“I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing” – council worker Paul Stratton writes from the frontline of the Ukrainian refugee crisis
He had booked time off work, to “sit on my couch, watch Netflix and eat Pringles with my dog”. But council worker Paul Stratton has ended up having a very different week to the one he expected, thousands of miles away in Poland…
Seeing the scenes of desperation coming out of Ukraine, as two million people (and counting) flee their bombed homes and streets, Paul decided to leave Merseyside behind and travel 1,300 miles to Przemyśl, in Poland, to help the evacuees.
“It’s absolutely horrendous,” said Paul, “I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing.”
Paul, a former police officer who now works for the council as a fraud investigator, is volunteering with his brother, who used to serve in the armed forces. The brothers are staying until Sunday, and doing whatever they can, assisted by a Polish phrasebook and a network of former police and army colleagues.
Last night, they met the Mayor of Przemyśl, to ask what else they could do. “He looked at us and said: just buy chocolate for the children. It’s the only thing that makes them smile.”
So this morning, they emptied out the local supermarket, buying £160 of chocolate bars. They went in two minutes flat. “People are desperate to get something for their kids. And the children were so polite, saying thank you. It’s not dawned on them what’s happened.”
It may be something small, but Paul feels it is making a difference, in the “utterly heart-breaking” circumstances. Still, more support is needed. Many thousands of refugees arrive every day, just in this one small city. Thousands of mothers, grandmothers and children, clutching backpacks and plastic bags.
The reception centre – which has been hastily set up in a nearby shopping centre – can only process 4,000 people a day. “We’ve given them four more laptops, doubling what they had to start with. And we’re desperately trying to get them faster broadband. Local boy scouts, who are brilliant on the computers, are helping to register people, though it’s difficult as they don’t speak Ukrainian.”
While it’s all hands to the pump, Paul wonders what will happen when he and some of the other volunteers have to return to their own lives. “There aren’t enough staff here. There’s no Red Cross or local government. The Polish people are wonderful, beyond heroes – they’re setting an example to the world of what it is to show humanity. The city streets are empty, as everyone is volunteering. But we desperately need more drivers, translators – and money.”
Every inch of the city’s railway station is packed with children, sitting on the floor, waiting. It’s too cold to go outside and play, as temperatures plummet to minus 2. “I started out with sympathy, but it’s now turned into anger. I want to bring them all home to keep them safe.”
Paul worries constantly about the children’s safety. Mothers and grandmothers are doing their best, but trafficking and kidnapping is an ongoing threat.
“On this, International Women’s Day, seeing all these women traipsing hundreds of miles across the border, with their children in tow, keeping their spirits up…they’re tired, they’re distraught, but they’re amazing. What a great advert for the resilience of women.”
Paul is planning to return to Poland to volunteer for another week, later this month.