Prof Luke O’Neill leading humanitarian aid mission for Ukrainian refugees

‘The biggest problem is food. Some of the people left in Ukraine are starving’, says Prof

During the Covid-19 pandemic Prof Luke O’Neill became a household name. His belief that we would eventually find a way through provided a rare voice of optimism in grim times.

While one global crisis is receding, another has manifested itself in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and once again Prof O'Neill has found himself at the centre of things.

He is leading a humanitarian mission on behalf of the charity Depaul Ireland to Slovakia to bring relief to the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees in the country.

The charity is known in Ireland for supporting homeless people, but has been on the ground in Ukraine for 15 years and its local knowledge has been invaluable during the war which has created millions of refugees.


It is one of the few international charities with an existing presence in Ukraine.

Prof O'Neill, Professor of biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, left Ireland last Wednesday 30th March with a convoy providing medical supplies to Ukraine.

He successfully delivered the supplies to Poland before travelling to Bratislava to help at Depaul Slovakia's emergency warehouse yesterday.

On his way he met Ukraine refugees in both Poland and Slovakia. “The biggest problem is food. Some of the people left in Ukraine are starving,” he said.

Prof O’Neill said those he met are living in hotels and sheltered accommodation not knowing when, if ever, they will return to their native country. Depaul estimates that refugees could be out of their own country for at least two years even if the war stopped soon.

He has asked the public to donate money to Depaul Ireland as it can access supplies for refugees in Poland and Slovakia.

As well as receiving shipments from across the world Depaul’s warehouse team are managing procurement and logistics to get food assistance, hygiene items, and medical supplies across Ukraine to where they are most needed.

It is currently feeding 3,300 individuals per day in Ukraine, the equivalent of 1,500 households - through a combination of soup kitchens, collection points, and delivering food to vulnerable households.

Over the past four weeks over 50 tonnes of food aid has been transported from Slovakia into Ukraine along with a shipment of medical supplies to the central Kharkiv hospital used to treat trauma injuries.

Depaul will deliver 40 tonnes of aid per week (prioritising food initially) as it establishes regular procurement and transportation schedules over the coming weeks.

Professor Luke O’Neill said he was in “awe of the incredible work being undertaken by Depaul International here in Slovakia, throughout Ukraine, and indeed around the world to help amid this crisis.

“Everyone is working together to get food and supplies to where they are urgently required.”

Prof O’Neill and the Irish ambassador to Slovakia Dermot McGauran opened a new wing to their night shelter the charity has set up in the capital Bratislava.

All the time there are fears that a resurgence of Covid-19 could make it doubly difficult for refugees who are living in close proximity to each other.

“It’s a huge worry,” he says. “Both Slovakia and Ukraine have very low vaccination rates partially because the people don’t trust their governments. The death rate in Slovakia, for instance, would be three times what it is here and Ukraine something similar.

“It’s a concern because of all this movement of people and disruption and trauma and stress. Diseasee can spread among people who are immuno-suppressed. It is not just Covid-19, TB and cholera could also come back. Wherever there is a war there is always the chance of an increase in infections.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times