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A McKinsey Company
A McKinsey Company
A McKinsey Company
Facilitators Dialogues
Voices and Choices
talked to Steven P. MacGregor
Facilitators Dialogues
Voices and Choices

It all started with a WhatsApp message. The funny thing was, it was as if I was expecting it.

I was riding my bike along the Carretera de les Aigües which overlooks Barcelona and had just got to the top of one of the main climbs when I decided to get off and take a photo. I positioned my bike against a pole which had signs of the destination pointing one way and another. I usually give a name to the ride or run I do for my training log, and the word that came to me in that moment was ‘choices.’ I then looked at my phone. There were no emails, no other notifications, just a single WhatsApp message from my friend Rory, which read:

“Have you got work this week? Want to come to Ukraine? Try to pick some people up. Leave some meds. Food. 24-hour drive.”

The spark that started it all. Bravo Rory Simpson.

I didn’t know what to think. I’m not sure that I made a conscious choice but what I did do next was cycle to Rory’s house – I was less than ten minutes ride away when the message arrived. Before I knew it, we were talking face-to-face before he set off for the Ukrainian relief centre on Las Ramblas. Before I knew it, I was messaging Ukrainian friends to find out what was needed and before I knew it, I was loading my car with boxes full of medical supplies and food at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for a 2500km drive across Europe. I’m still not sure if I made a conscious choice at any point – all my actions that morning simply felt like the most natural thing in the world, like placing one foot in front of the other. I talked to Rory about that morning when we were on the trip and he told me it was as if he wasn’t in control of his own body.

Our interactions with the local NGO would come to characterize our contact with dozens of people in the coming days. Fleeting, communicating only the essentials, but underpinned with an immediate and strong bond of trust. I vividly recall the images of the Orthodox Church, piled high with boxes, as Gala, the President of the NGO, relayed the basics – we were to deliver the supplies to a logistics centre near Krakow, Poland before driving on to the border with Ukraine to bring back women and children from a lengthy list of people who had requested her help. Who that would be was unclear, we would find out when we got there.

The nerves started to kick in later that afternoon after I told my family what I was planning to do. Look, I knew we weren’t directly entering a war zone, yet it was the unease of the unknown, and the yawning distance – across four European country borders – that I felt acutely.

My wife, Pamela, helped calm me down – and helped me pack. Included in my single backpack were items which she suggested and came to be some of the most important – some Paw Patrol and Avengers toy figures that my son donated and a printed page with some sentences translated to Ukrainian which described who I was. While I was focused on the logistics of the trip, she had the foresight to recognize the fear and unease that any prospective family would have before accepting our offer of safe passage. My Ukrainian friends had already told me of cases of human trafficking linked to the refugee crisis – there are no words to describe such depravity.

I slept poorly, knowing also it would be the best sleep I’d enjoy that week. The surreal feeling of the whole situation only heightened as I started the following day, Tuesday, as I always do, driving my son to school. Almost 24 hours later I’d still be behind the wheel.

There was a feeling of joy as the team of four of us met to start the journey – Rory Simpson, Brian McCarthy, Marta Rives and myself. We had coffee at Brian’s house who would travel in my car, with Marta travelling with Rory. We felt we were doing the right thing and were bound by a strong sense of purpose and commitment that would get us through the week. We were also buoyed by the support of our friends and family. I fielded several calls from my son’s school with offers of language translation, while one of Rory’s friends made a substantial donation to our fuel costs. We set off.

And we had a good time. We were in the cars for the next 20 hours, until a 5am arrival in Prague, but we had some laughs. On the telephone between the cars and in stops including the beautiful French village of Beaune. And I had some great conversations with my co-pilot Brian. With many hours to fill and kilometres to drive that great conversation kept my spirits high. Thank-you Brian.

These good times were absolutely necessary when fatigue started to set in. We had a late dinner at a McDonalds somewhere in Germany around 11pm and I think we all had the same doubts whether we’d make it to our planned stop, Rory’s friend David’s house in Prague.

The hardest part of my own drive, 0045-0330 on deserted dark roads somewhere between Eastern Germany and the West of the Czech Republic required every ounce of concentration. Yet there was still that feeling of being on a set path, calmy placing one foot in front of another.

Throughout the whole five days we only ever had a two to three-hour time horizon of the ‘known’. Anything beyond that horizon was unknown – yet we became comfortable with that ambiguity and uncertainty. As an example, we were 20 hours into our trip but still a long way from knowing where to deliver our supplies, who, if anyone we would come back with, even where we were sleeping the following evening. We simply went into every situation with an open heart and a healthy dose of patience, and discussed and decided as a team.

I woke at 8am to bright Prague sunshine, after a deep three-hour ‘crash’ in a sleeping bag. We remained in good spirits over breakfast and as I walked around a Church square filled with markets and smiling families afterwards, I thought about how similar it would have been to Ukraine just two short weeks before. We were then back in the cars for the six-hour push to Poland, perhaps slightly more subdued as we all realized the real mission was now only beginning – and we remained in the dark.

We were an hour outside Krakow when we started to see more signs of the conflict. Trucks large and small with a red cross or other sign of humanitarian relief came into view. A military plane was spotted taking off from the local civilian airport. Also convoys of military trucks. And more details, finally, of the next part of our ‘mission’ – a family of five currently staying in a one-bedroom apartment of a kind-hearted Polish woman who we were to take back to Barcelona. This precious piece of news sharpened our focus for the drive in.

I’ve been on several long, multi-day drives, mostly when driving home to Scotland from Barcelona for the summer. There is an immense sense of relief and accomplishment when something that starts out above 20 hours driving time ticks down to the last 20 minutes or so. We had arrived at the logistics centre in the town of Sawkina and offloaded our cargo, witnessing there the other face of supplies for the war effort.

Whereas the Orthodox Church in Barcelona was a collection of goodwill characterized by boxes of all sizes and handwritten signs here was a huge collection of shrink-wrapped pallets, mostly – sadly – of medical supplies and following the best example of supply chain excellence. The business face of war. Talking to Brian about this on the drive out he remarked that for every clean logistics centre with medical supplies and food, there would be an equally professional looking one filled with the tools of destruction and war. A sobering thought.

That night was the first, ever so slight experience of relaxation and celebration. We had completed the outward journey and delivered the supplies. Uncertainty and ambiguity remained – but we were now, in a way, thriving on that. We went for dinner in a traditional restaurant and had some delicious Polish Borsch and dumplings.

One important decision was made – this would be as far East as we would go. We were discouraged from going to the border with Ukraine. Too many people were going and causing bottlenecks with the Polish authorities needing instead to keep the huge volume of people moving. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. We had travelled so far, to help the people of Ukraine, and the expectation was that we would get closer to their land. But we had a very important mission starting the next day and we decided that was how we were supposed to help in our own small way. As the saying goes in Spanish: “nuestro grano de arena.”

Was our desire to go to the border our ego? A need to say we had travelled to Ukraine, and not simply Poland? Or was it a need to witness some of the human suffering, the evidence of war? After all, to date all we had seen was slight signs of conflict on the road and a full and very business-like logistics centre. Our walk to the train station changed all that.

City centre Krakow seemed business as usual. It was cold. I can still hear a street rapper moving through his repertoire, entertaining the travellers entering and leaving the station. The train station was warm. I saw the monitor with the arrival and departure information. We then turned a corner and my breath escaped me.

There were thousands of people covering every available corner and seat. Young and vulnerable. Old and exhausted. I imagined my own wife and son there alone. I thought of my dog and wondered where everyone’s pets were. And yet we also saw signs of hope and kindness. Hundreds of Polish volunteers, mostly teenagers, walking around with food and sweets, all smiling and keeping everyone’s spirits up. We were offered sandwiches too. I didn’t want to take any photos.

The next morning, Thursday, was bitterly cold and bright. After a few wrong turns we found the address where ‘our’ family was to be picked up. The mother, Angela, was there, but without her children and what seemed like the full local neighbourhood instead. They were all understandably nervous. I gave Angela the Ukrainian translation I had prepared in Barcelona. She read it intently, a warm smile spreading across her face before folding it carefully several times and placing it in her pocket. I showed her photos of my wife and son. Marta told her we would take great care of her and her family and gave her a warm embrace. Yet the Polish neighbours who had been harbouring Angela and her family since they helped bring her from the border were still unsure. They wanted more assurance and we agreed to all travel together to the local NGO a fifteen-minute drive away.

We spent all morning at the Wolno Nam Foundation in downtown Krakow. A ramshackle old building with crumbling walls and filled with kindness, food, love and laughter. I watched a man drilling a hole in the wall and hanging a painting. Were there higher priorities at that time? But then I remembered reading research on the value of paintings and music in reducing physical pain in hospital waiting rooms. I saw a sign for the WiFi password: “hope.”

I cannot put into words how impressed I am with the reaction to this crisis from the Polish people. Everyone we met gave everything that was required without expecting anything in return. Christian who took Angela and her family from the border to Krakow. Olga the translator. Ewa who provided a safe place in her home. And many, many others, especially the teenagers and young adults who have filled the pain of war with love. We have hope for a better world if this is the generation who will take us forward. In all, the generosity of the Polish people shines so brightly. Thank God for them.

We followed due process. But I think the greater value in those hours at the foundation was simply spending time together — the Polish neighbours, and current carers of the family, seeing that our intentions were pure. We answered any questions they had, then helped with lunch, and off-the-cuff translation requests – a bus was on the way to help from Barcelona and Marta helped the local volunteers communicate with that mission. We still weren’t fully sure if Angela had decided to come with us, or if the Polish neighbours would allow us to, when I received a WhatsApp from Angela to say they had prepared lunch for us back at their flat and were ready to go. The next and most important part of our mission was confirmed!

We left the foundation and drove the fifteen minutes back to where we originally met Angela, four hours before and with a significantly less frosty reception. We met the kids for the first time. Bright smiling faces and plates of Ukrainian Borsch set us on our way. I deployed the second most important items in my backpack after Angela’s letter – Rocky and Zuma from Paw Patrol and Captain America, all received gratefully in small hands.

We set off, with quiet determination, and immeasurably more precious cargo than the outward journey – mother Angela and Dani (10) who is in a wheelchair in Rory’s car and Emma (15), Dani’s twin brother Marc and Evelyn (8) in mine. Finding space in the cars was not a problem — each member of the family had just one small backpack each. I had the first driving shift and looked in my rear-view mirror after five minutes. Dani and Evelyn were fast asleep.

Day one of the return journey from Krakow to Nurnberg was quiet. Brian and I talked and laughed. We were in good spirits. Yet you wouldn’t have known we had any passengers such was the level of silence in the back. We were careful not to have too much distance between the cars on the road and let the family see each other on several safe overtakes and through toll stations. Brian ‘talked’ to the teenage girl via Google Translate text on his mobile device to find out a little more about them.

Towards the end of the first day back to Barcelona I was reminded of the great team effort I was part of. Brian had the wheel and I had the responsibility of finding us accommodation for the night. I first took some time to update my Instagram stories that I had begun upon leaving Barcelona. Within two minutes of noting that we were one hour drive from Nurnberg a good friend, London-based Joe Kealey, messaged me to say his brother Kevin was back in Nurnberg after several years in Asia. A couple of messages and ten minutes later and Kevin phoned me to say he had bought four rooms for us at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Nurnberg. A magnificent gesture.

The looks on the families faces when I opened their adjoining rooms and we bade them goodnight convinced me they were finally, and fully, relaxed. The two youngest kids even came to dinner with Rory, Brian, Marta and I in the Italian restaurant across the road without their mother. The way they said “Coca-Cola” with just the slightest grin, when asked what they wanted to drink with their pizzas made me think they weren’t normally allowed to drink Coca-Cola at dinner, and certainly not so late at night. They were soon exhausted and Marta took them back to their mother.

The next day was different from the quiet calm of the previous one, with lots of laughter and play. It felt like a celebration of safety. On the breaks we would find a play park or run in nature. Pretend chases, fighting, letting off steam and letting the kids run off their pent-up energy from several hours sitting in the back of a car. I remember racing the 10-year-old boy, Marc, back to my car at the end of one of the breaks (letting him win of course 😉 I ruffled his hair and he shot out his arm to give me a hug. I’ll never forget it.

Our final break was just over the border back in Spain, not quite four days since we departed, but four days as rich and full of human experience, emotion and energy as any I can remember. Heavy rain for the first time. It was the final push and the kids were in high spirits. We were going to cross the finish line with giggles and laughter.

We arrived at our destination, a Ukrainian family’s home near the city, just before midnight on Friday. No words. Brief. Heartfelt hugs all round.

And that was it. Brian went in to Rory’s car and we said our goodbyes to each other.

I drove the twenty minutes home alone, and wondered if it was all a dream. If it was, it was a very good one. And one I’ll never forget.

If you’d like to contribute to our fundraiser you can do so here. 100% of all funds collected go direct to Angela and the two NGOs who were instrumental in getting her out.

Want to read the sequel?