After watching the news about the war in Ukraine, Maypearl native Paul Gilsdorf knew he had to help. Gilsdorf left March 27 for Ukraine, where he spent a week driving a van to deliver supplies and evacuate refugees.
Reaching out through social media, Gilsdorf offered his ability as a driver to help people in need.
“I made a post on a few different Ukraine pages,” Gilsdorf told the Sun. “Most of (these pages) are in foreign languages of people in Ukraine looking for help trying to get out and people offering services. So, I posted two or three times in there stating, ‘Hey, I am an American. I want to come and drive. Does anyone have a vehicle for me? Can I join you?’ ”
Gilsdorf said he was contacted by a person organizing relief efforts with the Caritas Charitable Foundation of Sambir-Drohobych Eparchy of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which aids people regardless of religion, gender, political views, or nationality. The nonprofit is helping to evacuate Ukrainian refugees and provide aid.
Gilsdorf booked his ticket and was met by representatives at the Prague airport when he and then went to work.
“My first trip was an eight-passenger van,” he said. “There was a mom, two teenage daughters, and two young children. One of the children was blind. The other one could not walk. They came from a northern city about an hour’s drive north of Kyiv. Then there was a was elderly man who was 70 years old that was with them. He was not associated with them. He just happened to need a ride.
“Their town was in constant fighting and [they were] very eager to get out,” he said. “They had spent the past few days without food pretty much, in the cold and without shelter.”
Gilsdorf said they were able to get them to the Czech Republic to an aid station and where there are refugee camps. After dropping the passengers off, he said they loaded up supplies and went back for more people.
During his trips, Gilsdorf noticed many bunkers along the roads, and, at times, they would get stopped by the Ukrainian Army, which would check them out to ensure the people in the vehicle were not Russian spies. Gilsdorf had to show them his passport and speak to prove he wasn’t a Russian.
When they would reach a border, it would take from six to 12 hours to get through as people had to be checked and the vehicle searched.
One man told Gilsdorf he had been without food or water for three days while hiding in ditches trying not to get shot. The man showed him a chunk of metal from an explosion that almost hit him as he was hiding in a doorway while he was stuck between Ukrainian and Russian troops fighting each other. The group was able to get him to Amsterdam to meet up with family members.
Gilsdorf witnessed a number of heartbreaking scenes.
“I also watched a family get torn apart after we took them to the border to leave but their disabled son, who was around 20, had to stay and fight,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Any males aged 18-60 have to stay and fight and it’s illegal for them to leave. Apparently, that includes those who are disabled.
“I watched women find out their husbands or sons won’t be making it out of this war and listened to the uncertainty in mothers and children’s voices as they’re not sure who to trust and what waits for them outside of their home country after spending the last few weeks just trying to survive,” he wrote.
Since his return, Gilsdorf advises people to “hug your family extra tight” and let them know you care about them