Starting in the parking lot of Galway’s own Polish shop Smakoteka, this volunteer-run organisation has sent four shipments of medicine, food and clothing to Poland and Ukraine, all funded by donations from the people of Galway.
The idea began when Smakoteka‘s owner Kasia Zaranek, decided to return the Polish trucks that delivered food to her store with supplies for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.
Quickly overcome with donations, Kasia enlisted the help of Grace Kennedy and Catherine Ryan, who, up until two weeks ago, managed a volunteer pool that averaged 50 volunteers a day.
“We were in a car park and the cars kept coming and coming. So that was 10 boxes. And then fast forward nine days, we have 7,000 boxes, if not more, it’s turned into a project that neither of us ever expected. We’re not an organization, we’re not a registered business. We’re just two girls packaging a few boxes,” said Grace.
The parking lot soon proved to be too small of an area to manage the amount of donations coming in, so they moved the operation to the Galway Race Courses, offered to them by The Galway Races CEO Michael Moloney.
“The first few days there was probably about four or five of us. Then what happened was that people come to donate, see us on our knees outside, and say ‘Okay, we’ll stay for an hour.’ It kind of snowballed from there. It’s strange, because we’re not an organization, it’s just anyone who comes up in their car can help out, there’s no red tape here at all,” said Catherine.
Operating through volunteer muscle and resources alone, Grace and Catherine said that the entire operation was only possible through the efforts of the volunteers and companies that stepped in and donated supplies and services. Some of which spent their whole day sifting through donations and packaging them away,
One of the volunteers is Lyubava Senhuk Omoauk, a Ukrainian woman who still has family and friends back in Ukraine.
Lyubava is one of the principal volunteers and, according to the organisers, their emotional link to the war in Ukraine.
[Lyubava] is amazing. She works in an office at nighttime cleaning. She starts work at ten o’clock at night and she’s been back here at ten o’clock in the morning. She’s gone directly from her job to here, that’s how much it means to her. Because it’s literally her mom that is there and getting the food. Her brother has gone out to fight, she has him on facetime here sometimes if she can get through to him,” said Grace.
“It couldn’t be more real for her. It’s made it real for every single volunteer. And when new people come, we encourage them to go and talk to her. We want people to be able to have that connection,” said Catherine.
According to Lyubava, this volunteer effort is “a great help to my people, not only for supplies like medicine and clothes, but also emotionally. I’m in contact with my schoolmates and my mom. This has helped them emotionally, they feel that they are not alone. That people know about them, because sometimes they feel like nobody cares. This has kept them going.”
“I’m meeting here new people and I feel also loved and supported very much. I’m crying when I see how much people donated and how organized and altogether it all is.”
The organisers also sang the praises for all the other volunteers that helped make this effort a reality.
“The people of Galway really outdid themselves. The first two days, some local women came up to us and said ‘tell me, I’m going to Dunnes, tell me what you want me to get?’ They came back with four bags of brand new clothing from Dunnes. Another said ‘I don’t even have money to buy myself new clothes but this is so important’. We had a family come up earlier with a bag of coins, they’d saved 500 euros to go on holiday, and they gave it to us. It’s really overwhelming,” said Catherine.
Grace also acknowledged the work of local businesses, “Brookes, for example, brought us a forklift yesterday. Even things like markers and tape, those silly things that you can get anywhere. But when you need them in this quantity; that’s a lot of money. Things you would never think of. City Bin have taken about 20 or 40 loads of rubbish. Where would we have put it had they not?”
Despite the amount of space made available to the volunteers at the Galway Races, there was little to spare as they readied the materials for their long trip.
Empty boxes were piled high, and bags filled with a few straggling pieces of clothing that were unsuitable for donation.
The bar and eating areas were retrofitted into a storage facility where the donations were packaged by types (medicine, food, clothing) onto pallets and awaited transportation on trucks headed to Poland and Ukraine.
Some of the boxes included labels such as ‘Humanitarian Aide for Ukraine’ and ‘Baby Clothing 0-12 months’.
“We have grown men crying here every single day when they see nappies. It gets to them,” said Grace.
According to the organisers, “originally, it was one truck going to Poland, that turned into three or four trucks and one of them is actually going into Ukraine to Lviv.”
“The others are going to Poland, to Zamosc, which is a town 35 miles from the Ukrainian border. When the refugees get into Poland they will go to a closed down school. Like a derelict school, but it has a gymnasium with showers. A local teacher is going to go in and turn on the showers. We’re sending the toiletries and food so they can shower, eat, sleep, and then within 72 hours they have to move on again for the next group to come in. It sounds cruel, but it’s the only way to get those people food for even a small amount of time before they get on with the rest of their lives,” said Grace.
But the journey has only just begun for the donations heading to Lviv as they are transported into an active military zone over the span of 36 hours.
These truck drivers face a warzone where a humanitarian delivery could mean death.
Lyubava shared her goodbye’s and gratitude to the Latvian driver, waving her country’s flag behind the truck as it began its perilous journey to Ukraine.
“It’s hard because I understand what kind of risk he’s taking, that’s really dangerous. And I already sent messages back home and everybody is praying for him to go safe, because he’s really risking his life. It’s hard to understand. Here, where nothing happened, it’s hard to understand. Back home, my mom and my schoolmates are praying. They are praying for him to go safely and praying for him to come back safely. He is from another country and he is risking his life to help another people. I don’t have words for this. How can I describe this? It’s amazing,” said Lyubava.
“I suppose most of all, I just want to wish the truck drivers well, they’re brave men and all of us doing this is great but someone has to bring it there and that’s the toughest job,” said Grace.