When Darren Ward saw what was happening in Ukraine following the Russian invasion he knew he wanted to do something to help.
But initially he didn’t envisage that he would be driving to Poland with more than three tonnes of aid and replacing it with Ukrainian families fleeing the country to live somewhere safe.
“We were on holiday and saw the news that Russia had invaded,” he said. “We thought we had to do something to help these kids and women. We couldn’t just sit and do nothing.”
An appeal was started around the area, with clothes, toys, medical items and toiletries and sanitary goods flooding in. Darren took a week off work at 24-7 Taxis and, together with his friend Adam, set off in a van and a minibus bound for Medyka, a town on the border between Poland and Ukraine where thousands of families have ended up.
“We got there and there were all these people. Droves and droves of people,” said Darren. “An old guy and his wife had walked 67 miles with just a handbag. He looked me straight in the eye and asked if we could take them. We already had mums, kids, dogs… that was the worst bit, the look on that guy’s face.”
The two men did manage to take several families away and on to Krakow or to railway stations, where they made sure they got safely on the train. He said they were also constantly reassuring them that they were not like the people traffickers and other “shady” men with vans he saw at the aid centre
“The kids were on their phones to their dads and we were telling them that they were safe, that they were OK,” said Darren. “It’s a real hot mess out there. They came out with nothing – one young mum and her kids came with just a Trunki and a rucksack.”
The following day they went back to take more families from Medyka. “I hadn’t driven all that way just to get two people out,” said Darren, who has accused the UK government of not doing enough to get more of the displaced families back here or sending more aid where it is needed.
“There’s so much space there – they could easily land a helicopter with loads of aid.”
And with flights from Krakow to Luton costing “about £12” he said more people could be helped if visas were easier to get.
But in the meantime he plans to do more. He flew back, leaving Adam and the vehicles there to help others, but with diesel for the one-way trip alone costing £2,000, he is turning his attention to helping people when they arrive here.
“We have appealed for things which they need when they arrive. They have left with nothing and need all sorts of things. Anything unwanted can be sold to raise money to buy what is needed.”
He has not ruled out another trip – this time with more people.
And to make this possible he is hoping to get sponsorship from local businesses and hear from others who would like to join him.
“I’d like to have two teams of a bloke and a woman, which is more reassuring,” he said. “You can’t see it or smell it or feel it here in Norfolk and we can’t keep turning on the news and doing nothing. These people were going to work, having a coffee, living their lives one day, and the next they had nothing. They are just like us. It could BE us.”
To offer to help Darren, or to see what donations are needed, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07916 247247. There is also a GoFundMe page – https://gofundme/3ee09901 – where you can donate and find out more about how local people are helping.