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 arrive in Spain where her sister lives.
Then she heard about a convoy of Madrid taxi drivers who had come to Poland to bring aid and transport a group of 135 Ukrainians from a refugee center in Warsaw to Spain.
“These are our heroes,” Trach told AFP outside a church in central Madrid where the convoy of 29 taxis arrived in the early hours of Thursday after an epic five-day journey, to cheers from well-wishers gathered at the ‘outside.
Most of the 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’m going to look for work now to have money to help my country and my family,” said Trach, an orphan who left her grandparents in Kyiv where she worked in telesales.
She spoke in Spanish, which she learned as a child during a three-month stay with a family in Spain.
The convoy, which included two drivers in each taxi who took turns driving, left the Spanish capital last Friday for a 6,000 kilometer (3,700 mile) round trip.
For many, like Olha Shokarieva, 46, who fled the capital Kyiv with her 15-year-old son, the departure was a bittersweet experience.
“I am here only with my youngest son. My husband is now in Kyiv and my eldest son is in (the western city of) Vinnytsia, they are staying there and fighting,” she said in English.
“We no longer know if we have our home and we don’t know what our future is.”
After crossing Europe together, many drivers and their passengers hugged and cried as they said goodbye.
– “Lives have changed” –
The idea was born out of a discussion among taxi drivers about the Russian bombardment of Ukraine as they waited for customers at Madrid airport.
When one of them suggested traveling to Poland to bring back refugees, several others agreed, said Jose Miguel Funez of the Madrid Professional Taxi Federation, which coordinated the operation.
Soon dozens had signed up.
“The response has been incredible. We didn’t expect this,” Funez said.
Javier Hernandez, who brought a couple and their 12-year-old son, said he ‘couldn’t sit still’ after seeing images of children and women fleeing the bombings.
When they first left, the refugees were at first overpowered, refusing to come out when the convoy of taxis stopped for breaks, but after the first day they were “hugs us, were joking,” the 47-year-old said.
“In just one day, their life changed. It’s very emotional. It’s really nothing, it’s just rolling for a few days, that’s what we do in Madrid.”
Organizers estimate the operation cost around 50,000 euros ($55,000), mostly in fuel and toll fees, with funds raised through donations, mostly from fellow taxi drivers.
“Our people are amazing,” said Jesus Andrades, 38, one of the coordinators who transported three young Ukrainian girls.
“Some taxi drivers’ children even gave the money to their piggy bank.”
– “Let’s do our part” –
Madrid taxi drivers have a long history of providing crisis assistance.
During the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed nearly 200 people, taxi drivers rushed the injured to hospital.
And when the Covid pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, they sent doctors door to door or took the sick to hospital.
“We’re regular people, and at the end of the day, I think regular people help more,” said Hernandez, who lived on the streets for more than a year after feeling depressed following his divorce.
More than three million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24, with Poland taking the bulk, according to United Nations figures.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid helped select the refugees for the convoy.
Like other drivers who took part in the convoy, Nuria Martinez, 34, said she was ready to hit the road again to pick up more refugees.
“There’s nothing you can do to help you sit at home on your couch. We all have to do our part,” said Martinez, who brought home a mother and her two-month-old baby.