You wouldn’t be human if the news from Ukraine did not affect you profoundly. Most people feel powerless in the face of such senseless aggression. Some decide that they need to do something to help. This is the story of the Algarve’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

WORDS Sophie Sadler

The association of Ukrainians in the Algarve has been mobilising people since the crisis began. Roman Pristay has been coordinating the donations of humanitarian goods at the Bombeiros in Lagos, with several convoys having already left Lagos with these donations. They also aim to reconnect refugees with family in the Algarve.

These efforts were observed by Luís Catarino, a volunteer firefighter and nurse. He decided he wanted to create a convoy to take medical supplies to the Polish – Ukraine border. His sister Sílvia Catarino is a teacher and the codirector of Aljezur International school. She told headteacher Karen Whitten that she wanted to go with her brother. Karen signed up for the mission as well! British expat Mum, Susie Keenan, who normally uses her van, nicknamed “red”, to do the school run, was also keen to join the 4000 km journey and started a GoFundMe page.

Luís Catarino
Karen Whitten
Susie Keenan

News of the endeavour soon spread, and the local community got behind the project, donating food, sanitary items, clothes and medical supplies to help refugees and those in Ukraine. I spoke to Karen ahead of her trip and asked her what she thought of the criticism that money would have been better spent giving to the leading aid agencies. “I totally see their point and ask that people still donate to these charities, but I honestly don’t think we would have received the response we did if we had just asked for money. All our kids and their families brought in donations, and I think people are more likely to donate money when they see a tangible example of where their it is going.” The school raised a staggering 15,000€ and will continue to raise funds to help Ukrainian refugees. They are even thinking about making the trip again.

Tomorrow magazine was happy to help and donate medical supplies from donations from their charity, TACT. These included syringes, Betadine, antiseptic spray, bandages, bandage tape, gauze, magnesium, soro fisiológico and cotton swabs. In total, TACT spent 1000€ from the charity, which is made up of generous donations over the last couple of years.

As well as those mentioned previously, other drivers on this humanitarian mission include Paolo Lourenço, Samuel Furtado, Pedro Bettencourt from the Funride Surf School and Nuno Rosado and his mother Isabel Gama, Ricard Batista, Arsen Gunda and Stuart Whincup. Of course, a 4000 km journey would never be without its problems. The surf bus broke down near Huelva, but the drivers managed to rent three replacement vans for a week, loaded all the boxes from the surf bus, and left it in a parking lot in Spain.

Roman helped to get official statements from the Câmara Municipal de Lagos and Humanitarian Aid stickers for the vans enabling them to cross borders unhampered.

Mykola Solovka

Local Ukrainians helped start a database of locals with family members who have crossed into Poland that would come to stay with them in Portugal via Ukrainian and Polish networks.

Ana Custódio, president of Junta Budens, helped the convoy with meals for the first few days and connected the group to people from Salema, Figueira and Budens whose relatives are in Poland. Expat mothers set to work packing up bags of donated clothes, sanitary products and kid’s car seats to give the refugees for their journeys to Portugal.

Local mother Lena Fenenko is helping with maintaining contact with the refugees during the trip. Lena has relatives in Nikolaev in Ukraine who can’t leave. She was born in the Soviet Union but moved to the Netherlands over 30 years ago, so she understands Ukrainian and Russian.

Mykola Solovka and Mariana Hunchak connected the mission to the network of Ukrainian vans, which will take goods to the western Ukraine and Kyiv area. The vans are driven across the border by women, as men are not allowed to leave Ukraine.

I can now report that the donations from the Aljezur school mission were successfully delivered, but they had to change their plan completely. The drivers were very tired after four days of driving, so they couldn’t reach the border by night. Mykola Solovka gave the team the phone number of the Ukrainian coordinator, Olga Vasiliv. She was a trainer at the Animal Gym in Ivano- Frankivsk (western Ukraine). After the war started, the gym organised a humanitarian aid hub in one of their gyms. Now she has a full-time job managing connections with bus drivers who transport people to Warsaw and helping Ukrainian organisations abroad to get their boxes to Ukraine in these buses. They managed to find a coach, which had brought refugees to Warsaw and could take the Algarve boxes to Ukraine. The drivers loaded all the aid onto the coach, which saved them a lot of driving time and energy required to return to Portugal safely.

One of the refugees Lena is in touch with is Kalina, a doctor, who escaped Ukraine with two teenagers. She has a husband and three older children in the army. Her sister just became a widow. After crossing the border, they were brought to a sports hall in Zielona Gora, far from the border, where they met the Algarvian van.

Karen is bringing back an 18-year-old student, her mother and grandmother. They have no family in the Algarve so Karen is giving the 18-year-old, who had just started a business degree in Ukraine, a job in the school.

Susie Keenan reported that she was extremely emotional after meeting the family she is bringing back to Portugal. They include a mother, grandparents, an 8-year-old and an 18-month-old. Their father is staying behind. They had spent 11 days in an underground bomb shelter before they made it to the Polish border. The street where they live has been destroyed.

Daria Vasilisa Anatolii
Pedro Samuel

For the return journey Samuel’s wife, Linda Puls, arranged a hotel in Akademiehotel in Dresden, free of charge, including meals, with another hotel donating rooms in France.

Meanwhile, in the Algarve, a group of Mums coordinated donations to create a pop-up ‘shop’ where refugees can go and select items they need. The space is kindly donated by the Mirage in Luz. The Mirage has also donated two apartments for refugees who need accommodation.

It is not surprising that the warmth and generosity of the Algarvians and expat community have gone to such lengths to help Ukrainians in what is a tragedy of enormous proportions. The convoy returned safely with 42 Ukrainians. For the refugees who are no doubt traumatised and emotional, the one thing they can be sure of is a warm welcome in the Algarve.

You can still help:

If you have items for the pop-up shop, including clothes, toiletries and toys, contact Faye Keeling +351 918 399 965 or Zoe Valetta +351 964 134 759

There are enough warm clothes and blankets at Bombeiros. They need medicines, first aid kits, tourniquets to stop bleeding, as well as sleeping bags, flashlights with batteries, power banks, and of course, baby food and diapers, which can be delivered every day between 6 pm & 8 pm. They also need money to organise new convoys to the border, which is quite expensive.

The Municipality of Lagos has programmes for the refugees and a special page on their website:

For food, hygiene products and medicines, contact Lagos Refugee Support Line: 965 898 776

For rooms, apartments or houses, fill out this form

For the integration of the refugees, fill out this form (especially if you speak Russian or Ukrainian).