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‘A stranger asked me to flee Ukraine with his kids’: Dundee United worker reveals desperation of war-torn country

Ricardo with a refugee at the Polish border. Image: Rodrigo Jiménez.
Ricardo with a refugee at the Polish border. Image: Rodrigo Jiménez.

A Dundee United worker has told how a “desperate” stranger asked him to flee war-torn Ukraine with his children.

Ricardo Cerdan, the Tannadice club’s international business manager, travelled to eastern Europe earlier this month to join the humanitarian effort as a volunteer, as the conflict with Russia continues.

He flew to the Polish city of Krakow with 70kg of Dundee United toys, jackets, blankets and other goods worth £2,000, before renting a car and driving 160 miles to the Ukrainian border.

The 45-year-old then left his rental car, which he was not allowed to take into Ukraine, and entered the country on foot.

‘I was asked if I was joining the army’

He said: “The first thing the border guards did when I crossed was ask if I wanted to join the army.

“There were two 18-year-olds in full military uniforms at a desk and they asked if I was there to join the international army.

“I told them I was only there for humanitarian aid and showed them the bags with the Dundee United stuff, and they let me go on.”

After crossing the border, Ricardo picked up a second car and attempted to drive to the city of Lviv, where he had booked a hotel for the night.

I turned 45 in an old car in the middle of Ukraine… my friends and family think that I’m crazy

What he originally thought would be a two-hour journey soon became a six-hour slog as he was stopped at military checkpoint after military checkpoint.

He then called his hotel – only to be told that it had closed due to an air raid warning.

The news left Ricardo with little choice but to sleep in his car – draping himself in United merchandise to fight off the freezing temperatures.

Refugees being helped by Ricardo. Images: Rodrigo Jiménez.

He said: “I slept for two or three hours. It was freezing cold and anyone who knocked on the door would have thought I was a maniac.

“The next day, March 12, was my birthday.

“I turned 45 in an old car in the middle of Ukraine. My friends and family think that I’m crazy.”

‘The adults were very fragile’

Ricardo then travelled to Arena Lviv, a football stadium which has been transformed into a refugee shelter by Shakhtar Donetsk and other clubs from Ukraine and Poland.

Ricardo spent the rest of his birthday talking with refugees and handing out United jackets, hats, blankets and toys to those fleeing the Russian invasion.

He said: “The Ukrainian people were very helpful. I told them I worked at Dundee United and they put me in touch with some of the officials there.

People fleeing Lviv on trains earlier in the conflict.

“The adults were very fragile, obviously quite broken from what they had been through and thinking of what was going on at home.

“The kids were a lot better, you could give them some sweets or a toy and they would play with it and be laugh.”

Kids, 7 and 4, flee Ukraine with Ricardo

After volunteering for four hours, Ricardo was pulled aside by a Shakhtar Donetsk employee who was also working at the centre.

He asked that Ricardo take his two kids, seven-year-old Vlad and four-year-old Irina, across the border with him when he returned.

The dad was unable to take the children himself due to new laws in Ukraine which prevent men between the ages of 18 and 65 from leaving the country.

However, he said their uncle would be able to collect them once in Poland.

A refugee shelter in Ukraine that Ricardo visited.

Despite speaking no Ukrainian, Ricardo agreed to take the two children across the border.

They communicated through Google Translate before meeting the youngsters’ uncle in Poland.

Ricardo said: “They gave me his address and when I met up with him I checked his ID and made sure it was definitely the right guy.

“People are so desperate to get out.

“It would be so easy for people to take advantage of what’s going on.”

Plans to return to Ukraine with bus

Ricardo now plans to return to Ukraine – this time with a bus full of supplies.

And he aims to go further on his next visit, using the bus to bring refugees back across the border.

“I want to make it to Kyiv, that’s my goal,” he said.

“I would probably buy the bus in Poland then take it through.

Refugees in Ukraine. Image: Rodrigo Jiménez.

“I spoke to some volunteers there who said they really need medicine, so it would be my aim to take that.”

He has already started a fundraiser to purchase the vehicle, which is to be named Dignity after the Deacon Blue song.

United have already promised to contribute £5,000 towards the purchase, with club chairman Mark Ogren pledging an additional £10,000 of his own money.

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