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On the refugee bus to Ireland: ‘I’m going so I can save my children’s lives’

Fleet of buses from Irish tour company Paddywagon return home after bringing aid to Ukraine

Clutching a white plastic bag, containing just two books – one on mathematics, the other on electronics – along with a single pair of jeans, Ivan Smechenko (77) left Odesa alone under shelling.

When Smechenko met Irish driver Tom Forde, he held the books up to his heart to show how special they were to him. "When I saw that was all he had, it broke my heart," says Forde.

“A man of that age shouldn’t be going through this. I think of my own father . . .” Forde’s voice trails off, his eyes welling up. Asked where his family were, the elderly man had said simply: “Gone.”

His wife, Raya, died several years ago, and his son Aleksander died in a motor accident, aged 18. He has a daughter who he believes may be in Spain, but they have lost touch.

On Monday, he sits alone in a buffet-style restaurant at a truck stop in Asten in the Netherlands, eating meat and vegetables, one of 83 Ukrainian refugees being brought to Ireland by tour company Paddywagon, which sent a convoy of supplies to Poland last week.

Two children run towards the counter and load their plates with slices of pizza. Later, the restaurant owner gives them ice creams in blue plastic bowls decorated with cartoon fish.

The Paddywagon tour buses had made a 2,300-kilometre journey to Piaseczno in east-central Poland, where they delivered supplies paid for via a GoFundMe campaign in Ireland.

After midnight on Sunday, the fleet of coaches pulled up outside Warsaw Expo, the temporary home for 7,000 Ukrainian refugees. In the cold waiting-room, dozens of refugees sat silently, waiting to board the Irish buses.

Kateryna Savchuk (30) and her dog Buddy were already on a bus after meeting the 12 drivers at their hotel.

Reunite

She had hoped to go to Montenegro to reunite with her parents and nine-year-old daughter, who fled Ukraine earlier. But she was unable to board her flight with her dog, who is her daughter's "best friend".

On Mother’s Day, she accepted an offer from the drivers to go to Ireland. “I want to live safely. Today, I met these guys from the buses and they said I may go with them to Ireland. I think I’m very lucky,” she says.

She hopes her family will be able to join her in Ireland when they have money to travel again. Inside the centre, refugees are given coloured wristbands and assigned a bus.

After loading luggage, driver John Furlong is tearful. "We're used to just tossing big suitcases full of holiday clothes in there. But I found myself being really delicate with these people's bags. Some of them were just plastic bags, and that's all they have."

As the buses depart, Mykolai Bieliaiev (7) stretches over two seats, clutching a large teddy bear given to him by the drivers. His brother Yurii (5) and mother Anna sleep across from him.

During the night, one-year-old Stepan wakes up wailing. He is teething, and his sister Veronica (3) is sick with a possible ear infection, his mother, Olha Biletska, explains the next day.

“The children got sick in the centre. It was cold and there were too many people. It’s not good for children. They have coughs and high temperatures now, they won’t eat,” she tells The Irish Times.

Just over a month ago, Biletska had a normal life: a home, a job, a family life. Back then – and it seems like a lifetime ago – she was on maternity leave from her job at a bank. “This war changed everything. It’s too big of a stress for them.”

‘Nice country’

Her husband was unable to leave Ukraine due to his age, and may have to join the army. “We talk on the phone. He’s happy we’re moving to Ireland. I read about it on the internet, it’s a nice country.

“But it’s difficult because of the children. Veronica is always asking about her father. I am just going so I can save my children’s life,” she says.

After a short break at a truck stop in Hanover, Germany, the buses face an unexpected delay. A cat belonging to one of the refugees has become trapped underneath one of them, afraid to come out.

Firstly, the drivers put out a bowl of cat food, but it's no good. Her owner, Waqas Khan, crawls under to coax her out. It takes about 40 minutes, but eventually Alyssa, the tiny white cat, emerges safely.

Waqas is from Pakistan but has lived in Ukraine for 30 years. After studying to become a petroleum engineer in 1992, he met his wife, and they had two children, who are with him on the bus.

“I don’t want to leave Ukraine but my daughter convinced me because it’s dangerous for us,” he says.

His daughter is 15 and his son is 27. Waqas hopes to go to Dublin, because his son has special needs and a doctor advised him there may be more support in the capital.

As he talks, he tries to remain cheerful. “It would be bad for my health to worry,” he says.

Karina Karpova shares a similar outlook, even though this is the second time in less than a decade that she has become a refugee. She and her husband used to run a bar on a nudist beach in Crimea until its annexation in 2014.

They are on the bus with their son Boris (14).

In ruins

In Kharkiv, her husband had worked on "beautiful buildings", including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv, but now, some are "burning or in ruins".

A couple of years ago, he fell at a construction site, sustaining injuries so severe doctors said it was a “miracle” he lived. The injuries meant he was able to leave Ukraine despite being under 60.

Karina’s family “have lost a lot”, but “crying does not help”, she says simply.

They had hoped they could go to an English-speaking country and they liked the idea of Ireland, because as former bar owners they knew of its history – “whiskey, music and dancing”.

“I don’t know how it will be in Ireland, only God knows. But our friends have been there for two weeks now and said people are very friendly,” Karina says.

In the Netherlands, the meal in the buffet restaurant is paid for by the Paddywagon drivers with Irish GoFundMe donations, with other costs, including fuel, paid by Denise Harris, chief executive of the commercial vehicle company Harris Group.

The Paddywagon journey may have been the only option for some of the refugees, as flights to Ireland are sold out until this Friday, and the ones that are available start at €200 per ticket.

On the second night, Kateryna cuddles her dog Buddy at the back of the bus. She has not seen her daughter in a week, but “it feels like one year”.

She follows a Telegram group sharing updates about the war and becomes distressed at news of more bombardments. Two women she met on the journey attempt to comfort her.

“My country and my city are bombed. It’s a very bad life in Ukraine now,” she says.

Kateryna and her mother ran a furniture business in Lutsk until February. She hopes she can get a similar job in Ireland. “My daughter learns English every day. We will live in Ireland for two or three years, until it is safe, or maybe all of our life.”

Last break

The Irish buses cannot travel to the Republic via the United Kingdom, because of its less-welcoming rules for Ukrainian refugees. Instead, they drive to Roscoff in France, with a last break in Saint-Malo.

In Saint-Malo, Olha Biletska is “really tired” and “looking forward to having a room on the ferry and a bed to rest. It’s a very long time to travel with sick kids,” she says.

Ivan Smechenko wanders around the town on his own. At the check-in gate, he frets about whether a photocopy of his passport in a crumpled plastic cover will suffice. He has not left Ukraine since it was part of the USSR.

His hands shake as he hands over the document. When the French official reviewing the list of refugee names gives Ivan a thumbs-up and a smile from behind the glass, he instantly grabs my hands and kisses them, saying “It’s okay. Thank you, thank you,” smiling back at the woman.

At dinner on the ferry, however, the 77-year-old sits by himself. He is “really struggling with being alone . . . but trying not to be afraid.”

At that moment, Irish driver Humphrey Kerins interrupts to say a little girl on the boat, Ilya, has turned 11. He beckons some of the refugees and his colleagues to sing her a happy birthday. Ivan joins the celebrations.

I do not know what is ahead, only time will show this. But I hope Ireland will be a good place for me

The ferry takes 15 hours. On Wednesday morning, while docking in Ringaskiddy, the drivers are told the refugees will be last to leave and called in small, organised groups to customs and immigration.

Looking across the harbour, 14-year-old Boris Karpova fingers his guitar, singing Imagine by John Lennon, and songs by Russian musicians. "It is not their fault," he says. The rest of the boat is eerily silent.

Boris is happy to be in Ireland. In Ireland, he can become anything he wants to be.

Queuing to leave the boat, Ivan Smechenko, facing into an uncertain future, says: “I do not know what is ahead, only time will show this. But I hope Ireland will be a good place for me.”

Officials in the reception centre say they are likely to be temporarily housed in hotels in Kinsale.

At one stall, a visibly frustrated official holding a clipboard tells a female refugee to “move – just f**king move.”

While interpreters guide everyone through the process, Paddywagon operations manager Gabriel Finn stands up on a chair and asks for the room's attention for a very short speech.

“From the bottom of our Irish hearts, welcome, and thank you.”

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