Lights go off. Sirens go on. Suddenly, the thundering sound of bombs disrupts the silence of cold nights in the makeshift shelters of Ukraine. This is what war sounds like. Life in Ukraine has dramatically changed since the Russian war of aggression in February last year. For many Ukrainians and their families, this has meant escaping home, losing a dear one, or crossing a border and leaving everything and everyone behind.
These struggles haven’t gone unnoticed in Europe, triggering an unprecedented chain of solidarity. Alongside the unwavering support of the European Union to Ukraine, people across Europe have provided a stream of ceaseless help to those trying to survive in the war-torn country and to those seeking shelter in our Union.
Here are nine inspiring examples of Europeans helping overcome the sound of war with the sound of hope.
Poland — Pushing solidarity beyond the granted
This is one of the most striking symbols of the first days of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine: prams and pushchairs left at the Przemysl train station in Poland, just a few kilometres from the border with Ukraine. Beneath that photo lies the story of Polish women triggering a solidarity chain to help vulnerable Ukrainian mothers in the most critical moment of their life.
Left with their infants, a lot of uncertainty and not much else, these mothers had to hop into trains and buses to escape death and protect the babies. Word of mouth spread quickly across Poland. Soon, border crossings and train stations across the country were flooded with dozens of baby carriages. A standard fixture in times of peace, a precious aid for those left navigating foreign places and frosting cold.
Romania — The bridge of hope
For many Ukrainian children crossing the border to Romania with their mothers, the wooden bridge at the border of Sighetu Marmației meant not just reaching safety. Many Romanian women and young volunteers poured in to welcome them with warm clothes, meals and toys.
So far, schools in the EU have welcomed 750,000 children from Ukraine. Sighetu and these toys on the bridge are here to remind us of the efforts sprung across Europe to help children reclaim their lost childhood and fill a void difficult to bridge.
Bulgaria — A ray of light in dark times
Russia is cutting off Ukrainians from water, electricity, and heating in the coldest months of the year — marked a new chapter in an already cruel war. To these deliberate acts against civilians, Europe stepped in to keep houses lit and warm. The EU is delivering 5,400 power generators, and people from across Europe also stepped up to bring light back. Like Manol, a publisher and translator from Plovdiv in Bulgaria, who managed to trigger an unforeseen chain of solidarity and strike a match of hope in the darkest days of the Russian aggression.
Manol launched a crowdfunding campaign, which raised over 250,000 euros used to buy 100 portable electric generators to assist the most affected areas of Ukraine, from Kherson to Odesa. The tide of solidarity was so overwhelming that Manol had to extend the campaign and let the stream flow. Eventually, the contributions of 30 thousand Bulgarians helped families, schools, and businesses reclaim a sparkle of normality.
Germany — Solidarity on four wheels
One year in, the pictures of destruction caused by Russia’s deadly strikes keep punctuating the rundowns of news bulletins. The EU has stepped in to support Ukraine in dealing with the consequence and the reconstruction efforts. However, when critical skills can make a difference, every help counts, like the one offered by a group of German craftspeople, who decided to put their skills to work and teamed up to launch Tolocar.
The team has travelled across Ukraine on their converted vans to support the reconstruction efforts with their tools, knowledge, and work force. Their ultimate goal is to help Ukrainian communities improve housing for internally displaced people and create spaces for learning and gathering. By leveraging the mutual aid spirit imbued in the Ukrainian word ‘Toloka’, these craft workers have brought the prospect of recovery one step closer.
Poland — Solidarity without barriers
Fleeing from war is always a tough choice. For families of children with disabilities, it can prove almost impossible due to the challenges faced by their loved ones, from round-the-clock care to mobility hurdles. When Ukrainian families began arriving in Poland, Krystyna was aware of the challenges they might have encountered. Thus, she mobilised her solidarity network to provide these families with the required assistance and solace.
With four other Ukrainian mothers of children with disabilities, who left the country before the war, and a Russian mother and special education teacher, Krystyna founded Stowarzyszenie Patchwork to help families like theirs settle in Poland. In the first months of the Russian aggression, they stepped in their effort and managed to help more than 50 Ukrainian families fill out the necessary paperwork and find adequate housing, special education, food, long-term therapy, and financial sustainability. Their volunteer activity soon transformed into a full-time job, whose success has relied on the support of many families with disabilities and organisations ready to prove that there is no barrier too high for solidarity.
Ireland — Solace in a book
There are few experiences as traumatic as being forced to flee home, family and friends, especially for children. That is why Finish Ukrainian living in Ireland Marja-Kristina helped Ukrainians seeking protection in the country.
Together with several friends, she sourced a collection of children’s books from Ukraine which was donated to several libraries around Ireland with the help of Old Lion Publishing House / Starylev in Lviv.
Edel, Marja’s friend, a lawyer by profession and a mother of two young children, thought, “What brings my own children joy and comfort?” Their love of books immediately came to her mind. She set up a fundraising campaign and contacted Fundacja Powszechnego Czytania, an NGO in Warsaw, Poland, and the library in Lviv to acquire Ukrainian children’s books, now 750 currently being distributed throughout Ireland to libraries and Ukrainian community action groups.
“The experience of war denies a child a sense of safety and can cause severe trauma and distress,” says Edel. “Reading books in their own language can be an important tool to help build the healing process.”
Italy — Driving solidarity
As packed trains and buses were leaving Ukraine to reach the border, people from across Europe began driving towards it, in a seemingly opposite direction, trying to rescue many of those looking for a safe place. This was the initial plan of Daniele. However, once he arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border to drive them back to Italy with him, Daniele realised a single journey wouldn’t be enough.
Last March, the Italian hospitality professional with experience in humanitarian aid organised a group of cars to help Ukrainians reach Italy safely and bring primary goods to help the populations at the border. In their 3,000-kilometer journey, Daniele’s group eventually picked up a dozen people and drove them safely back to Italy. However, for him, the situation he witnessed left an indelible mark. One month later, Daniele decided to repeat the venture. Soon after, he did it again. As of this January, he has managed to undertake 12 journeys and is preparing for the 13th.
Poland — Unfolding the Net of solidarity
Since the early hours of the war, the Internet has proven to be a vital channel to organise support for those who had to flee. Instant message groups and social media pages immediately popped up triggering small and big acts of solidarity, from donations to housing to essential goods. When Polish IT student and researcher Witold saw many doctors offering free consultations online, he decided to build a website to help fleeing Ukrainians find free medical and psychological help.
Like in a Silicon Valley start-up story, he grouped a team of friends and created Lekarze dla Ukrainy (Doctors for Ukraine). The platform has allowed Ukrainian people to seek help from professionals by specialisation, location, and language. Now Witold and his friends, are thinking bigger. He is planning to extend mental health support services and offer doctors worldwide the opportunity of providing remote assistance to all Ukrainians.
France — Breaking the language barrier, building bridges of solidarity
Being able to communicate when you need support is critical. A group of Ukrainian expatriates from Alsace, in northeastern France, such as Ludmila and Ivana, understood that interpretation and translation are essential to help fleeing Ukrainian people find their way. From navigating the intricacies of a journey to Portugal to accompanying them in the apartments made available by the local authorities, the presence of people who understand them and share common backgrounds and experiences provided certainty in uncertain times.