Ukrainian Climbing Gyms Grow to be Help Stations for Refugees

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I will never forget the morning of the beginning of the war. At 4am I woke up to the sound of loud explosions. It was difficult to pinpoint the location of the explosion, but I knew for sure that it happened somewhere near the international airport, which is 20 kilometers from my home. When I checked my phone, I saw tons of notifications about the massive Russian invasion.

Oleg Pokusayev, the manager of Space-Gym, and I quickly contacted several of our climbing partners and arranged to meet at Space-Gym in Kyiv. We have closed the gym together with our other location TheWall in Lviv. We fled west that same day, from the capital to the European border.

We had a convoy of six cars. The freeways we shared were congested in our direction, so we kept in touch by phone and tried to follow the terrible news. There were long queues at all gas stations, and the customer service rules also changed: we were only allowed to fill up with up to 20 liters.

A queue of cars lines the road to Ukraine’s western border.

The road from Kyiv to Lviv (550 kilometers or 340 miles) took about 20 hours – 14 hours longer than normal. It was a continuous line from the capital to the border.

Tired, we gathered in the Lviv climbing hall TheWall. For the first time in 30 hours we ate and rested for four hours. The news was terrible and we decided to move to the border. We waited in line for three days to enter Poland. I had two children, two women, two men, a dog and a cat in my car. I mostly sat behind the wheel and tried to stay awake while my family and friends slept. I left the car running as it was cold outside and getting chilly in the car. We had some snacks, sandwiches and cookies. Locals came and offered us hot food. It was a real blessing to drink hot homemade soup; it was the most delicious meal I have ever eaten.

In the line we learned that men from 18 to 60 years old could not leave the country in wartime conditions. With tears we said goodbye to the children and women and returned to Lemberg.

While waiting in line, we received many offers of help from our friends in the climbing community from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, England, Spain, Belgium and others. Our families were distributed among the volunteers who had offered to help. We didn’t expect such a voluntary unit – all our friends and neighbors wanted to help us. My children and my mother are now in Germany and have been granted foreigner status. They are safe and prosperous thanks to friends im Blockhouse Fribourg. My friends’ relatives are in a similar situation, but they are in Poland at the moment.

Our men’s team decided to volunteer after the first good night’s sleep in Lviv. At the foot of TheWall we have organized temporary accommodation for refugees moving west to Europe.

TheWall in Lviv, Ukraine, has converted gymnasiums into beds for refugees.

It was nice to see that the gym floor could serve as beds. We built an improvised kitchen, bought a microwave and dishes, and provided everything we needed, even a washer and dryer. We received a lot of help from the town’s citizens and volunteers. The restaurant next to TheWall cooked hot lunches for us based on the food we brought them. We bought products from donations from our friends around the world, via bank transfer, PayPal and others.

At first we had a wave of well-known climbers, but later strangers found out about us, and anyone who needed it could rest and come to their senses with us. Every night we hosted about 50 to 60 people who were constantly coming and going.

A makeshift kitchen for those seeking shelter and respite on their journey west.

We agreed with the builders not to pay rent until the end of the war.

Our daily financial needs are:

  • Payment of utility bills (water, heat, electricity).
  • The purchase of groceries and everything that is necessary for hygiene.
  • A small payment for the shelter staff.

We also help people evacuate or move around the city by driving them in our cars and we transport humanitarian aid from the border to the depths of the country.

Some of our friends and colleagues are now fighting on the front lines. We provide them with expensive tools and equipment. You’ll need body armor, military helmets, tactical clothing, binoculars, thermal imagers, range finders, and more.

Currently there is no opportunity to train in the gym, although we organize climbing courses for children from the shelter. There isn’t much commercial climbing in Ukraine, and almost all of it doesn’t work today. Next week we will try to open a gym for visitors in Kyiv and it will be open maybe two to three days a week. The situation is complicated because our clients either left the country or lost the opportunity to pay for services.

Many of the athletes of the Ukrainian national team were able to settle in Europe and find a place for training. However, in this 2022 competition season, there are problems with the coaching staff, national team suits, etc. and no financial support for athletes and coaches.

We try to get help through personal connections with national associations in Europe and the UK. At competitions we are promised help with accommodation and sometimes money. Almost all gyms in Europe are free for our athletes. In addition, the IFSC has promised to eliminate membership fees for our team in 2022.

We appreciate this titanic effort; it’s important to us.

It is not easy to imagine the future. Sometimes we lose motivation and faith because this year we had incredible plans for the development of climbing in Ukraine.

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