Ukraine aid: to Chelm and back

Ukraine aid

The stories and images of war in Ukraine have shocked people across the world. They have also inspired people like Ian Cochrane to act.

Ian’s family runs Cochrane’s Funeral Directors in Shotton Colliery, Durham. He and a group of four others not only delivered a coachful of aid directly to people fleeing the war, they also ferried a group of refugees to safety in Belgium.

Ian explained: “We operate Cochrane’s Coaches alongside our funeral business. Earlier this year, some friends of ours from Teesside delivered aid to Ukraine. We were inspired by that example and decided we’d do the same.”

Four people volunteered to join Ian. They included his friends, John Cunningham and Gary Chisholm, as well as his brother-in-law Jason Crawford and a local acquaintance, Robert Garside, who speaks both Russian and Ukrainian.

Along with family, friends and colleagues, they set about gathering donations. Ian said: “We planned to fill the coach with aid – medical supplies, food, pet food, water and so on. In fact, anything we thought the refugees might need. In the end, we managed to fill the luggage compartment underneath the coach, and the best part of the inside.”

The group set off on Easter Sunday and took an overnight ferry to the Netherlands before driving straight to Chelm in Poland, where they arrived at 4am. Ian said: “We checked into a hotel and the next day dropped the supplies off at a warehouse before driving to a local refugee centre. However, that base was relatively quiet so we travelled another three hours to Przemysl in south-eastern Poland.”

Reaching that centre, they were taken aback by the number of people helping out. “One lady had set up pizza ovens and was handing out food. A vet had set up a tent to look after people’s pets. And one guy went there every day to keep people active and entertained. It was a real eye-opener.”

There they picked up 31 grateful refugees and two pet dogs. A 22-hour journey began to transfer them overnight through Poland and Germany, into Belgium and a clearing centre in Brussels.


The refugees were mostly women and children, but included a few men and some older people. “Initially, they were very quiet,” said Ian. “The young children seemed wary. About an hour into the journey we started handing out drinks, snacks and colouring books for the kids. We began to get some smiles and thumbs up. Luckily, two young girls spoke English. Between them and Robert we were able to communicate with everybody.”

According to Ian, the whole journey was straightforward. There were no hold ups and the roads were good for the most part. Fortunately, they did not have to enter Ukraine and so avoided any of the fighting.

However, security had to be tight. Sadly, some refugees have been exploited by traffickers. He said: “There were checks at every border and when we stopped for a break we made sure we kept an eye on everyone who was with us. We felt safe the whole time. In Brussels, we took everyone to a centre where they would receive more help before going on to temporary homes or to live with volunteer families. Needless to say, they were really grateful. A couple of the men came over and shook our hands and said that they couldn’t thank us enough.”


The trip took two weeks to plan. “We had a busy fortnight collecting supplies from different places,” said Ian.

“There were donations from the coaches’ side of the business, as well as from families who we’d conducted funerals for over the years. Local businesses gave generously and we secured donations through a GoFundMe page. Gary is a director at Stagecoach Northeast and they donated a tank of fuel to get us underway, while Gardiners Holidays joined us with their own coach on the journey. It was quite overwhelming and without everyone’s help it would never have happened.”

The efforts to help people from Ukraine may not be over. Ian and his friends still have some funds remaining and have not decided what’s next. “We may go again, but with the intention of bringing people back into the UK.”

Meantime, he reflected on the lessons he’d learned. “It was a fantastic experience, but it also made us realise how lucky we are. When you see people walking out of a building with their life’s possessions wrapped up in a carrier bag, that’s when you count your blessings. After pulling into the refugee centre to pick people up we looked at each other and thought, ‘This is real’.

“Later, when we dropped the group off and set out to catch the ferry at Rotterdam the journey took place in silence. We couldn’t speak, but were pleased that we’d achieved what we’d set out to do.”

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