time was to fly from Stanstead to Warsaw Modlin airport with as much as we could take, working out that this would be around 120kg. We decided that going sooner rather than later would be best, so we planned to go on Friday 1st April. We looked at the Government website and found out we needed a PCR to get into Poland. Unfortunately, Keith’s test came back positive, he had covid. Therefore, we had to cancel the trip. News that came as a very big disappointment.
However, we decided that if we couldn’t go ourselves, then we would give all remaining donations to someone else making the trip. We found out about a person in Bridgend who was collecting aide, transporting it by van to the Cotswolds, to a lorry that would take it all to Poland (I checked out all the details of this operation to make sure it was legitimate, and I can confirm it is). Over the next couple of days, I filled my car and dropped off all our donations. In the process, we learned about an organisation called Freedom Boxes. You could buy boxes ranging from around £10 up to £170 (called a hero box). We decided to use money that had been donated to buy 3 Hero boxes, which contained much-needed supplies (energy drinks, safety and tactical glasses, energy banks and cables, medical supplies, thermals, and sleeping bags). These boxes would be taken into Ukraine for those who had to stay behind. My brother and I are still left with the feeling that we would like to go into Ukraine to help, but we know we need to wait until it is safer to do so.
3 ways you can help:
– Buy a Freedom Box: https://www.freedom-boxes.com/
– Donate to UNICEF: https://www.unicef.org.uk/
– Find an organisation/individual in your local area collecting supplies (a quick Google search gives lots of results).
~ Written by OneSpirit’s 2022 Comms and Marketing Lead, Lucy