‘Our heroes’: Madrid taxi drivers ferry Ukraine refugees to Spain

With thousands of Ukrainians refugees arriving in Spain, a convoy of Madrid taxi drivers have taken a five day journey to Poland to do their bit.

'Our heroes': Madrid taxi drivers ferry Ukraine refugees to Spain
A translator speaks with Ukrainian refugees outside a reception centre in Barcelona on March 18, 2022. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

After fleeing the war in Ukraine and reaching Warsaw by car and on foot, 22-year-old Khrystyna Trach had no idea how she would make it to Spain where her sister lives.

Then she heard about a convoy of Madrid taxi drivers who had come to Poland to deliver aid and ferry a group of 135 Ukrainians from a Warsaw refugee centre back to Spain.

“They are our heroes,” Trach told AFP outside a central Madrid church where the convoy of 29 taxis arrived in the early hours of Thursday after an epic five-day journey, pulling up to cheers from well-wishers gathered outside.

Most refugees are women and children who, like Trach, already have family or friends living in Spain. With them were four dogs and a cat. “I am going to look for work now to get money to help my country and my family,” said Trach, an orphan who left her grandparents back in Kyiv where she worked in telesales.

She spoke in Spanish which she learned as a child while staying with a family in Spain for three months.The
convoy, which included two drivers in each taxi who took turns behind the wheel, left the Spanish capital last Friday on the 6,000-kilometre (3,700-mile) round-trip.

For many, like 46-year-old Olha Shokarieva who fled the capital Kyiv with her 15-year-old son, leaving was a bittersweet experience. “I’m here only with my youngest son. My husband is now in Kyiv and my older
son is in (the western city of) Vinnytsia, they are staying there and fighting,” she said in English. “We don’t know if we have our house anymore and we don’t know what is our future.”

After crossing Europe together, many drivers and their passengers hugged each other and cried as they said goodbye.

‘Lives changed’

The idea sprang from a discussion between taxi drivers about the Russian bombing of Ukraine as they waited for customers at Madrid airport.

When one suggested driving to Poland to bring back refugees, several others agreed, said Jose Miguel Funez of the Madrid Professional Taxi Federation, who coordinated the operation.

Soon dozens had signed up. “The response was incredible. We didn’t expect this,” said Funez.

Javier Hernandez, who brought over a couple and their 12-year-old son, said he “could not sit still” after watching images of children and women fleeing bombings.

When they first set off, the refugees were initially subdued, refusing to get out when the taxi convoy paused for breaks, but after the first day they were “hugging us, making jokes,” said the 47-year-old.

“In just a day, their lives changed. It’s very moving. It’s really nothing, it’s just driving for a few days which is what we do in Madrid.”

Organisers estimate the operation cost about 50,000 euros ($55,000), mostly in petrol and toll fees, with the funds raised through donations, mainly from fellow taxi drivers.

“Our people are amazing,” said Jesus Andrades, 38, one of the coordinators who transported three young Ukrainian women. “Some taxi drivers’ children even gave the money in their piggy banks.”

‘Do our bit’

Madrid taxi drivers have a long track record of helping out during a crisis.

During the 2004 Madrid train bombings which killed nearly 200 people, taxi drivers ferried the injured to the hospital.

And when the Covid pandemic hit in spring 2020, they ran doctors house-to-house or took the sick to hospital. “We are common people, and at the end of the day, I think common people help out more,” said Hernandez, who once lived on the street for over a year after becoming depressed following his divorce.

More than three million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24, with Poland taking the bulk of them, United Nations figures show. The Ukrainian embassy in Madrid helped select the refugees for the convoy.

Like other drivers who took part in the convoy, 34-year-old Nuria Martinez said she was ready to hit the road again to collect more refugees. “You can’t do anything to help sitting at home on your sofa. We all have to do our bit,” said Martinez who brought back a mother and her two-month-old baby.

With thousands arriving in Spain, it is now believed that almost 6,000 Ukrainians have already been processed and received temporary papers in Spain. The majority of arrivals granted temporary protection papers are in Madrid, the Andalusia and the Valencian Community.

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Ukrainian grain dodges Russian blockade to reach Spain via new route

A Ukrainian grain shipment arrived in Spain on Monday after being shipped via the Baltic Sea to circumvent Russia’s blockade, imposed following the outbreak of war, a Spanish association said.

Ukrainian grain dodges Russian blockade to reach Spain via new route

The Finnish-flagged cargo ship, the Alppila, carrying 18,000 tonnes of grain for animal feed docked at A Coruña port in northwestern Spain early on Monday, the Agafac food manufacturers association said.

It said it was the first time such a route had been used for Ukrainian grain.

Agafac, which had placed the order, said the grain had been transported by lorry to the northwestern Polish port of Swinoujscie on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

It then called in at Brunsbuettel in northern Germany before heading for Spain.

This is “the first shipment of grain to be transported via a new sea route through the Baltic Sea to circumvent the Russian naval blockade on Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea that has been in place since the war began,” Agafac said.

Contacted by AFP, a spokesman for Ukraine’s agriculture ministry was unable to confirm whether or not it was the first such shipment of Ukrainian grain to travel via the Baltic Sea.

“We don’t have information about transportation specifically to Spain. We deliver to Romania, Poland. This is probably the logistics outside Ukraine,” he said.

When Russia invaded on February 24th, it imposed a naval blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that has choked off its grain exports, threatening a global food crisis.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the world’s top producer of sunflower oil and a major wheat exporter, but millions of tonnes of grain exports remain trapped due to the blockade.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine is currently exporting more than two million tonnes of grain a month via rail but that figure is far below what it was exporting before the war via its ports, notably Odessa.

The United Nations and certain countries like France and Turkey have been pushing for the opening of a “security corridor” in the Black Sea to allow Ukrainian exports to resume.

At the end of May, General Christopher Cavoli, the incoming head of the US European Command, said Germany’s railway company recently set up a “Berlin train lift” — a special train service to move Ukraine’s grain exports.

He said Poland was working on a simplified border crossing regime to ease the deliveries, and once out of Poland, the grain was taken to Germany’s northern ports to be shipped onwards.