Corkman: The day I did my small bit to help a Ukraine family

When he offered to drive a Ukrainian mother and daughter to their new house in Ireland, Conor Slattery, of Crosshaven, was blown away by the support at all levels for refugees fleeing the war
Corkman: The day I did my small bit to help a Ukraine family

SEEKING REFUGE: Women and children in a subway hall in Berlin after fleeing from Ukraine

I HAD never met a Ukrainian person before. Not that I remember anyway.

Then, the other day, an old colleague, Aisling Byrne, posted on Facebook that she was going to be hosting a Ukrainian mum, a 14-year-old girl and a dog, all fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. They would be arriving in Rosslare and needed a spin to Galway. That’s what the Facebook post was about: would somebody please collect this family and drive them to a safe, warm place in Galway.

I’ve been watching old Polish friends too, posting about families they’re helping, and looking for help on behalf of Ukrainian families, making life safer for people from a country under siege. 

And I’ve been wishing there was something I could do to help.

I set reminders on my phone to check Aisling’s post, to see who would be the person to do the driving, and on the third hour of checking, when nobody had offered directly - there were offers of paying for a hotel and paying for a taxi - I commented on the post and asked could I be the person who met the family and drove them. To my delight, Aisling said yes. 

I was thrilled! Finally I could do a small thing!

I told my wife I’d be away the following Tuesday for the drive, and she asked the mums from the boys’ school for help. They started giving me items and cash for the family! Clothing, a blanket, toiletries, the kind of things you take for granted because there’s always enough of them in your life. Until you have to run out the door and travel from one side of a continent to another!

Mums met me at the school run and called to our house. Mammies run the world and a troop can make anything happen!

Then Tuesday came. The car boot was packed with welcome presents, I dropped the boys to school, and drove to Rosslare. I love that road. Dunno why, but it’s always a nice road to drive.

It was a bit emotional, well, I, was a bit emotional. I didn’t know what to expect and I felt really terrible for this family and all of those arriving in Ireland.

No matter how much we Irish love Ireland, and it’s a great little country, it’s not home to a Ukrainian person. Everyone loves their own home and their own country, and the last thing people want to do is to leave, especially when it is to save their children’s lives. At the same time, I was so grateful that I was being allowed to help.

Conor Slattery.
Conor Slattery.

I arrived in Rosslare at 1pm, parked up, and entered the ferry terminal. A man from Irish Rail offered me any help I needed. Bam! There are lovely people everywhere! He told me the Ukrainians arriving would be transported by bus from the ferry to the terminal building, where they would go through immigration and be given PPS numbers to allow them to live and work in Ireland. 

All good news and all beautiful and humanitarian work by Irish civil servants and the Irish government!

A guard came looking for me, and offered to help in any way he could! Lovely people! Everywhere! There were Civil Defence people there with bags of welcome things to hand out. Customs ladies came out to talk with me, staff from the terminal came to talk with me, immigration people came to talk with me. Everybody wanted to help! This really is a great little planet we all live on!

And then I met the family.

Aisling had connected us via telephone and the mum and I had messaged three times on WhatsApp so we knew what each looked like. They went efficiently through immigration, then the three of us went to the car to drive to Galway. The mum told me she’s an architect and had been working in St Petersburg in Russia, 15 days before, when Vladimir Putin announced he was sending thousands of troops to the Ukraine to save them from Nazis.

Of course, this simply wasn’t true, every Ukrainian knows that. They know that this propaganda is just a way for one man to gain power and control of a country.

The mum travelled by taxi, bus, and train to Helsinki in Finland, then flew to Warsaw in Poland. All the time her country was being struck by missiles and attacked by Russian troops, and all the time she was desperate to get home to her daughter.

She travelled from Warsaw to her home town in the east of Ukraine, through war and soldiers and bombs and missiles. Finally, she reached her child and they fled together, back across Ukraine and back into Poland. From there, they travelled to France any way they could. Sometimes they shared one seat on a train. Sometimes they managed to get on a bus. Sometimes they waited. Always with the goal of Ireland as their destination. Still in Europe, but far from the conflict.

In a world of amazing mammies and beautiful people, they had stumbled by chance upon Aisling Byrne and she was helping from the other side of the continent, always bringing this small family closer and closer to permanent safety under her roof in Galway.

I showed them what the school mums had left as welcome gifts in the boot of the car and they were blown away! They thanked me and thanked me and were very close to tears.

When I discovered they hadn’t eaten I got a Coke for the kid, their dog got two big chew treats an Irish mum had packed into my car, and 15 minutes later we were in MacDonalds.

They marvelled at the Irish landscape. The mum loved the architecture and the evening light in the sky. There’s nowhere in the world with the light and the beauty of an Irish sky! The kid told me she loves drawing and music. Normal people, utterly relieved to be alive.

The mum told me: “My home is gone. But everyone is alive”. What a devastating reality.

Thank the heavens above for Aisling and for people like her. And thank the heavens for the school mums and the people at the port.

I’m writing this for myself to remember and for other people to know that what they consider small acts of help are enormous for the people who need help. Thank-you all. If you can help at all, with time or things that are needed - an hour, a bottle of shampoo these are huge, huge things.

Thanks, Aisling, for making it possible for me to have played a little part, and I hope your new little family are getting on well. I’m utterly thrilled to have met them.

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