A COTSWOLD man who was due to take up a role in Moscow just as war broke out has instead been helping refugees on the Polish/Ukraine border.

Alexander Thomas, son of Poulton Hill Estate vineyard owner Max, is a fluent Russian speaker who has just finished his PhD at Oxford.

But instead of taking up a post-doctoral fellowship at Moscow University, he has instead co-founded the Kharkiv and Przemyśl Project.

Their work, in collaboration with MAD Foundation, is focused on providing support and humanitarian relief in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, and in the Polish city of Przemyśl, situated on the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Alex has been helping those in need everyday, while staying in a one-bed flat in Przemyśl that often sleeps five in a room.

"There is a chronic shortage of accommodation and we don’t want to take up any space which would otherwise be taken up by refugees, so there is a moral imperative to bunk up as much as possible," he explained.

He spends mornings ordering and collecting medical supplies before arranging ongoing delivery into Eastern Ukraine as well as buying suitcases and power banks ready to give refugees arriving by train.

"The trains are always full," said Alex. Four-person carriages often disgorge 11 people. As the eastern regions of Ukraine are now officially being evacuated, arrivals are now largely made up of people who have been on the front line since the beginning.

Refugees in Przemysl

Refugees in Przemysl

"They are visibly far more affected than earlier arrivals. Many are overtly suffering from PTSD. As they disembark I can see that they are shaking and dazed.

"Many have been stuck in Mariupol in basements for the past six weeks as bombing continued overhead.

"There are no trained psychologists to help them so we do our best, but it is extremely demanding emotionally and inevitably you know that your best is never going to be enough."

As Russian speakers, Alex and his team are in a unique position to offer help.

"We all have high vis jackets with ‘Translator’ on the front so we are easy to spot," he said.

"Often we will have a long queue of travellers waiting for our assistance.

Refugees in Przemysl

Refugees in Przemysl

"We often arrange and pay for their first night’s accommodation in the town, buying some time for recovery and for making plans before their journey starts once again. Sometimes we also buy tickets for their onward travel.

"At the back of our mind is the need to free up accommodation in Przemysl for the next trainload of arrivals so we are always juggling.

"The other key contribution we make to refugees is a very practical one: suitcases.

"People step off the train clutching what remains of their previous life, often in one large shopping bag, so we provide the cases so that they can continue their journey more easily and with more dignity.

"Every day we buy more suitcases and every day we need more. We buy as many as we can carry, 20 or 30 at a time, and they are gone in minutes.

"The other immediate relief we provide is power banks. Refugees are on the move constantly and need to communicate with loved ones left behind as well as to be able to plan onward journeys. Keeping mobile devices charged is vital.

"The Ukranians fleeing war are usually self-sufficient and know how to move around Europe, they just need the means of being able to do so. If we tell them which Apps to download and make sure they have power to be able to use their phones, they are resourceful and will often be able to do the rest themselves."

Alex explained that while there is a good supply of nappies, baby food and paracetamol, donations or power banks and suitcases are badly needed.

"Seeing elderly people who are immobile and in poor health is particularly distressing," he said.

"They have been forced out of their homes, are often on their own and have been travelling for days on end.

"When we see them they are often dirty, exhausted and traumatised, carrying their life in a plastic shopping bag. I find it unforgivable that they are being placed in this situation. It should never have happened.

"I can’t imagine my own grandmother being forced out of this country on her own.

"We have had a number of people with dementia arriving. Some don’t know where they are or why they are there. They are understandably very confused and disorientated. We don’t have dementia specialists on site so it falls to us to do our best.

"Everyone is helping each other and working together for the common good.

"We usually get back from the train station at 1am exhausted and drained. Sometimes we have a beer and catch up on social media but often we just crash out.

"It is emotionally tough – but the point is that the war is not over. Bombing continues, dying continues and the refugees continue to arrive. I don’t have time to think about myself until it’s over."

Alex will shortly be coming back to the UK to fundraise. He will be contacting luggage suppliers about large scale donation of suitcases. If you know anyone who could help please get in contact.

Poulton Hill Estate is hosting a drinks and canapés reception from 11.30am-2pm on Sunday, May 15.

Alexander will be there to speak about his experiences before he returns to the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Tickets can be purchased by donating a minimum of £50 per person on the KHARPP Just Giving page: justgiving.com/campaign/KHARPP. Include your name and Poulton Hill as the reference. You can also pay on the door in cash.