In Ternopil, a city west of Kyiv, Andy Roman, ‘21, helps refugees into a van that sits 14.
Entering the van are women, children and some elderly. One of the women in the van says her husband was killed, her home destroyed by the constant bombings in Irpin. Another onboard says he was “the last one alive in his family,” not shedding a tear.
He doesn’t speak Ukrainian, but Roman says the stories told by those leaving the country that he can understand are heartbreaking.
His van is one of three in a caravan driving droves of people over three hours away to Krakovets, a Ukrainian city bordering Poland.
“Long days, probably like 13 hours of driving every day,” Roman said.
Each time he returns to the city, his van is filled with the supplies that have bottlenecked in Poland—canned foods, antibiotics, insulin and other life-saving materials. Although these donations have been crucial to survival in Ukraine, there are few drivers willing to bring the supplies into the country amid the indiscriminate Russian bomings that have left thousands dead and more without homes.
“While I was over there I saw what they needed most,” Roman said. “There was an abundance of supplies at the Polish border but that was a bottleneck and there weren’t enough transportation or drivers to bring them into Ukraine.”
Roman’s family is Ukrainian. They live in Kyiv and a southwestern city called Chernivtsi. He had visited their country many times before Russia’s invasion turned its neighborhoods in the east into war zones. When the war began, he worried immensely and knew that he had to meet with his cousins as soon as possible.
“I was worried about my family over there,” Roman said. “I really couldn’t just share links on Facebook.”
Three weeks into the war he arrived in Europe, ready to return to the United States with his cousins. But when his cousins were drafted to fight off the invading Russian forces, the family decided to stay in the country. Roman, despite having planned to leave through Romania, stayed in the country with them.
“They’re stubborn,” Roman said, half-joking that the draft was not needed to keep Ukrainians fighting.
Roman’s cousins are fighting somewhere in the country, their locations are currently unknown to him. All he is permitted to know is that they’re not on the front lines.
In the Czech Republic, looking for ways to help, a stranger from a Ukrainian church group handed him the keys to a van that has since driven hundreds of women and children west of the Polish border and thousands of supplies into Ukraine.
“I met up with them, complete strangers. By the grace of God,” Roman said. “They handed me the keys to a van and said ‘take this to Ukraine.’”
The roads of western Ukraine are rough, Roman says.
“The drivers are crazy. People will split lanes and pass you with oncoming traffic. You just have to move over for them,” Roman said.
His van is painted with big red crosses. If late at night, Polish border patrol removed him to inspect the vehicle. It’s much harder getting people into Poland than it is getting supplies into Ukraine.
“What’re you going to bring to Ukraine that it doesn’t already have,” Roman said.
There are no Russian soldiers positioned in western Ukraine where Roman and his fellow volunteers drive. He isn’t afraid of being shot at, but the threat of bombing looms over all Ukraine.
“They’re bombing the whole country,” Roman said. “No where in the country is safe. Putin’s a madman—he’ll bomb a city if it hasn’t been bombed before.”
“It’s a roll of the dice,” Roman said. “It’s like getting hit by lightning—maybe a little bit more likely.”
Churches have networked throughout Ukraine to distribute supplies. When he returns to Ternopil from a day of driving, he sleeps side-by-side with other volunteers and refugees in the sanctuaries of these churches. Where the City Church of Ostrava has relocated was once the lobby of an apartment complex.
After over a week of driving a van at over 80 miles per hour across western Ukraine, singing “Eastbound and Down” from Smokey and the Bandit on repeat, avoiding near bombings, sleeping in churches and meeting people he’d likely never meet again, he left Ukraine. Ternopil, the city which sheltered him, was bombed shortly after his departure.
Roman has been home for three weeks. On returning home, he worked with his mother to create a non-profit, “ukrainianpeace.org,” to help buy more vehicles to transport supplies from the Polish border. Posters with a QR code have appeared around Florida Southern’s campus. They’ve raised enough to buy one vehicle for $8,000 and on Monday, May 2, when he returns to the country, they will be buying a second for “moving supplies, moving people.”
While at home, he says he felt guilty.
“When I first got home I felt really guilty,” Roman said. “I think about my cousins, who are younger than me, who live there every day.”
When he returns to Ukraine, it will be for three weeks, “depending on what happens,” he says.
On arrival, he will be transporting 180 bulletproof vests donated by the Martin County Sheriff’s Office into Kyiv, the closest to the front lines he has been so far.
“I’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there, to do what they say can’t be done,” Roman said, quoting “Eastbound and Down.”
Before the war, Roman planned on finishing his MBA at Florida Southern.