OLs Helping Refugees
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Olessia Alexeeva Bean (Dale 1995-99) and Ania Morrison (Dale 1996-01) have been working tirelessly to help refugees escape to safety, including Olessia’s own mother. Ania describes how their humanitarian efforts began.
“I had not seen Olessia for almost ten years – not since she stood witness at my wedding in Greece in the summer of 2012. Over the next ten years we were always in touch, but never in the same country. I never could have imagined that the next time I would see her would be in such circumstances.
We had met in Dale House at the beginning of the 1996/97 school year. I had joined in year nine, Olessia was in year 11. We became very close friends from the very beginning – a friendship which has lasted for over 25 years.
On February 24th of this year, as soon as I heard that Russia had launched an attack on Ukraine, I called Olessia in London, to find her shocked, her eyes glued to the TV screen, on the other line to her mother, who was in Kharkiv – one of the first cities to be attacked. Knowing Olessia so many years, I have always admired her for her courage and strength, but for the first time ever, I could hear fear in her voice as she asked me, “Ania, how can we get my mum out of Kharkiv?!”
I did not know. I had no idea. How do you get a person out of a war zone, who is 1350 km away from you (I live in Poland now), and is too terrified to even leave the house… So I started calling. As did Olessia. We reached out to many old friends, some of them OLs, knocking at every door, trying to find a way in. More and more friends started to join us in our mission, reaching out in turn to their friends.
I had managed to get in touch with a Polish-Ukrainian team of volunteers, who were planning to drive from Poland to Kharkiv with three buses to evacuate civilians. Olessia’s mother, Ala, was added to the list. Two days later I received information that they were off. They were stopped at a check-point before the Kharkiv Region for many hours, and by the time they were allowed to pass, it was too late to get to the city before curfew so they had to take cover for the night. I was told to contact them at 8:00am, so I tried but could get no response. After about 15 mins I got a message from one of the drivers saying, “I have just received information that a friend who was evacuating people is dead”. The rest of our brief conversation went as follows:
“He was hit by a missile on the outskirts of Kharkiv.”
“Are you there?”
“I’m on the other side.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“I don’t know, I’m waiting for information.”
And this was the last I heard from them. I do not know what become of the remaining five drivers who had been brave enough to drive into the centre of a war zone, attempting to evacuate the families of friends and strangers who had reached out to them.
Our first attempt to evacuate “our mum” had failed.
The bombing and shooting were getting more intense day by day, with destruction, fire, death and warfare coming closer to Ala’s house by the hour.
But like a diamond in the dust, a beautiful network of support and trust emerged, allowing us to reach deep into Ukraine. From friend to friend to friend, Olessia managed to get in contact with a young woman who was planning to escape from Kharkiv by train to Lviv – which was, by then, the only safe route out as all the roads were under fire. This woman went to Olessia’s mum’s home, actually took her by the hand, and led her out of the house to the train station.
A crowd of thousands was desperately pushing their way to the platforms, carrying as much of the little that remained of their lives as they could. For many now, these were their only worldly possessions – all squeezed into a small backpack.
Ala and the young woman also tried to push through, but the crowd got between them and Ala found herself alone and too weak to stand, as she had not eaten much over the past few days. The young woman, torn away, was taken by the desperate wave of women, children and elderly, and found herself carried onto the train, shoved into it by sweaty bodies pushing her from all sides.
Ala, having nearly passed out twice, managed to escape to the subway. She rested there for a couple of hours, trying to calm her nerves and find the courage to go to her lifelong home, hoping it was still standing. She was determined, and so by evening, she was home again.
Our second attempt to evacuate “our mum” had failed.
Then, as by miracle, I got a phone call from a friend, telling me that a car was going to Kharkiv in a few hours to evacuate an elderly gentleman, and that for an extra fee, they could also pick up Olessia’s mum. While I ran to the Krakow train station to give them half the fee (they wanted the other half upon returning), Olessia was calling her mother trying to convince her to leave the house. Ala was terrified, changing her mind every few hours, and like many of us, was trying to convince herself that this war would surely end in a couple of days.
When the appointed hour struck Ala, having heard the horror stories of others who had attempted to leave the city by road, decided that she would not leave by car.
Our third attempt to evacuate “our mum” had failed.
Now we had almost lost hope that we would find a way to get her out. And yet, supported from the sidelines by many OL friends and teachers, as well as by our old housemistress Dorothea Morris from Dale House, we kept looking for a way. And once again, reaching from friend to friend, I managed to get in touch with a young boy in Kharkiv – a boy not much older than we were when we first met at The Leys – and he managed to calmly convince Ala that she must get on the train, otherwise she might die. That did it.
It was the 8th of March, 7:33 in the morning, when I awoke to the sound of my ringing phone. I answered and heard hope: “Mum is on the train!”. Finally! She was getting out! Now, we had to think how to find her on the receiving end – in Lviv. Ala travelled for over 16 hours, stuffed into the train like into a can of sardines, with crying babies and empty faces all around her.
The train arrived in Lviv after curfew, making it impossible to do anything, and we were forced to let her be taken by the flow of evacuees coming into Lviv. The stream of people she found herself in was directed into buses, that no one seemed to know the destination of… She found herself in an old school, adapted as a shelter, where blankets had been laid down all over the floor for people to sleep on. She barely slept again that night, surrounded by strangers, in a strange place, surrounded by darkness in the siren sounded blackout.
The following morning though, a little sun started to shine through. Again, a friend of a friend, who happens to live in Lviv, and who is also the co-founder of the Rotary Club in Ukraine, picked her up, bringing with him hot coffee and croissants. I cannot divulge the details of the remaining journey, as through this mission, we managed to develop an evacuation route thanks to which we continue to evacuate people – especially people who may not be able to survive the rest of the journey.
I will just say in short that Ala was then “passed on” into the hands of other friends (who were strangers to each other until that day). These friends provided shelter, care and food. Transport was arranged and finally, she was on her last stretch towards the Polish border. At the border, still on the Ukrainian side, she was to get out of the car and wait for it to get through the customs check. Ala, being in a state of shock and confusion, on the brink of complete exhaustion, started walking… and got lost. Thanks to a whole group of friends who were waiting for her at the border, including volunteers, officers from the Polish Border Control and the local Polish Police, she was quickly located and transported across the border, where she was taken care of and from where another friend brought her directly to my house, almost 300km away.
The joy that we all felt at that moment is inexpressible. We did it! It was the 9th of March, almost midnight, 14 days after the first bomb fell on Kharkiv – two weeks which had seemed like an eternity – and Ala was finally safe. Olessia’s mum, who I had heard so much about for the past quarter of a century, but who I now met for the first time, was finally with me! We got “our mum” out… with a lot of help from our friends.
On the 24th March, exactly a month after the first attack on Kharkiv, Ala was able to travel to the UK and is now safe with Olessia and her family in Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire.
This was the beginning of many beautiful friendships – as friends of friends joined together to form a network of trust and shared responsibility – a responsibility we have taken upon ourselves, as have many others both in Poland and Ukraine, as well as in many other countries around the world, to help people in need.
As the destruction of lives in Ukraine continues, the network of friends I have described above continues to spread as friends reach out to one another, So far we have been able not only to evacuate people by “passing them from hand to hand”, but we have also managed to establish a distribution network within Ukraine, by which we are able to provide humanitarian aid to those in most urgent need by “passing it from hand to hand” in the opposite direction.
We have also reached out to another member of Dale House, Leonora Uff, whose daughter Valentina has been evacuated from Kiev to London where, as her mother informed me, she is gathering supplies, preparing to drive them to Ukraine. As soon as she enters Poland we will try to provide her with any assistance she may need and also provide drivers to escort her into Ukraine if such a need arises.
Please see an interview with Valentina: https://www.facebook.com/dailymirror/posts/10160688819049162
Other Old Leysians have also joined forces with us, helping us with translations, fundraising and generally cheering us along. So far, we have managed to coordinate the evacuation of some people, especially those who were at highest risk (e.g. newborn babies, people with disabilities). We have managed to purchase and/or collect many necessary items including medication, sanitary products, food, and power sources, and deliver the items directly to those who need them most. We have managed to contact individuals or institutions with others who were able to help them, where we were not.
As we are not an official organisation, it is easier for us to react quickly to the needs of specific people or organisations, and we are able to reach many cities which have been most touched by the effects of war. Also, as friends pass on the message, more and more individuals and organisations from within Ukraine are reaching out to us, as they know they can trust us – after all, we are “friends of a friend”.
Presently, we are also looking for individuals, organisations, or companies who would be willing to source items which we cannot, e.g. field x-ray machines, medical supplies, bulletproof vests for field doctors, etc. If you would like to support our initiative, please contact me at [email protected].
More information about what our group is now doing can be found on both our fundraising and Facebook pages: https://zrzutka.pl/rtzszj and Friends for Ukraine. We would be very grateful for your support!”