A London taxi driver who led a convoy of black cabs transporting Ukrainian refugees from Poland has said the experience changed him forever.
Matt Westfall, 52, raised more than £11,000 to get six black cabs, one car, and one van across to Poland to deliver humanitarian aid to refugee camps set up near the Ukrainian border, and transport refugees trying to reach cities across Europe.
Mr Westfall, who has been a taxi driver in London for 11 years, arrived home on Wednesday and said “there are no words” to describe the four-day trip.
“I’ve not got a big enough vocabulary to tell you how I felt,” the 52-year-old from Buckhurst Hill, Essex told the PA news agency.
“Pain, heartbreak, relief… It changed me forever.
“I can’t comprehend what they’ve been through, all I can do is try and smile and do what I can for them… There’s no words.”
Mr Westfall decided to launch a GoFundMe for the cause when he saw a video online of a Ukrainian father saying goodbye to his family as he left them to enlist in the military.
With the help of more than £6,700 donated by strangers on the fundraising site and contributions from the London Taxi Drivers’ Association and Eclipse Rent-A-Taxi, Mr Westfall set off on Sunday with a group of taxi drivers he had recruited for the task .
The group drove 13 hours to Warsaw, Poland where they delivered aid such as sanitary products, baby food, nappies, and toilet roll, and picked up two families per vehicle to drive back across the continent.
“I had a mum and daughter in my cab, they were going to Munich… Three families were going to Hamburg where they have family and friends,” Mr Westfall explained.
“There were two ladies, I didn’t know where they were going… We didn’t want to be too intrusive in their lives.”
“And one (driver) is in Dunkirk now, they’re waiting on visas… they’ve got sponsors, family in Notting Hill, so (he is) waiting until they’ve got a visa and he will drive them to Notting Hill either today or tomorrow.”
With money donated to the GoFundMe, Mr Westfall was able to pay and put a few of the refugees they transported up in a hotel, allowing them to wash and eat.
He described the emotional conversation he had with a Ukrainian mother he took to Munich.
“We asked the lady in our taxi, ‘Do you think you’ll go back?’ and she said, ‘To what? My flat is gone, I’ve got nothing to go back to – I don’t know what to do.’
“She said, ‘I would love to go back to my country, I really want to go back but I have nothing to go back to.’
“She has family in Munich and that’s where she is now, so I think they’re going to be starting a new life in Germany.”
Mr Westfall also spoke about the moment that will “live with (him) forever” when transporting the woman and her young daughter.
“This little dot, she didn’t want to talk… She looked very gray and pasty and tired,” he said.
“Her mum said, ‘I’m quite worried really, she’s not eaten, not drunk anything.’
“So my mate got down on his knee and said: ‘I know what all kids like…McDonalds’.”
“Her little eyes just lit up like switching on a light and it was just amazing… Her little face lit up and all of sudden we had a different little girl on our hands.
“It was an amazing moment that summed up the journey, it was worth it just for that one little moment.”
The group stopped at McDonalds on the way to Berlin, after which the young girl fell asleep on her mother as Mr Westfall continued to drive the pair to the German capital.
“It was just lovely… She slept all the way to Berlin, 12 hours, she must have felt safe.”
“We put them in a hotel and my mate just had a message from the mum and the daughter, they’re with their family now in Munich, they sent us a picture.”
Mr Westfall hopes to make the journey again when he is able to.
To donate to Mr Westfall’s GoFundMe, go to: www.gofundme.com/f/cabbie-relief-for-ukraine
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.