University of Leicester staff member talks about life at Ukrainian border

Chris (R) with fellow volunteer, Pete in Ukraine

A University of Leicester staff member has told of his time helping Ukrainian refugees on Romania’s border with Ukraine.

Chris Trafford, who works in the College of Life Sciences, leads the Knighton to Ukraine Project which is delivering food and supplies to refugees in Ukraine and supports a refugee centre in Ukraine.

Along with a small team, Chris first visited a refugee centre in Galati in northeast Romania in April.

Chris told the story of one mother and her one-year-old son as they crossed the border from Ukraine into Romania.

He said: “They came through the border and I was helping them with their suitcases. The boy was crying and I made eye contact with him. I couldn’t help thinking of my two daughters.

“Playing peekaboo made him smile and his mother started to relax a little. As tears welled up in her eyes, she explained how he had been crying so much recently.

“The sound of bombs going off every night around their home in Kherson unsettled him. She arrived on foot and had no idea what was next. Her partner was still at home. Her broken heart was breaking mine.”

So far the Knighton to Ukraine project has raised more than £45,000 in total. The project has been regularly sending enough money to buy trucks full of food (£3,000 per truck) to respond to specific needs in Ukraine.

This is ordered and picked up from a wholesaler in Galati and sent into Ukraine – exactly where it’s needed.

Chris and one of the initial team went back to Romania a few weeks later and journeyed into Ukraine with one of these trucks to see this work first-hand.

Chris said: “As we headed in there were many military checkpoints and we were very thankful for our Ukrainian fixer who was able to get us through the guns, anti-tank defences and barricades.

“Only a few days before our visit, there were two saboteurs caught monitoring and recording guards’ movements and routines at the checkpoints so it would have been intimidating without him.

“The drive took most of the day including a few hours stopped at borders and checkpoints. We arrived at the location where we had arranged to meet and within a few minutes were greeted warmly and taken to the warehouse to unload the food from the van.

“The food was then picked up by volunteers from Mykolaiv who risk their lives taking it to the front line where bombs are falling daily and heavy fighting is ongoing.”

Due to an 8pm curfew in Ukraine and having arrived later than expected, Chris and a fellow volunteer, Pete spent a night at the Great Change Refugee Centre in Ukraine – the first stop for the food.

Chris said: “As we ate dinner and talked with volunteers and refugees, we realised what an incredible place it is.

“Its location in Ukraine means that fathers, brothers and sons can be together with the rest of their families, unlike refugee centres in other countries, because men of fighting age can’t leave Ukraine.

“When we finished eating, the kids got up and sang a song and everyone joined in. There was huge applause at the end. 

“The atmosphere and community were so special. The local volunteers, who were working so hard and pouring out their lives for others so freely, had created an atmosphere where refugees felt loved and at home.”

Chris said: “The centre receives 80% of its food from donations from Romania, with only 20% being fresh food bought locally.

“Water has to be transported in, and waste is taken away as there are no pipes this far into the countryside.

“Along with the electricity, gas, warehouse rent, and other bills, the whole operation costs around £6,000 per month to look after 170 to 200 refugees (or displaced people as they are still in their home country).

“They are living hand to mouth and had a fraction of what they needed for next month. The money they have is from donations from local Ukrainians doing what they can. It was a joy to be able to help them.”

The Knighton to Ukraine Project is still sending £1,500 to £2,000 per month to this refugee centre in Ukraine to help them pay their bills.

They are also investigating an opportunity to partner with an engineering company to set up a pipe, pump, filter and tank to supply fresh water to the centre from a local lake.

Chris said: “The hard work, dedication and commitment shown by an incredible bunch of unpaid volunteers at the border and the refugee centre were heart-warming and inspiring.

“It was a real privilege to be able to help in a small way, listening to refugees, cleaning, playing games with the kids, and making practical improvements around the centre”

Philip Horspool, Director of the Centre for International Training and Education said: “The work that Chris has done is truly phenomenal and there are other incredible projects supporting those who have come to the UK and those who have been displaced to other neighbouring countries or within Ukraine itself. 

“Staff and students from across the University will shortly be launching fundraising initiatives to support the Knighton to Ukraine and other projects.”

More information about the Knighton to Ukraine project and an opportunity to donate can be found here.

Information on the University of Leicester’s response to the war in Ukraine is available at