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In Spain’s ‘Little Ukraine’, Vanir-exoduss Work Together to Help the Homeland

Before the invasion, locals in Guissona — which is about 115 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Barcelona — came to Grynkiv’s company to go online, make photocopies or make phone calls 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. The floor is covered with boxes full of donations that will be shipped to Poland by truck.

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Like millions of other Ukrainian expats, Grynkiv’s priorities have completely changed in a week.

“Now the company is no longer running. I’m losing money, but I don’t want my country to lose the war,” said this stocky 48-year-old, who arrived in Guissona from western Ukraine more than 20 years ago.

“If I lose and my country wins, it doesn’t matter. I’ll make it up one day,” he says in a rare moment when his mobile stops ringing.

Among the approximately ten volunteers who fill boxes with medicines, clothes, blankets or sanitary products for women is Sofia Shchetbiy.

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

But when the invasion started, she left 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,” the 24-year-old admits.

‘The war has begun’

Of the 7,200 inhabitants of Guissona, 1,053 are Ukrainians, who make up the second largest nationality group after the Romanians. Many are drawn to the area by the employment provided by bonArea, a powerful agri-food company based there.

The growth of the company, which began hiring foreign workers in the 1990s, has transformed the city, now home to more than 43

Many balconies, including that of the City Hall, are draped with anti-war banners and posters or the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine as a widespread expression 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 that the Russians had invaded.

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

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Since then she has barely been able to sleep, her large eyes dark with exhaustion.

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

“I hope this will all be over soon because I just don’t know what to expect. I don’t know when he’s coming back,” she says.

Also Leonid Komirenko, who fears that the Russian army could invade the southern port city of Odessa, the hometown he left 13 years ago, can’t drag himself away from the news at any moment.

“I was really tense for the first few days, wondering if I should go back and help or what to do,” admits Komirenko, 41, who works at 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 said to me, ‘If you die in the war, I’ll be left all alone,’” he sighs, admitting he’s still not quite over it.

“If it gets worse for Ukraine, I’m thinking about going back.”

12.5 tons of support

At the town hall, they know of only one case where a resident went back to fight, although some went to Poland to pick up relatives.

So far there are already 13 refugees in Guissona and the local authorities are preparing to receive about 100.

“The Ukrainians were the first to arrive and they really helped us build this city,” said Mayor Jaume Ars.

After hours of paperwork to obtain the necessary permits, a truck carrying 12.5 tons (27,558 pounds) of humanitarian aid is quickly ready to leave for Poland.

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As the driver gets behind the wheel, Grynkiv and the mayor wave him off.

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

As he drives off, Guissona is already preparing his next mission.

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