Irish aid arrives by bus in Poland: ‘The generosity of people has been unreal’

Tour busses take aid of all kinds across continent before bring Ukrainian refugees back

After a three-day journey across the continent, 12 Irish bus drivers arrive in a small town in east-central Poland with five bus loads of aid to be brought to Ukraine and refugees in Polish cities.

Every seat, floor and luggage compartment is packed to the brim with donations including medical aid, blankets, hygiene products, baby food, nappies and toys. The drivers are welcomed by local volunteers who store the aid before transporting it to Kyiv, the border region of Poland and nearby train and bus stations where refugees continue to arrive.

Paddywagon tours has been in operation for 24 years now, but for the last two years, with no tourists, the buses have largely been sitting idle.

"I just decided we could put these buses to good use. Let's fill them with aid and then bring refugees back to Ireland, " Cathal O'Connell, chief executive of Paddywagon tours says.

“We’re here offloading tonnes of aid that we’ve received from many different people. It’s taken us three days between ferries and buses to get here,” he says.

Dominika Manka-Lempicka, mayor of the nearby village of Baszkówka said she "could have cried" when she saw the buses arriving. The past four weeks had been "very stressful" but the international community were generous, arriving from Germany, Holland, and now Ireland, with donations.

The Paddywagon drivers plan to take as many as 238 Ukrainian refugees to France, where Brittany Ferries have offered to provide cabins for free for the journey back to Ireland.

“The generosity of people has been unreal, and the efforts my guys have put in here volunteering has been second to none. They’ve been driving since the minute they left Dublin three days ago, more or less without rest, sleeping on buses and eating very poorly,” O’Connell says.

“Hopefully we’ll deliver these people back to a hundred thousand welcomes.”

After over an hour of unpacking five buses, the drivers play rebel songs and begin Irish dancing in the sun with local volunteers.

"No matter how desperate the situation is, we still find a way to make a bit of a laugh," Kerryman Gabriel Finn says.

"It's great to be here today to do something tangible to help these people. But I'm worried about the condition people will be in. Thirty hours on a bus is a long time, so it's going to be a challenge," he says. His colleague Frank Buckley, from Dublin, has similar concerns.

"We had a bit of banter on the way here but none of us know what it's going to be like on the way back. I can't even watch the news about Ukraine, or Syria or Afghanistan without getting emotional. The minute I see children I have to switch it off. And these buses are going to be full of mainly women and children," he says.

“The technical stuff will be fine, getting from A to B, but it’s the emotional stuff I don’t think any of us are ready for. You can’t plan for that.”

"We hope we're giving them a good chance at a new life by bringing them back to Ireland. On our way here, we stopped somewhere in Germany and met some lads from Newcastle bringing aid on a double decker bus. They were upset that the UK won't let them bring refugees back. That's 62 spaces where refugees could be sitting."

Inside the sports hall, 50 beds are lined up for refugees arriving into the town.

“It’s just so sad to see this. Nobody should be sleeping here,” Buckley says.

So far, some 4,000 refugees have arrived in Piaseczno, which in normal times has a small population of just under 50,000.

Despite the town's small size, the gym is just one of many temporary accommodation hubs set up there for refugees fleeing Ukraine, the mayor, Hanna Kulakowska Michalak, says.

“Two weeks ago we organised it into a place where people could come shelter. We had fifty people stay here one week ago. They stayed for two days and then they went farther to family or friends in Poland or abroad, or we found them places to live. This is just a temporary place for them to stay.”

Others are sleeping in hotels, where they will “remain for longer” due to “better and more private conditions”.