As I sat on the overnight train to Kyiv, I was reminded of the differences from my last trip to Ukraine a few years ago to become a member of the Ukraine Academy of Sciences. Then it was as simple as getting on a plane, but now it takes many hours to travel from Warsaw to Kyiv, and I wasn’t able to talk about my visit in advance. And this time, I wasn’t sure what I would see when I arrived.
I was invited to come by President Zelensky in support of United 24, the official fundraising platform of Ukraine, for which I am now an ambassador for education and science. I felt it important to go, to understand and shed light upon the ongoing challenges faced by the Ukrainian Government and people.
Paul with a piece of artwork from a destroyed school in Ukraine.
On the train I was joined by Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko, a renowned football player for AC Milan and Chelsea, and a football coach, and French Oscar winning director Michel Hazanavicius. I doubt if we would ever have met under normal circumstances, but we found common ground and were united in our support for Ukraine and its people, and for the defence of peace and civilisation.
Within an hour of arriving, I was transported to an area of Ukraine previously occupied by the Russian military and saw the scale of the damage. I visited a school that had been reduced to rubble, the windows had been blown out with evidence of shelling everywhere. I met teachers and pupils now having to go to school in shifts into the town’s remaining undamaged school buildings. There I found a piece of children’s art among the rubble. It was a painting of a mother cradling a child. I was struck by the contrast of the poignant image and the surrounding devastation. It was very emotional. The head teacher asked me to take the picture and show it to others abroad.
Paul with Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky
Later I met Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President. As we have seen on television and heard on the radio, he passionately and articulately defends his country. He embodies the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people. They will never stop defending. In my short visit to Kyiv I had to go to an underground bunker because of drone threats, a taste of the threat they face every day. They show what I would call real ‘Blitz spirit’.
I spoke of my own memories of post-war Britain, how areas of central London were bombsites and how my own school in North London had been damaged. These areas are now all restored and with support from the international community, Ukraine will also be able to recover from this war and rebuild.
United 24 is a platform for fundraising targeting the specific needs of the country as it continues to resist Russian military attacks and tries to rebuild for its people. A critical part of this is education, so the children of Ukraine can look toward their future, hopefully in peaceful times ahead. Ukraine needs support in rebuilding damaged schools and getting children back into full time education. Then there will be the longer-term challenge of restoring science and research to the country for economic recovery and societal benefit.
In my view Ukraine isn’t just fighting for its own existence but for civilised values globally and that will not be forgotten when this war is over. In the future, Ukraine will rebuild and be stronger and even better connected to the rest of the world. Until then, continued support for Ukraine is crucial.
This was one of the most moving experiences of my life.