José David Grisales and Javier Martín are taxi drivers in Madrid, Spain. Grisales is originally from Colombia and Martín is a native of the Spanish capital. Both drive the same vehicle, a nine-seater van. The taxi license belongs to Martín, but he needed a partner because due to illness he cannot drive full-time. They have been partners since December 2021, but they had never had the opportunity to get to know each other very well until the Taxi Federation, in coordination with the Ukrainian embassy in Spain, organized a convoy of drivers to pick up refugees at the border with Poland. The two men brought back seven Ukrainians – three women, four children and a dog – from the more than 4.7 million people who, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), have fled the country since the start of the invasion on February 24.
Grisales speaks slowly and carefully, while Martín is more loquacious. But both get excited talking about the six-day trip and more than 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) that they covered each way. Although Martín had never left Spain, much less to go to a conflict zone, he was comforted by the fact that he was traveling with a former police officer who worked against the Colombian guerrillas back home. At the border, Grisales “reassured me, because he has more experience. I had never traveled past Andorra,” he says, alluding to the tiny statelet nestled between Spain and France.
In Warsaw, the capital of Poland, they went to a refugee center that the Ukrainian embassy in Spain had previously informed them of. There, Grisales spent nearly an hour helping people out. “I helped an old man put on his stockings, another one to get from his bed to a wheelchair, I took them to brush their teeth…” he recalls.
Also in that center was Olga Zelinska with her two children aged 11 and six months. People kept flooding into the center, and “there were very few spots available to travel in the taxi caravan,” says this woman, who never imagined that she would arrive by this mode of transportation. “It was dramatic because you saw other people who also wanted to come along with you,” explains Martín. However, several of those whom they were supposed to pick up never showed up. “I hope they simply found another travel option.” The taxi drivers also describe how, as they were leaving, a woman and her daughter ran after their vehicle to try to get a seat. Faced with this situation, they decided to stop and make room for them.
From Spain, the taxi drivers organized the journey independently, covering the expenses of the trip through a solidarity fund. They contacted non-profits on the ground who were distributing people in taxis and buses to cross the border. Olga Zelinska found out about this option just one day before submitting her documentation and that of her family. Through a video call and with help from Inna, her ex-sister-in-law who acts as a translator, she says that she knew Spain was a possible destination for her and her children because her mother works in the southern Spanish city of Marbella. Thanks to her mother, who is paying for the expenses, Zelinska and her children now have a room to stay in.
Starting from scratch, again
”Going through that again would be very difficult and psychologically I couldn’t stand it,” sighs Zelinska at the thought of going back and reliving a trip that has exhausted her. It is not the first time that she has had to leave her home. Until 2014, she lived in the Lugansk region in northeastern Ukraine. But she decided to move to Kyiv when the conflict intensified after the declaration of a “People’s Republic” through a non-binding referendum. This time around she had to leave her husband and her brother behind, along with other family members. “My father was cut off, in territory blocked by Russia, and although we went three weeks without being able to speak, he was recently able to get out and we chatted,” she adds.
Despite the fact that the Spanish government recently ordered fast-track processing for Ukrainian asylum applications, Zelinska still does not have her paperwork because her appointment at the police station is scheduled for late April. Another matter that worries her is her son’s schooling; after presenting the documents at a school recently, she has yet to receive a response.
José David Grisales talks to Zelinska whenever he can, through WhatsApp and with the help of internet translators. He also knows what it is like to leave your country because your life and that of the people you love are in danger. Thanks to this initiative, which began 10 days into the conflict, “there are 135 lives that have come out of hell,” he says. In times of war, very often the distance that separates life from death is reduced by the determination of perfect strangers with whom an indelible bond is created.