Six London taxis returned to the UK yesterday after transporting 28 refugees from Poland.
Matt Westfall and his 11-person team of working London Taxi drivers drove over 3,000 miles in 60 hours from Harwich, Essex to Chelm, Poland where they collected refugees to transport them inland.
Four drivers went to Berlin, one to Warsaw, one to Dunkirk and one to Dresden.
Three of the team shared their stories with South West Londoner.
London Taxi driver Matt Westfall, 52, organiser of the trip, Richard Gough, 60, owner of Epsom taxi rental service Eclipse Rent-A-Taxi, Andrew Fuller, 50, ex-London Taxi driver and owner of air conditioning company HVAC Hertfordshire.
It took 10 days from deciding to do the trip to completing it. They raised over £15,000 in the meantime.
Reflecting on arriving at Chelm, Westfall said: “These people have been on a 15 hour bus journey from the middle of Kyiv, where bombs litter the streets. Where you’re hearing bangs all the time while little children sit beside you.
“I can’t imagine what the journey was like, not for a second. Maybe I was expecting to meet people who had experienced famine, who were in rags. But it was people like me who lost everything in a flash.
“I’m not saying one is worse than the other, they are both are absolutely heartbreaking. But it was such a shock to see people like me.
“But I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to concentrate on driving for 21hours, safety was paramount. We said if anyone is tired we stop straight away.”
Saved by MacDonald’s
As they stepped off the bus an organiser called to the refugees: “Anyone to Berlin?”
A mother Marina, 34, and her child, Sima, 6, got in Westfall’s cab for another 13 hour journey. It was the pivotal point for Westfall.
Sima hadn’t eaten for 15 hours. Marina was very concerned. They had come from a bomb shelter in Kyiv where Marina had had to leave her mother and father. They were in their 60s, too old to leave Kyiv.
Lee Williams, a fellow cab driver with three kids, couldn’t drive due to an injury but begged Matt to let him help from the passenger seat.
Williams, a 6’4” man, bent down to Sima and said: “You alright little one? I know what all children like. Do you like MacDonald’s?”
Westfall said Sima’s eyes lit up. “MacDonald’s, Mummy?” she said in Ukrainian.
Marina looked to Lee as if to say don’t play games. But they stopped at the first MacDonald’s.
Westfall said: “Sima was over the moon. After a large drink and a meal she slept the 300miles to Berlin.
“She must have been seriously dehydrated because she didn’t go to the loo the whole time.
“She woke up with a huge smile and at ease. She loved my mate Lee.
“I believe that is what he was sent for. I’m not a great believer, I’ve been to church a couple of times in my life, but I believe he was sent for this little girl.”
Marina has a degree in english literature and speaks fluent English. Her mother is a nurse and her father is high up in the military.
Meeting a West Ham fan
A 13-year-old boy came up to Westfall and asked if Matt liked football and who he supported: “It was in very broken English, but better than my Ukrainian I can tell you that.”
Matt said West Ham. It was the boy’s team.
The boy said: “You have a player from Ukraine! Andriy Yarmolenko. I love him.”
Matt took the boy’s address and plans to get it to Yarmolenko, possibly by visiting the West Ham training room.
He said: “I want to tell Yarmolenko that this boy is out there and the first thing he asked us was your name.”
Waiting for UK visas in Dunkirk
In the back of Gough’s cab is a Ukrainian grandmother, 61, a mother, 38, and her two children, 8 and 4. They’re driving to Dunkirk hoping to get to the UK.
They recently bought a flat in Kyiv but cannot return.
The family have a visa sponsor in Notting Hill. They aren’t related, they connected on Facebook and the sponsor filled out the forms.
The VISAs aren’t secured but they hope they’ll come tomorrow. Once UK Government issues the visa they will get on a train from Dunkirk to Notting Hill. Gough is planning to wait for them in Dunkirk.
The father has asked Gough to visit him in Ukraine.
Gough said: “I am really, really honoured to look after another man’s family. It’s one less thing to worry about, knowing his family is safe.”
Lost in a forest in Dresden
Fuller took a Ukrainian mother and child back to Dresden in his large Transit van. He cried when he met them. The son was the same age as his son, and the mother reminded him of his wife.
He said: “If I was a man at war the first thing in my head would be ‘are my wife and child safe?'”
While the other taxi drivers were given the addresses of mainline train stations, Fuller was given the name of a cul-de-sac in the middle of a Dresden forest. The others had hotels pre-arranged, Fuller did not.
His passengers didn’t speak any English, and he said as everyone knows the English are too lazy to learn another language.
At 1am on Monday night, Fuller dropped an overjoyed mother at the house in the forest after a journey led by Sat-Nav. He had been driving from Warsaw since 7am.
He was lost in the forest.
Fuller said: “I was so tired, I couldn’t see anything and I thought I’m going to hit a tree. I’m going to have to sleep in the back of the van.
“I’ve got the company coat on, and another coat, a fluffy hat, clothes on, and motorbike gloves. I’m freezing, I’m shaking.
“The van lights went off and I’m nodding off but I must have kicked the door or something because the van alarms go off.
“I jump up, stumbling about and I can’t find the keys. So I get two hours’ sleep.
“I swear to God, I thought I was in the deep, dark forest. But sunlight came, I wiped my glasses off and found my way out of the forest.
“300 yards away there was a Shell garage and a place to stay. I went mad.”
He found a cup of coffee and carried on. At Hook of Holland he caught some sleep in the van again, where the weather was warmer.
The trip was the greatest thing he had done in his life.
He was in awe of the mother for trusting him to drive them. He said: “I’m not a pretty fella, and I’m a big fella too. No matter what you’ve been through, getting in a cab with a strange man is going to scare you.”
Andrew got home the next morning. He put his tools in the van and went to work.
Arriving in Berlin
Westfall left Warsaw at 7am and arrived in Berlin 21hours later at 3am.
The Polish army told the group to drop their passengers at a station. But they put the refugees up in City Hotel Berlin East with breakfast, bought them toiletries, and paid for their trains.
Despite wanting to return the group cannot currently because of the impact on their taxis.
Fuller said: “Some of these lads have dropped £60,000 on a taxi. It’s their businesses, and at the end of the day they’ve put a lot of mileage on their cabs.”
£6,722 was raised by Westfall’s Gofundme. £5,000 was donated by taxi trade union group the LTDA.
The convoy included five electric taxis, one petrol taxi, a van, and a truck with a trailer.