Nearly three million disabled people are trapped by the violence in Ukraine, and a Southern California organization is helping some of them evacuate.
In the pre-dawn hours Monday as bombs fell on Ukraine, a group of volunteers made a daring escape, driving through the bombardment with dozens of disabled Ukrainians, rushing them to safety in Poland.
"Quadriplegics paralyzed on beds, carried on stretchers, people with cerebral palsy in wheelchairs," said Joni Eareckson Tada. She runs the Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, which provides services for the disabled community in Ukraine and around the world.
Her organization coordinated the evacuation of 35 disabled people who had been stranded in western Ukraine.
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"Our in-country partner Galyna commandeered Volkswagen vans. It was an actual caravan of several vehicles that transported them early this morning," she said.
She spoke with her Ukrainian partner Galyna by Zoom after the group made it safely to Poland, letting her know Southern California is praying for them.
"We thank God, felt your prayers," she said. "We really felt them."
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Galyna said the group defiantly sang songs as they raced through the darkness. They made it safely to Poland with their caretakers and were allowed to skip the long lines at the border, she said.
Eareckson Tada said the disabled are often abandoned in war zones and have trouble accessing traditional shelters like those in underground subway stations.
"Some of these people with disabilities are in critical situations living in basements or perhaps living on sixth seventh or eighth floor of apartment building," she said. "They're paralyzed. They can't escape. They can't rush to the border."
She and her team are working with a Ukrainian church that has set up a bomb shelter in the basement, fortifying their windows with sand bags. The group is planning more rescue operations in the coming days, vowing to scour the countryside in search of disabled people who need safe passage to escape Russian soldiers who are on the move.
"If they come here we don't want them to manipulate people with disabilities or to put them as the shield," Galyna said.