A few weeks ago, Professor Luke O’Neill and two friends sat in the lobby of a Krakow hotel full of Ukrainian refugees. A nine-year-old boy joined them at the table and made some drawings. He drew a map of Ukraine and wrote, at the bottom, “Number One Country”, and he drew a map of Ireland and wrote, at the bottom, “Friend”.
“It was very emotional,” says O’Neill.
O’Neill was there with his friends Dr Brian McManus and Fergal Murphy. They had just driven a large van full of medical equipment from Ireland to Poland on behalf of a group of Ukrainian doctors based in Ireland who run Medical Help Ukraine. The supplies were intended for Ukrainian doctors working in the war zone.
After Poland, O’Neill and his friend were to travel to Slovakia to see the depot from where DePaul International transports humanitarian supplies to Ukraine. The trip grew out of a discussion O’Neill had with his friend Mark McGreevy, managing director of Depaul International, about how O’Neill could use his profile to bring attention to the work being done there. . After being associated for two years with a pandemic, O’Neill now associated himself with another crisis. “It’s the worry, that every time I show up, people are scared that something is going to happen.”
That night in Krakow, O’Neill and his friends also met the sister, grandmother, and mother of their young artist friend, who is a doctor. Currently, many of the refugees are middle-class people who had the resources to leave, although those resources are dwindling. Aid workers told O’Neill they expect the next wave of refugees to be poorer.
“This little family… [The mother] knows this is going to be a while and they need to find accommodation as she was staying at this hotel. Her children needed schooling, just some stability… I asked about Ireland and she said it was too far… They preferred to stay closer. If they get the chance to go back, they’ll jump on it, but their building was bombed. Their house was destroyed and they left with two or three suitcases.
For Ukrainian doctors, O’Neill and his friends had received a shopping list that included first aid kits, tourniquets, bandages, anti-burn hydrogels, sterile burn dressings, gauze, cannulas and emergency aluminum covers. They had filled the van with the requested items donated by themselves, Irish pharmacies and hospitals, and with medical supplies already collected by Medical Help Ukraine.
“If the hospitals are bombed, it means that there is no more equipment… One of them told me that all the HIV drugs have run out”
“With food and hygiene, Depaul has a fundraising campaign to buy things locally,” says O’Neill, “but with medical supplies, it’s more complicated. We have to ship it…. There are no drugs, no insulin, no antibiotics…. If the hospitals are bombed, it means that there is no more equipment… One of them told me that all the drugs against HIV have run out. And this is a real danger, because it means that the virus can reappear. If you are a patient with a medical condition, your health is at risk because you cannot get your medication.
Two of the doctors behind Medical Help Ukraine joined them in Poland. One worked as a pediatrician in Holles Street. “She intended to take a child with a severe bleeding disorder out of Ukraine and back to Ireland…. They do that all the time by the way, there may be a child in one town who has a serious illness, and you take him to another town to give him the treatment…. They have already sent children to Crumlin who have childhood leukemia.
“So there was a child in Kharkiv with a severe bleeding disorder, which she was an expert on. The child was an orphan. So that created problems because obviously getting permission was a bit difficult. A lot of paperwork was required, as there was no parent or guardian to care for this child. She went to the border and her colleague, who is another Ukrainian doctor, general practitioner in Tallaght, said to me: “I have to prevent her from crossing the border, because it is too dangerous. I think she went to the border hoping that the paperwork would arrive and then she would continue her journey. But in the end, the paperwork didn’t materialize and they returned to Krakow.
O’Neill and his friends traveled to Depaul’s depot in Bratislava, Slovakia. Depaul is one of the few international aid agencies currently working in Ukraine, as it already had a long-standing network of hostels, shelters and staff there. “They realized their best business would be procurement. Normally [their focus] is homelessness, but because they had all these ties to Ukraine, they said, ‘Let’s organize humanitarian aid’…
“We met a lot of Depaul employees. Two of them had just come back from the border… And they were telling me about the mess… What really struck me was the hunger, which I didn’t expect, but all the supply lines are cut to Ukraine. Seven million people are displaced, then four million are out. The seven million Ukrainians are in dire need because they have nowhere to live.
Some of Depaul’s aid workers deal with their own traumas. Some had lost their own homes. O’Neill was told by an aid worker that the homeless Depaul previously helped were now volunteering and helping refugees. “Every time they come in [to Ukraine], they are afraid of being hit because the Russians are targeting these convoys. One of their trucks was taken.
The Russian military had its own supply shortages and was hijacking supply trucks. “And then the level of human suffering that [the aid workers] are witnesses is huge too. Talking to them was really sobering.
“For an army to invade a country in Europe and attack civilians and drop bombs on hospitals, that’s World War II stuff”
In Poland as in Slovakia, Ukrainian families – always composed only of women and children – were everywhere. Meanwhile, the people of these countries were convinced that Putin would not stop at Ukraine and that they could be next. And yet, normal life continued. People were going to work and stores were opening and closing.
“In several countries bordering Ukraine, life is normal, and a few hundred kilometers away, hospitals are bombed… That an army invades a country in Europe and attacks civilians and drops bombs on hospitals , it’s World War II stuff… I mean, watching a mother and a grandmother and two children sitting in a hotel lobby… Eleven million people are displaced from their homes. What have we learned over the past 70 years, really, if it can happen again? Maybe we’re not as smart as we thought.
Support the Depaul Ukraine appeal via Depaul.ie or by calling 1800 856 113 free of charge.