Volunteers from Cork Penny Dinners were said to be “devastated” at the sight of hundreds of Ukrainian refugees, mainly women and children, arriving in sub-zero temperatures at the border crossing at Medyka in south-east Poland.
The volunteers were completing the fourth and final full day of their humanitarian mission to Poland, helping Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.
The group of eight had flown to Poland early on Wednesday, where they met two articulated lorries carrying 50 tonnes of humanitarian aid donated by the people of Cork.
Over the course of their visit they distributed aid to reception centres welcoming refugees to Poland, and, with the help of the Redemptorist order, to hospitals and orphanages across Ukraine.
Speaking to The Echo from their base in Tarnow in south-east Poland, Penny Dinners co-ordinator Caitríona Twomey said it had been a tough day for the Cork volunteers.
“The only thing that matched our feelings today was the bitterness of the weather,” Ms Twomey said.
“We were stung by everything we saw, and it was a lot to take in, to see so many babies, toddlers, smallies and teens with their parents, trying to get hot food and drinks into them in the freezing cold, was very hard for us all.” Ms Twomey said the volunteers were devastated, and were feeling very lonely for their own families.
“We are broken by what we saw at Medyka and inside the Ukraine border.
“Our Polish friend Jan Skarbek brought us into the Ukrainian side with the permission of Border Control to see the sheer horror and sadness of this war,” she said.
“One of our volunteers, Dave Feeney, said that within 10 minutes over 100 people went through and nothing only sadness, fear, and tears on their faces.” She added that another volunteer, Leslie O Sullivan, had spoken for all of the group when he observed that while scenes of refugees on television could provoke an emotional response, nothing had prepared them for the impact of meeting people who are fleeing terror.
“To see this pain in real life is horrific and gut wrenching, and how wrong it is for anyone to have the power to put what could be our children, our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers or our grandchildren through this,” Ms Twomey said.
“It’s Holy Saturday, but there’s not much holy about what’s happening except the kindness of our Polish friends and all we have met on our journey.” Ms Twomey said the Penny Dinners volunteers had accomplished all they had wanted to on their mission, and she said Polish people had made them feel very much at home, with their friends Jan, Robert and Dariusz giving invaluable help.
She said that the aid donated by Cork people would save many lives, and she added that those receiving the aid had been deeply moved by the kindness of the donors.
“Three fully loaded vans went to Katowice and our Redemptorist friends are heading to many locations within Ukraine with vital aid and food, and with massive amounts of heavy-duty hospital supplies.” She said 12 generators had been donated, and the makings of a field hospital had been delivered into Ukraine.
“Orphanages have power now, and warm clothes and beautiful new blankets for the children, with plenty of food and supplies,” she said, adding that everyone who donated had helped save lives.
“You have made an enormous difference with your outpouring of love and kindness,” she said.
The Cork Penny Dinners volunteers will be collected from Dublin Airport on Sunday afternoon by Gurranabraher Community Garda Tony Gardiner, and they are expected home at Little Hanover Street just after five.