‘You saved our lives’ Ukranian families tell WALK staff
FOUR Ukrainian families with children with disabilities arrived in Ireland last night, after being collected from the border between Poland and Ukraine by staff from WALK – the Walkinstown Association for People with an Intellectual Disability.
WALK’s CEO Joe Mason and director of day supports Kevin Power set off for the border last week, initially with a plan to collect two families fleeing the war-torn country.
During their journey to the border, they received contact from two other families with children with intellectual disabilities in Ukraine, who asked if they too could be part of the WALK convoy back to Ireland.
The families had to make their own way to the border before meeting Mr Mason and Mr Power in the Polish city of Lublin last Sunday, where the two men also dropped off donations of essential items to be brought into Ukraine.
“Two of the families actually got out of Ukraine on Paddy’s Day, which was quite poignant,” Mr Mason told The Echo.
“They were sending us emails saying they were out, and happy St Patrick’s Day.
“The first family we met, we met them in the carpark of a shopping mall in Lublin.
“I was wearing a hi-vis with ‘WALK’ on the back, so we could be identified, but the family thought we were security guards.
“We went over to them and the mother said she was waiting for Joe. I said, ‘I’m Joe’, then she looked away and started bawling crying, and I started bawling too.”
Last Sunday, the two WALK staffers collected the four families and a therapy dog. Three of the families – consisting of six adults and four children – were brought to Ireland in the WALK minivan. The fourth family of two adults and two children followed behind in a car. The children in the convoy ranged in age from six- to 14-years-old.
The families’ escape from Ukraine, and their subsequent transiting through Poland, France and the UK, was also assisted by Senator Mary Seery Kearney, who provided a letter of comfort to help the families pass through the different jurisdictions.
Support was also provided by the Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Disability, Anne Rabbitte, Adam Harris from autism charity AsIAm, and Catherine Kelly from WALK.
When Mr Mason spoke to The Echo on Wednesday afternoon, he was in Wales with his colleague and the families, waiting to board the ferry to Dublin to complete the final leg of their journey.
“We have secured temporary accommodation for them when they arrive,” said Mr Mason. “Cheeverstown House gave us two unoccupied two-bed houses for a couple of months until we figure out what the next step is.
“We also have two holiday homes rented in Wexford for the two other families.
“It’s all temporary housing, but it will give them space to breathe, and to grieve the loss of their families, their homes and their country.”
Looking ahead to the families’ arrival in Dublin later that evening, Mr Mason said: “I think it will be bittersweet for them, because not one of them wanted to have to leave Ukraine.
“All of them have left family behind. But I think there’ll be a sense of relief and trepidation when they arrive.”
Mr Mason also commended the families’ actions in making the perilous journey to the Poland-Ukraine border and safely navigating their way through such a hostile environment.
“When a man from one of the families thanks you and cries and says, ‘You saved our lives’,” said Mr Mason, “we’re saying, ‘No, we haven’t, you saved your own lives – we’re just giving you a lift to Ireland’.”