id workers enduring air raid sirens, sleepless nights and sub-zero temperatures are helping desperate Ukrainian families arriving in Chernivtsi find shelter.
In the past two weeks the small city in western Ukraine has seen 220,000 men, women and children arrive after being forced to pack up their lives often in just a backpack and a few plastic bags and flee from their homes. Situated about 40 miles from the Romanian border, it has seen its population almost double.
Red Cross operations manager Julia Brothwell arrived in Ukraine a month ago to help from Chernivtsi. “We were all hoping this wouldn’t happen. It’s very cold, today it got down to about -6C and there is a bitter wind. We are away from fighting here. But we do get the air raid sirens.
“This morning we had one at 3.30am so had to go down to the bunker in the hotel. Everyone in the city when the siren sounds needs to get to safety. We are lucky if we get four or five hours sleep.”
Ms Brothwell, 58, has been helping families who arrive in Chernivtsi. Many have just small suitcases stuffed with essentials and rely on the kindness of other residents for accommodation as they make plans to travel to the border.
“Most who arrive here are really worried,” Ms Brothwell said. “All of them are badly traumatised after having to leave everything behind and get out very quickly. They’re also very concerned about anybody who didn’t leave.
“A young lady who was interpreting for me has a lot of friends in Hlukhiv [a town just south of the Russian border]. For the first few days she had contact with them and then suddenly she lost contact.”
Facilities and hospitals in Chernivtsi are still functioning, but medicine is now in shorter supply. The country is also under martial law which means men age 18 to 60 cannot leave, fuel is rationed and in some places food and water sources are scarce. But despite the danger, many young Ukrainians who have managed to get to a bordering country have come back once they know their vulnerable relatives are safe.
Ms Brothwell said: “A woman in the office where I’m working spent 10 days getting her grandparents to Poland. Then immediately she came back because she just wanted to help. I’ve heard that story so many times.”
Aid workers are in vital need of donations to provide those fleeing with the essentials and help them play for accommodation.
The Red Cross is one of 13 charities supported by the Evening Standard’s Ukraine Appeal, which on Thursday passed £100,000. Together with the Government matching funding and the appeal of our sister paper, The Independent, it has raised almost £300,000 in total from over 3,000 donors. “We are relying so much on the kindness of others,” Ms Brothwell said.
There are around 6,000 Ukrainian Red Cross Society volunteers around the country. Its network is providing logistical, medical and psychosocial support.
Magdalena Michutka Kuras, a nurse and paramedic, is volunteering with the Polish Red Cross at Przemysl train station in Poland. About 2,000 people are packed into each train that comes in and volunteers see up to eight arrive every day.
“We receive people who are dehydrated after a very long trip without water and food,” Ms Michutka Kuras said. “They are tired and sick, they have high fevers and blisters on their feet after walking many, many kilometres.”
Volunteers are distributing clothes, medicines, food, water and children’s toys to those who arrive on the trains — all paid for by donations.
Ms Michutka Kuras said they try to give those arriving at the station “hope” and have put up a big sign which reads in both Ukrainian and Polish: “You are safe here.”
“One example was very tough for me,” she said “There was an 84-year-old man who was bedridden because of a stroke many years ago. His son he decided to take his father and mother to Poland.
“The son picked up his father and carried him all the way to the train where they spent three days travelling. For the bedridden father it was very hard.
“When he arrived, we tried to provide him with immediate care, but he was so exhausted and dehydrated he kept losing consciousness. We had to take him to the hospital immediately.
“The son said we were heroes because we could help them. I said, ‘No, you are the hero because you decided not to leave your elderly parent’.”
Tanja Veklenko and her four children arrived at Przemysl station last week having been forced from their home in Kryvyi Rih, central Ukraine.
“Near my house there is a military base,” she said. “The other night they were bombing constantly from 4am. We were so afraid, so I took the kids and I fled.
“My husband is still there. I start crying every time I think of that. I am so afraid for the children and the men left behind fighting.”
So far the more than 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine, in what the UN has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Second World War.