‘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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Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.