Magdalena Timmins could not sleep on the second night of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At home in Bradford, the 31-year-old received horrified texts from relatives in Poland. Her birthplace, the small border city of Przemyśl, had become the frontline of a growing humanitarian disaster as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fled Vladimir Putin’s bombs.
In a message to the Facebook group “Polish mums of Leeds”, Timmins appealed for donations to send to those in need 1,300 miles away. Within hours, her plea had spread across Yorkshire. By Monday, she had raised a multinational army of volunteers and received enough clothes, bedding and medical equipment to fill three 26-tonne lorries.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Timmins, in a living room filled with mountains of boxes and bags destined for Poland. On one box, a child had written in Polish, beneath love hearts and a rainbow: jesteśmy z wami – “we are with you”.
Members of Timmins’ Facebook group were on Monday spearheading the collection across Yorkshire: “Alicja and Jagoda in Leeds, Kamila in Wakefield, Joanna and Dorota in Doncaster, Anna in Bradford,” said Timmins, insisting that they are all credited in this article.
Similar efforts have sprung up across the UK in response to the horror in Ukraine. The Yorkshire operation mobilised so quickly that they soon ran out of space. On Sunday a local farmer, Andrew Nicholls, 58, stepped in and offered three huge barns for storage and sorting.
Nicholls’ family have owned the farm in Barwick, on the outskirts of Leeds, since 1935. On Monday it was filled with about 20 volunteers, including some who arrived in the UK only 15 years ago, as it became the centre of a huge collective effort between local communities. The first load of essential supplies, including camping beds, first aid kits and sleeping bags, is due to leave for the frontline on Tuesday.
“It started as a Polish community thing, but it’s just spread. It’s overwhelming,” said Rachel Hall, a nurse at Leeds general infirmary, sorting donations she brought from the hospital. Hall, 46, said she had previously been involved in hospital charity appeals but “this is tenfold: it’s massive. I can’t go out and fight or be a nurse, but I can come here and do this.”
Wrapping boxes of bedding, Roksana Pazdzione, 39, said she had got involved after seeing Timmins’ appeal to Polish mums. “It’s usually mum life, childcare, milk, job applications,” said Pazdzione, a nanny.
Agne Rucinskaite, 42, said she had felt utterly helpless before she saw the Facebook appeal. Her parents in Lithuania had packed emergency supplies in case they are next to be invaded, she said: “If everyone would do a tiny bit [to help] the world would be a better place. My children are very proud because English is not my first language.”
Timmins, who runs a freight business while looking after her two-year-old son, Ethan, broke down in tears while reading the messages written on donation boxes by local Polish children.
If there was a silver lining to the catastrophe in Ukraine, she said, it may be that it has brought together communities from across Yorkshire: “Eastern Europeans are always perceived as the people that come to this country, steal the jobs, and we tend to get a bit of a bad press.
“We were not very welcome when it all kicked off with Brexit, [but] everybody’s got together. We are a unit now. It’s brought solidarity throughout the whole eastern European communities and the British people living in the UK. We are not just people separately – we’re together at this moment of time.”