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"I thought, I've got to do something. These people in Ukraine will need aid, I've got family in Poland – I can help"

Set up in just three weeks, United For Ukraine collects and transports essential clothing, goods and medical supplies to Ukrainian refugees in Poland and beyond.

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Ryk (bottom) with his team of volunteers.

United For Ukraine.

Henryk Matysiak (all 6' 6" of him) cuts an imposing figure as he walks across the floor of Milton Hall in Elsecar, a distribution centre used by the not-for-profit organisation United For Ukraine (U4U), to greet me.

"I'm sorry I'm late. It's not been a great morning – my shop got robbed today, but thankfully my staff are OK – that's the most important thing".

I find out later that Ryk’s concern for his people is an important driver behind his decision to set up and coordinate the day-to-day operations of U4U. My first contact with Ryk came about while donating some clothes, supplies and cardboard boxes in April, prior to helping 20 other volunteers with a bucket collection that raised over £2,000.

The lease on U4U’s Sheffield site expired in May, meaning they’re now reliant on the centre in Elsecar, thankfully well-stocked with supplies provided by the continued generosity of South Yorkshire folk.

We sit down in the kitchen and as the hubbub of box moving and logistical organisation buzzes around us, I ask Ryk what inspired him to set U4U up.

"I was in the fire service for 30 years and retired in 2013. I'm used to helping people in distress – it's just my nature. I've Polish ancestry, my mum and dad were Polish, and have family in Poland.”

"So, I was watching the news and like everybody else got angry about what was happening. The invasion of Ukraine started on the Thursday, and I initially wanted to go over and do something. I wanted to take up arms, but was stopped by my family. That said, I'm nearly 60 so they wouldn't have let me join up.”

"The reason I was angry was the Polish connection. The echoes of World War II were strong where a country can just invade another country and take over. I'd felt it previously with the Yugoslavia conflict in 1991 and wondered why the world didn't act back then in reaction to the genocide that was happening.”

"I thought: I've got to do something. These people in Ukraine will need aid, I've got family in Poland – I can help"

Ryk's initial thinking was to take supplies to Polish distribution centres himself, with the help of local newspapers and charity organisations.

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Some of the volunteers with United For Ukraine.

United For Ukraine.

"I put messages out on Facebook to see if anyone would help me just to fill up the van. I was inundated with offers of help, and I realised this was going to be big. I contacted friends from the fire service who were retired to see if they were willing to drive two or three vans to Ukraine, and they said yes. I thought, let's see where we can go with this.”

Critical to Ryk's plan was establishing a basecamp for the enterprise, acting as a storage facility for the expected high level of donations.

"I managed to get 15 small donation centres set up,” continues Ryk. “In just a few days the centres were nearly full, so I needed something bigger. We ended up with centres at the Alhambra Centre in Barnsley, this hall in Elsecar, Penistone, Stocksbridge and Sheffield. Within a week we'd received enough donations for two articulated lorries – I'm talking 30 to 40 tonnes of goods in each centre.”

"We also found haulage companies who wanted to help – one was delivering to Wakefield and going back [to Europe] empty, so they got involved to ship goods for us, initially for free, then for some funding. That covered three lorry loads.”

With all these hurdles overcome, the next stage of U4U's strategy involved ensuring that the supplies were provided to distribution centres in Poland and Ukraine. So how did Ryk ensure lorries were going to the right places?

"Initially we took two lorry loads of goods to my family in Tomaszów [a town in central Poland]. Two have gone to Gdansk, two have gone to Wraclow and two more to separate places that have storage space"

"We vetted the distributors in Poland to make sure they were bone fide,” Ryk continues. “When refugees arrive at the centres, prior to being sent to homes or families willing to take them in, they’re provided with a starter pack of items such as clothes, toiletries and food. There are free 'shops' there for them to take the things they need, and once that's done, they’re moved on.”

The scale of the refugee intake has placed a huge logistical burden on Polish officials.

"Each lorry we send carries between two and four thousand boxes of supplies," says Ryk. "Given that weight isn't an issue, we've provided prams, pushchairs and wheelchairs. We even took 15 hospital beds and an incubator machine to a hospital in Lviv.”

Some supplies have gone to the military on the frontline.

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A lorry leaving Barnsley for Poland.

United For Ukraine.

“Torches, batteries, first aid kits, water, candles,” says Ryk. “We have been very particular as to who we've sent kit to, ensuring we send what they've asked for. Jerry cans for fuel, generators for electricity, stuff like that. We do get letters and photos back from the frontline, so we do have evidence that it's getting to them.”

Nobody can predict how long the war will last. Some Ukrainian MPs and military experts think that a long-term war is the most likely outcome, as the might of the Russian military will continue to be offset by stubborn, dug-in Ukrainian defence. This could result in a war of attrition, potentially lasting years.

How do Ryk and his team take that into consideration when planning ahead?

"We initially started this in the winter, so winter clothing was key, but we've stopped that now as summer's here and we can ship something more important. Unfortunately, the war is old news now. It was top of the agenda. Now it's second or third.”

With the war now entering its fourth month, Ryk recognises the need to maintain the team's efforts in terms of fundraising and support. "We've just had a 'Rock 4 Ukraine' event in Barnsley which raised £2,500, plus there's a beer festival planned in August that we're looking forward to.”

"We also had thousands of school children provide us with shoe boxes containing coloured pencils, paper, sweets and personal messages. The notes have messages like ‘good luck’ and ‘please be my friend’. It's very touching."

How has Ryk coped with the sudden shift to becoming the driving force behind a humanitarian operation?

"As a firefighter for 30 years I worked my way up the ranks with all that entails: from the physically challenging sharp end of firefighting to mentally draining shift management. Physical fatigue is linked to mental fatigue. Everything drains you. For my first three weeks, my feet didn't touch the floor. Although I was in control, it was overwhelming"

The government approach to refugee intake has been (to put it mildly) sub-optimal. At the time of writing that UK has taken in 12,000 refugees – pitiful in the context of the 7.9 million who have been forced to flee Ukraine. Some have arrived in the UK though, and Ryk has already connected with Anton (not his real name).

"Anton had settled in Rotherham with family still in Mariupol. He approached me to offer his help, and straight away he got heavily involved. His focus was on bringing his family over though, and he mentioned about opening up a shop to help Ukrainians arriving in the UK. And he's done that – he's brought people over and he's doing that full time now.”

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Supplies being loaded into a lorry by United For Ukraine.

United For Ukraine.

As our interview draws to a close, Ryk tells me a story about his dad.

"As a kid during World War II, my dad was playing football in Tomaszów, Poland one day during German occupation when he was abducted by German soldiers and sent to a labour camp. He escaped five times. Every time he escaped, they re-captured him, beat him up and threatened him. The sixth time, he got away and was captured again, but this time by the resistance. They put him in the Polish army where he served in Italy as a tank radio operator. After the war, and now living in the UK, he became central to the Polish community in Barnsley. He was fantastic and made everybody welcome, regardless of background – a real community man. I don't think I can ever emulate that, but I'm trying in my own way.”

My thoughts turn back to Ryk's primary reaction of concern over the staff member caught up in the robbery that morning. It fits with a man whose immediate reaction to the invasion was to organise humanitarian aid, and inspire volunteers to help him with his cause, at whatever the cost. He is following in the footsteps of his father, and like him has become a real community man.

In a war that has seen the worst of humanity, people like Ryk show us the best. For him, and people like him, we should be very grateful.

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