The Ukrainian family I was about to drive back to Ireland was already at the car when I left my hotel in Poznan, western Poland, at 6am.
here were four of them: Olga, a mother in her late 30s, her own mother, and Olga’s son (14) and daughter – possibly one of the cutest eight-year-old girls you’ve ever seen.
The first thing that caught my eye was the boy’s jacket. The sun hadn’t had time to warm the air, but he was wearing only the lightest windbreaker.
The second was the luggage. This family, who fled the Kyiv bombing just the day before and, as I learned later, fled Donbass a few years ago, had only a small suitcase and a bunch of plastic bags.
That was the sum total of her possessions. That was all they had saved to bring to Ireland. Worse, much of what they carried was food.
You weren’t alone. 15 cars and a van were parked in front of the hotel. All had Irish plates and all had groups of Ukrainian women and children beside them; 72 guests had made their way, mostly from Kyiv, Mariupol and Odessa, to be driven to Ireland.
There were 39 children in the total group, including a three-month-old baby. Most of the congregation looked tired. Some were obviously scared. It may have been my imagination, but some looked relieved. Now someone else was in charge. Someone took her to safety.
Then there were the pets. When an animal is a valued part of your family, escaping by plane is not an option. Those we rescued from the ongoing war included three dogs, five cats and, improbably as it may seem, a rat.
It must have struck our guests as odd that out of the 15 cars parked in a row, 10 were Teslas. When the idea of the convoy came to me two weeks earlier, the first thing I did was turn to the other members of the Tesla Owners Group.
Luckily, John Casey, the group’s president, not only agreed to come, but also helped organize the trip. Luckily, Caroline Dowling, a savvy Irish businesswoman, one-woman powerhouse, Tesla owner and a director of Unicef Ireland, also agreed to help.
By far the most difficult part of planning the trip was gaining the trust of the refugees and refugee centers. One of the worst consequences of the war is that Poland has become a hotbed of the sex trade.
As a number of well-meaning Irish groups have learned to their own detriment, refugee centers will not take in those who claim to want to help unless they have cast-iron credentials. Single women were, and rightly are, afraid of human trafficking.
We’ve partnered with the Ukrainian Crisis Center, an Irish community of Ukrainians helping Ukrainians. Through them we were accredited by the Embassy of Ukraine in Ireland.
In the few days before our arrival, the numbers fluctuated. We have learned that frightened people have trouble making decisions. Many are traumatized. At one point we were afraid that we would go home with empty seats. And then we had 100 people signed up. Our final number was 94, but we only had 72 seats in the carriages.
A speedy confrontation and a policy of leaving no one behind were agreed.
The additional 22 would follow by plane a few days later.
The next few days were characterized by fast driving, largely silent passengers and Ukrainian music from the car radios. Some of us drove 18 hours straight but no one complained. Our guests were relieved to have left the bombed towns and the Irish drivers were all too aware that their minor inconvenience was nothing compared to what our families had endured.
Despite exceeding a few speed limits, we only made it to Cherbourg thanks to the good humor of Irish Ferries, who delayed the boat by 45 minutes. Many of us, myself included, were crawling with our families with just a few miles of range left on our batteries.
Back then, our guests were clearly “our families”. Each driver took personal responsibility. The people in her car were the people in her care.
Upon arrival in Ireland we had two choices: take personal responsibility for our families or trust the system; Ipas (International Accommodation Protection Services), which handles short-term accommodation, and the Red Cross, which handles verification and medium-term accommodation.
We chose to trust the system, but we didn’t just let our families go. The 20 volunteers who made the convoy possible formed a support group for those we brought to Ireland. The WhatsApp group that organized the convoy is now being used to find accommodation, organize day trips, strollers, dentists and anything else our families need. Only when it gets significantly warmer does Olga’s son have to take out his windbreaker again.
Some of our families have already been accommodated in their homes until the war ends. Some are already on the trail of jobs.
The most striking aspect of this whole exercise was the welcome our families received from every Irish group and individual we encountered. The tireless mobilization in support of war refugees has always made me proud to be Irish.
Only one question remains. are we going out again At the moment we are busy taking care of the families that we have caught up. Once we are satisfied that we are taking care of them, we will discuss the possibility of Convoy, the Sequel.
Tom McEnaney is a media consultant, former journalist and founder of IODP, an Irish NGO working with disadvantaged children in Belarus
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/we-drove-our-teslas-all-the-way-to-poland-and-came-back-to-ireland-with-72-ukrainian-refugees-41515325.html We drove as far as Poland in our Teslas and came back to Ireland with 72 Ukrainian refugees