Written for North Staffs News, 07/03/2022
It’s day twelve of Putin’s War. Nearly two million people have fled Ukraine, crossing the borders to neighbouring countries, seeking safety and refuge. Thousands more have been displaced internally. Yet more are too frightened or too frail to move from their homes as the bombs keep falling.
And people across North Staffordshire are moved to help.
“This is probably van number 20. We’ve sent some vans already to Poland, and then we have a lorry going out to Poland on Wednesday morning,” said Agie.
Agie and Katie are restaurateurs. They run a Polish restaurant, which bears their name, in Burslem.
For the last week, in addition to their work at the restaurant, they’ve also been co-ordinating the collection and delivery of items donated locally to help Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland.
“The most important items are baby food, nappies, wet wipes, and then also dry food like instant soup so you can pour the water on it, and canned food as well, but nothing with meat because of Brexit. We can’t send any meat from UK,” said Agie.
The girls started with a small act of kindness, collecting a few boxes of essential items to send to a Ukrainian family which Katie has allowed to use her empty flat in Poland.
A week later, fuelled by their eagerness to do something and the generosity of others, Agie and Katie are flat out but undaunted by the logistics of their mammoth project.
They are enjoying the support of a team of energetic helpers too.
“We have fantastic volunteers,” said Agie. “Without these volunteers, we can’t do anything really. These are our loyal customers. Wow. Yeah. The best customers really. They’re coming here every single day and helping us from 10 till 6 o’clock, even longer when we have to load the vans with heavy boxes. They’re always with us.”
Judith is a retired army major and nurse. She’s been volunteering for the project for the last four days.
She said: “Like everyone else I’ve seen what’s going on and just needed to do something. I tend to help check on the medication and find out what we need.
“Today I managed to get my brother to go round and collect incontinence pads. We’re getting lots of sanitary wear, but we also need incontinence pads.
“I just want to do my bit really. I intend coming in every day until it’s finished.”
With contacts in Poland, Agie and Katie have been able to direct donations to where they have heard there is need.
Agie said: “We focus on some smaller cities where they are accepting refugees. So for example, we send a lorry on Wednesday to Zhepin, which is on the border with Germany. It’s a very small city, but they’ve accepted about 150 refugees already. And they struggle with the clothes, with the food, nappies, baby stuff for all those people.”
Katie added: “Tomorrow, 6 o’clock, we have one van who goes straight to Romania, because Romania needs help as well. Nobody thinks about that because it’s too far away. It’s something like 50 hours drive, and that road is not good. But then we found one guy who’s coming in tomorrow, 6 o’clock and he’s taking one van for free. That’s amazing. It’s something beautiful.”
Many people are turning off their TV sets, unable to cope with the constant stream of upsetting news and scenes. Even with their army of volunteers, one cannot help but wonder how long Agie and Katie’s energy can hold out. And what toll is this project having on their spirit, and even their business?
Katie said: “I said to my partner, I need to reset my head because sometimes it’s too much. Our phones ring every single minute. Yesterday we had a few hours to reset a bit.
“When I wake up in the morning we have hope when we turn on TV that it will be finished. But it’s not.”
Agie said: “We’re exhausted. When we close the drop-off point about 6 o’clock we go into the kitchen and then we work as chefs. We’re going back home about 10, 11, and exhausted.
“We hope to send two or three more lorries and then we think it’s going be enough for now. Obviously if we have donations or if we have people willing to help, we can sort that out. But that’s a big scale.
“We’re working every single day from early morning until very late at night.“We can’t do much longer than a few more days. Yeah.”
Right now it’s important that only the most-needed items are donated. Efforts have to be focused and targeted, or the girls and their project will be swamped.
Agie explained: “If we send a lorry full of clothes it’s a waste of space, waste of resources, waste of money, really, because we could send nappies, a lot of dry food, cans, sleeping bags. This is what people really need the most.”
Of course, the project is still receiving items that can’t readily be sent to Poland or elsewhere. Nothing, however, is going to waste. Other local projects are also benefitting and helping out.
Lydia is from Rehoboth Community Project. This project is taking in the items that cannot be sent elsewhere.
Lydia said: “We’ve been bringing donations up, and we can help to take things away as well. We work with many agencies, as well as adult social services. We also work with Stoke homeless. We work with other charities for refugees and asylum seekers.”
There’s no doubt that Agie, Katie, and the volunteers, are feeling rewarded for their incredible efforts.
“The nicest point of this is when we receive photos from the drivers,” said Agie.
“When they arrive into the drop-off point in Poland, sending us photos, how they’re unloading the donations. We know they have been received and they’re in the right place to be.
“When we’ve sent big vans, and they send us a photo saying ‘Yes, we received. Yeah. We’ve got everything you’ve sent’, it’s heartwarming.”
It is heartwarming.
Despite the evil we see playing out on our television and phone screens, Agie, Katie, and their team of volunteers are proof that the world still has a determination to do the right thing, and an abundance of kindness and love. These will prevail.