Hampstead teacher drives 3,500 miles in 8 days helping Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Rosa Cembrowicz with Mira

Rosa with Mira who had left her flat in Lviv at 4.30am that morning. She planned to return the following week for her nephew’s funeral. He was 22 and a soldier. - Credit: Rosa Cembrowicz

A Hampstead teacher spent her Easter holidays driving 3,500 miles around Poland helping mothers and children fleeing the Ukrainian war.

Rosa Cembrowicz's grandfather escaped Poland in the 1940s and came to the UK as a refugee.

On April 4 she flew out to Krakow, booked a hotel, rented a car, and drove 5,700 kilometres in eight days, returning on Good Friday.

Dinner with Marina, 82, granddaughter Jaroslava, 18 and Lena from Kharkiv

Dinner with Marina, 82, granddaughter Jaroslava, 18 and Lena from Kharkiv who hadn't eaten all day. Rosa's friend paid for them to go out for dinner in Krakow before their train to Karoslava’s Hamburg - Credit: Rosa Cembrowicz

"I was born here but got a Polish passport two years ago because of Brexit," said Rosa, a French teacher at Devonshire House Preparatory School, in Arkwright Road.

"I was particularly upset at the end of February when war broke out. A lot of us were crying at the news. The only thing that could make me feel better was to go out to Poland and help."

She contacted "long lost cousins and aunties", scoured websites and "put the feelers out".

She fell upon an article about a Women Take The Wheel initiative, set up by a Polish woman to support women and child refugees vulnerable to sex trafficking. 

Rosa with Valentina, Sasha, 5 and Lira, 12 from Kherson in the Donbas region.

Rosa with Valentina, Sasha, 5 and Lira, 12 from Kherson in the Donbas region. - Credit: Rosa Cembrowicz

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"All are volunteers with day jobs but I had the luxury of my Easter holiday so I just went out there and blitzed it, put a load of data on my phone for roaming, downloaded a few extra navigation apps, studied my Poland road map – and I'm a French teacher. I reluctantly downloaded Google Translate for Ukrainian thinking 'this is really embarrassing' but it was a real life saver, literally."

Rosa drove to Przemysl, one of the eight Polish/Ukrainian border crossings two hours away, passing German fire engines, huge humanitarian aid lorries and "convoy after convoy" of military aid tanks.

She used her Polish passport to register when she reached the border and to show soldiers in the car park.

Julia, 33 and Ksushka, 13, arriving at their hotel in Warsaw

paid for by Love Bristol who helped them with their UK visa application and accommodated them while it was processed for three weeks. - Credit: Rosa Cembrowicz

"The whole ethos of the initiative is that it's more reassuring to be driven by a woman if you are a woman travelling on your own with children, and you don't speak the language, you've just arrived and you're running off adrenalin.

"As the UN said, it's an opportunity for sex traffickers and you're vulnerable. You may not realise you're vulnerable but the girl guides running this humanitarian hub were really responsive and within half an hour I had some passengers."

She was lent a booster seat by a cousin in Krakow, and the Woman Take the Wheel initiative paid for her petrol.

Rosa taxied people and pets, including three poorly dogs to a vet in Warsaw.

Erik, 5, from Kharkiv

Erik, 5, from Kharkiv. Rosa drove him to a coach destined for Hamburg where his football club had arranged host families with Hamburg’s St Pauli football club - Credit: Rosa Cembrowicz

She took a young boy going with his football club to Hamburg, from the humanitarian aid centre to the pick-up point for his coach.

"Most people were en route to other places or they didn't have have a plan. The first family didn't have a plan and that was a bit of a shock to me, then I felt responsible for them and helped them find transportation to Spain.

"There was some public transport arranged but not at all times and not obviously going to all destinations. It's obviously nicer to be in a car with someone.

"Twice women got into my car and just burst into tears. One woman said her nephew had just been killed, who was a soldier. She'd come to Poland to see family and was going back to Lviv for his funeral the following week."

In a show of solidarity, she was learning Ukrainian on Duolingo for basic conversations, and put Ukrainian music they chose on Spotify. 

Sisters Inna, 29, Vovo, 9, Dawid, 5 and Katia, 25,

Inna, 29, Vovo, 9, Dawid, 5 and Katia, 25, from Khmelnytskyi and Kiev. When flights were looking too expensive and overwhelming, they started talking about returning to Ukraine so Rosa helped get them to Spain. Inna’s husband was fighting in the forest with his band of soldiers. - Credit: Rosa Cembrowicz

"My values are that it doesn't matter if you make mistakes or you don't sound like a native speaker. If you just make that gesture of a few words it goes a long way."

She added: "It was the smallest thing to do to help them with these small things – but also the biggest thing. It was a two-way thing I would say, helping people. I also got a lot out of it.

One half of Rosa's petrol receipts paid for her petrol with KzK's fundraiser

One half of Rosa's petrol receipts paid for her petrol with KzK's fundraiser – 5700km in eight days, two hire cars and £450 pounds of fuel. - Credit: Rosa Cembrowicz

"It was quite intense. I'd been sat down driving for so long on the last day I couldn't really stand up straight or walk properly. I did three point trips – Krakow, border, Warsaw – really long days, but the motorways were much better than England's so it was easier."

She added: "People have said they have stopped watching the news because it's too depressing but this is a positive thing. I had the time and the energy to do this but I really think anyone [without children] can do this.

"I don't want to say wing it, but wing it. With a mobile phone I felt so safe. As long as you have two chargers and a battery pack you can never be lost."

The school is hosting a Booster Bake Sale on May 6 for all year groups to raise money for Kobiety za Kolko.

To donate go to www.gofundme.com/f/WOTTW