In Spain’s ‘little Ukraine’ locals team up to help homeland

On the calendar in Mykola Grynkiv's internet cafe, every day since February 24 is ringed in black, Russia's war stopping time in this northern Spanish village where one in seven residents is Ukrainian.

In Spain's 'little Ukraine' locals team up to help homeland
An Ukrainian volunteer receives donations at a cybercafe used as coordination centre for the international aid. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Before the invasion, locals in Guissona – which lies about 115 kilometres (70 miles) northwest of Barcelona – would come to Grynkiv’s business to go online, make photocopies or a phone call from one of the private booths at the back.

But since Russia invaded Ukraine, this internet cafe in the heart of Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region has been transformed, its floor covered with boxes filled with donations that will be sent by truck to Poland.

Like millions of other Ukrainian expats, Grynkiv’s priorities have totally changed within the space of a week.

“Now the business isn’t running any more. I’m losing money but I don’t want my country to lose” the war, says this stocky 48-year-old, who arrived in Guissona from western Ukraine more than 20 years ago.

“If I lose out and my country wins, no matter. I’ll make up for it one day,” he says in a rare moment when his mobile stops ringing.

Among the dozen or so volunteers filling boxes with medicines, clothes, blankets or women’s sanitary products is Sofia Shchetbiy.

Until last week, she was working as a dermatologist in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine.

But when the invasion began, she left, heading for Guissona where she spent part of her childhood and where her parents still live.

“My uncle told me to go to Poland because I didn’t know what to do in Ukraine, I was really scared,” admits the 24-year-old.

‘The war’s started’

Of Guissona’s 7,200 residents, 1,053 are Ukrainians, who make up the second-largest nationality group after Romanians, with many drawn to the area by the job opportunities offered by bonArea, a powerful agri-food business based there.

The growth of the company, which began taking on foreign labour in the 1990s, has transformed the town, which is now home to more than 43

Many balconies, including that of the town hall, are draped with anti-war banners and posters or Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag in a widespread show of support, for which Natalia Tvardovska is grateful.

Ukrainian woman Natalia Tvardovska poses for a portrait in Guissona, near Lerida, on March 3, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

When the war broke out, this 40-year-old waitress, who has been in Guissona since 2006, said she didn’t need the media to tell her the Russians had invaded.

“My aunt called me from (the southern port city of) Kherson and said: ‘The war’s started’,” she says, recalling the anguished early hours of February 24.

Since then, she’s barely managed to sleep, her huge eyes dark with exhaustion.

Her husband, who had returned to his hometown in western Ukraine after a death in the family, had been trapped by the sudden outbreak of war, unable to leave with all men between 18 and 60 called up to fight.

“I hope all this is over quickly because I just don’t know what to expect. I don’t know when he’ll get back,” she says.

Also unable to drag himself away from the news is Leonid Komirenko, who fears the Russian army could at any moment enter the southern port city of Odessa, the hometown he left 13 years ago.

“I was really on edge for the first few days and wondered whether I should go back to help or what to do,” admits Komirenko, 41, who works in the local slaughterhouse.

Ukrainian man Leonid Komirenko poses for a portrait in Guissona, near Lerida, on March 3, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

“But my wife just cried and told me: ‘When you die in the war, I’ll be left all alone’,” he sighs, admitting he still hasn’t quite made his mind up.

“If it gets worse for Ukraine, I’ll think about going back.”

12.5 tonnes of aid

At the town hall, they only know of one case in which a resident has gone back to join the fighting, although some have gone to Poland to pick up family members.

So far, there are already 13 refugees in Guissona and the local authorities are preparing to take in around 100.

“The Ukrainians were the first to arrive and they have really helped us build this town,” says mayor Jaume Ars.

Following hours of paperwork to obtain the necessary permits, a lorry carrying 12.5 tonnes (27,558 pounds) of humanitarian aid is soon ready to set off for Poland.

As the driver clambers up behind the wheel, Grynkiv and the mayor wave him goodbye.

It should take him three days to reach Pruszkow near the capital Warsaw, where different groups will distribute the goods among the thousands of Ukrainian refugees flooding into Poland.

As he pulls off, Guissona is already busy preparing its next shipment.

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Ukrainian grain dodges Russian blockade to reach Spain via new route

A Ukrainian grain shipment arrived in Spain on Monday after being shipped via the Baltic Sea to circumvent Russia’s blockade, imposed following the outbreak of war, a Spanish association said.

Ukrainian grain dodges Russian blockade to reach Spain via new route

The Finnish-flagged cargo ship, the Alppila, carrying 18,000 tonnes of grain for animal feed docked at A Coruña port in northwestern Spain early on Monday, the Agafac food manufacturers association said.

It said it was the first time such a route had been used for Ukrainian grain.

Agafac, which had placed the order, said the grain had been transported by lorry to the northwestern Polish port of Swinoujscie on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

It then called in at Brunsbuettel in northern Germany before heading for Spain.

This is “the first shipment of grain to be transported via a new sea route through the Baltic Sea to circumvent the Russian naval blockade on Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea that has been in place since the war began,” Agafac said.

Contacted by AFP, a spokesman for Ukraine’s agriculture ministry was unable to confirm whether or not it was the first such shipment of Ukrainian grain to travel via the Baltic Sea.

“We don’t have information about transportation specifically to Spain. We deliver to Romania, Poland. This is probably the logistics outside Ukraine,” he said.

When Russia invaded on February 24th, it imposed a naval blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that has choked off its grain exports, threatening a global food crisis.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the world’s top producer of sunflower oil and a major wheat exporter, but millions of tonnes of grain exports remain trapped due to the blockade.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine is currently exporting more than two million tonnes of grain a month via rail but that figure is far below what it was exporting before the war via its ports, notably Odessa.

The United Nations and certain countries like France and Turkey have been pushing for the opening of a “security corridor” in the Black Sea to allow Ukrainian exports to resume.

At the end of May, General Christopher Cavoli, the incoming head of the US European Command, said Germany’s railway company recently set up a “Berlin train lift” — a special train service to move Ukraine’s grain exports.

He said Poland was working on a simplified border crossing regime to ease the deliveries, and once out of Poland, the grain was taken to Germany’s northern ports to be shipped onwards.