5 September 2022


Blog, Media Updates

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“International Charity Day was established to raise awareness and mobilise individuals, non-governmental organisations and all those involved in helping others through voluntary and philanthropic activities. The date of 5 September was chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 ‘for her work in overcoming poverty and distress, which are also a threat to peace’.” United Nations

The Ukrainian war may not be making the headlines as much as it used to, but it is not over yet. Theodore Tran, a RHEA Group Software Support and Development Engineer, is in Poland at the Ukrainian border. He has only one thing in mind: to be useful and help people. This is the second time he has been there.

In this exclusive interview, Theodore talks about his feelings, his fears, his project and how the rest of us can help.

How are you helping people there?

In France, I first contacted people about first aid supplies, but most of the work was ‘door-to-door’. I went to every town hall to tell them what we needed, and collection centres were soon organized. Then we drove 48 hours without stopping, from the South of France to Lublin. That’s more than 2,000km.

The first part of the mission was to bring goods to a storage area near Lublin and to the French embassy drop-off point, and to bring 60 people back to France in host families.

Then five of us stayed behind to coordinate the effort between the volunteers, the Polish and French administrations and the refugees, to find the refugees transport to France and Belgium and a safe shelter where they would find work and support. What was very important and underestimated was our role in ensuring better coordination between the administrations and the volunteers on the ground. Thanks to us, nearly 400 families found a safe shelter in France and Belgium.

On the material level, we brought:

  • 135 tons of goods (food, hygiene, medical supplies, animal feed, etc.)
  • 70m3 of medical supplies, which were sent directly to the front line
  • Toys and basic necessities worth more than €700 that were sent to an orphanage in Lviv.

volunteers in ukraine

What made you want to get involved?

I really felt the need to help. I couldn’t do nothing. I am the son of an immigrant and my parents had to leave their country because of war, so I think that deep down I also had this need to experience what they went through and do my part.

Poland is the richest country bordering Ukraine, and the neighbouring country that is most capable of receiving and helping refugees. That is where people need help and donations.

Do you have a message for people who want to come and help?

Yes, of course. I think a lot of people think that their goodwill is enough, but it is not.

The conditions are difficult both physically and mentally. We must remind people that this is war. Even far from the atrocities of the front, the situation is still hard and extremely violent. Nobody is ready to face that, but some are better prepared than others. Good intentions are not everything. You also must be able to integrate into the existing team.

When helping in a conflict, it is important not to take sides. We are there to help human beings, there is nothing political behind it.

The biggest ‘wounds’ where we can provide support are often psychological. And that is already a lot, believe me. For physical injuries, I do not have any official training, but I know how to do first aid without any problem – I learned it at a very young age. But you are never ready for everything and once I had to give a tiny baby an IV; I will never forget that.

What do people caught up in this conflict really need?

In terms of donations, we received a lot of clothes, but clothes in such bad condition that they were useless. Many people show ‘false generosity’ by sending clothes with holes and tears that they no longer wear. Offering clothes to people in need is not about emptying your attic.

And we have had to turn down a lot of donations because, quite simply, we did not need the clothes at all! The first thought we had when we unloaded all the donations was “What are we going to do with all these clothes?” When you think about survival, you do not really want to change your jumper or find a new cap. We ended up with 18 tons of extra clothes. That is a lot. It is a waste when all this could help the homeless back home, for example.

If I had to make a list of what people really needed on site it would be:

  • Teddy bears for the children
  • First aid materials (bandages, compresses etc. – really the basics)
  • Underwear and socks.

Socks are very important but we do not think about them. In fact, it is almost the most important thing. It is what you change most often and yet nobody sends them.

Ukraine refugee shelter

What shocked you most?

What made me so angry was that I never saw any big NGOs. None of them were there. The big organizations are on the front line, they are where the press is, but not where they are needed. In the refugee centres in Poland, there were ex-military people, but also volunteers like you and me: bakers, mechanics etc.

One thing that was difficult was that in each town or village there were only women and children. Sometimes you did not even see a single man. As a result, there was a lot of mistrust towards us. We were never welcomed with open arms when we arrived and that is not what you expect. It was a strange feeling. You had to gain their trust little by little. You arrive there to help and to bring families to safety, but most of them do not want to leave or be helped. And that is sometimes very hard to accept and to see.

Did you feel in danger?

Yes, of course, several times. But I knew that would be an issue. We lost a lot of people at the beginning of our journey simply because they were not ready.

This is real life; you must not play the hero. You have to comply with the local authorities too, and that was sometimes complicated. The journalists, for example, wanted the best story, the best photo and the most exclusivity, but at the end of the day, they put everyone in danger. So we sometimes had to babysit them to make sure they did not take a wrong step or leave at night. Because once it gets dark, if you are on the street, you are a spy for the authorities. It is a huge risk!

What have you taken away from this experience?

For me, it was both a human and a personal experience that I cannot easily put into words. Everything seems to disappear and all that remains is benevolence – the desire to help. All that is left is the essence of human relationships without the superfluous elements. This may seem contradictory, but it makes everything simpler. In total chaos, in unhappiness, in poverty, even in death, human relationships become healthier. Simply put, that is what kept us together and strong until the end.

When I came home, I lay in a bath for hours, and then I realized what I had experienced. And this experience, I cannot expect someone else to fully understand it. So if anyone would like to go but is hesitant, understand one thing: you are much stronger than you think. I came back with a lot of doubts about my personal and even professional future, but it was a positive thing because I had evolved, I had learned to know myself and know what I am capable of. The encounters I made there I will never forget.

Maybe a better question would be “What allowed me to go?” and the answer is RHEA. I really wanted to thank Barbara [Puddephatt, VP Human Resources], André [Sincennes, CEO] and Julia [Castle, Operations Support Officer, Germany] for their support in this. Their support has touched me enormously and without it I would never have been able to do this. Without the support of those close to you, including your employer, it is almost impossible. I realized when I was there that RHEA allowed me to do things that most companies would not have done.

Video of the photo exhibition where Theodore exhibited some of his photos.

Theodore has returned to the field to join some of his team and continues to help people on the ground. If you want to read more about the project Theodore is involved in or contribute, you can find all the information here.