Couple helping refugees at Poland border ‘had no idea it would be this horrific’

Laura Rice and her husband Ken travelled from Hampshire in their motorhome to offer assistance to war refugees.

15 March 2022

A couple from Hampshire who travelled to the Ukraine-Poland border to offer assistance to war refugees said “we have found it to be absolutely traumatic but absolutely rewarding in equal measure”.

Laura Rice, 62, and her husband Ken, 65, from Andover, decided to fill their motorhome up with donations before going to help people fleeing Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion.

Since then they have been working as volunteers at a refugee centre in the south eastern city of Przemysl, Poland, on the site of a former Tesco, where Mrs Rice said the temperatures have dropped as low as -7C.

Laura and Ken Rice travelled to Poland to help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine
The refugee centre in Przemysl, Poland (Laura Rice/PA)

“The smell inside the centre is unbelievable,” Mrs Rice told the PA news agency.

“The people walk around with absolute vacant looks on their faces – the mums sit there, and the children are pulling and pushing.

“For two or three nights it was -7C, felt like -10C. It was so unbelievably cold, you just feel so sorry for these people… standing, waiting for buses all over.

“It’s just adding to the woes of all these people.

“We had no idea it was going to be this horrific.”

Mrs Rice said the shop fronts within the building are numbered and divided up into rooms depending on where refugees are trying to go – a large room with a number 13 above it is designated for people with no destination.

The refugees, who are given a green tag to show their refugee status, then sleep in those rooms until they can find, or are offered, transport.

The pair have been turning their hand to whatever is required, with Mr Rice using his background in logistics work to help organise the flood of donations – the centre is inundated with donations but short on volunteers.

Laura and Ken Rice travelled to Poland to help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine
A pile of donations at the refugee centre (Laura Rice/PA)

“There was a clothing section, a medical section, a food section, so as stuff was unbundled I put it onto different pallets and transferred it,” he said.

“At least we started to get some sort of motion going with the stock, but there is a shedload of everything, whatever you want, whether it’s biscuits, toothpaste, toothbrushes, sanitary towels, nappies.

“I think there’s enough clothing there to re-clothe the whole of Ukraine. And that’s just one warehouse.”

Mrs Rice, who has been “doing the people side of things” said her husband has been a “huge help” adding: “I would walk in and suddenly you could see floor.

“We have found it to be absolutely traumatic but absolutely rewarding in equal measure.”

The couple have raised more than £5,000 through their GoFundMe page with the money going towards helping Ukrainians – they were preparing to help one woman they met with a flight before a distant relative came through with an offer of accommodation.

“It was almost like it was a child of mine,” said Mrs Rice.

“I just put my arms around her and I said ‘I’m so pleased, look after yourself, and if you need us we still do have funds’.”

Meanwhile, Mr Rice has been given the phone number of a man who is putting together medical supplies to drive into Ukraine who could also benefit from the donations.

“The war hasn’t finished, so we don’t have to spend it this week,” said Mrs Rice.

With nearby Yavoriv in the west of Ukraine being attacked, the couple have decided to relocate to Warsaw due to the concerns of their family.

“We promised our daughter specifically, who is battling with anxiety about this whole thing,” said Mr Rice. “We said to her, ‘look, if it really gets a bit tense, we’ll leave.’”

A sign at the refugee centre for people with no fixed destination
A sign at the refugee centre for people with no fixed destination (Laura Rice/PA)

The pair, who both work as directors at their son’s confectionery outlet, will distribute sweet treats in Warsaw before visiting more refugee camps and finding somewhere they can make themselves useful, heading home towards the end of the week.

And they whey wanted to extend their thanks to the people of Poland, describing their efforts to welcome Ukrainians as “amazing”.

“I go down on my hands and knees and say well done to the Polish people,” said Mrs Rice. “They have been so welcoming.

“It’s just absolutely amazing what everybody has done for the Ukrainians.”

To follow the Rice’s work in Poland, and to view their fundraising page, visit www.gofundme.com/f/direct-help-to-the-ukrainians.

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