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Phile & Laura Edwards - refugee rescue mission

Former Brightlingsea couple's mission to rescue Ukrainian refugees

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A couple from Brightlingsea who now live in Bulgaria have been helping to rescue Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.

Laura and Phil Edwards drove 700km from their village home in the centre of Bulgaria to collect the relatives of a Ukrainian friend and ended up being part of a group who brought nine women – one of whom was seven months' pregnant –  three children and four small dogs back to safety.

The couple retired to Bulgaria in 2016 after discovering the area on a motorbike tour two years earlier. Laura, 52, and Phil, 59, were regulars at Ye Olde Swan in the High Street and customers there, together with friends from the town, have been collecting money which the couple has passed on to refugees to purchase essential items.

The couple's rescue mission began when their friend Chris and his Ukrainian wife Olya asked for help on social media to collect her relatives. "It didn't take us long to decide we were going," said Laura. Next morning, with friends, Martin and Will, the group of friends set off, picking up food and clothing from a Bulgarian charity for refugees as they headed north. After driving all day – passing Red Cross convoys on the way – the group arrived at a town 40km from the border where they split up. Phil, Chris and Olya went on to the border to deliver their supplies, while Laura and others searched for accommodation.

"Every hotel we went to was full of fleeing Ukrainians," said Laura. Will finally found a ski lodge 36km away that had opened up specially.

At the border, Olya found her pregnant relative who, along with her mother and two dogs, had spent the day in sub-zero temperatures waiting to cross into Romania on foot. Chris brought them back to the ski lodge while Olya and Phil waited for other relatives – two grandmothers, a mother and her two-year-old daughter and their two dogs.

While there, Olya made contact with the authorities to see if there was anyone else who could be brought back. The group was asked to pick up another four women and two children and after spending most of a day collecting them all, the group set off, stopping for the night after a few hours' driving in a cheap hotel before setting off for Bulgaria early the next morning.

Laura said all the people they picked up were "very quiet, sort of shell-shocked. They just didn't really know what was happening". And she added: "On the drive back I kept feeling tears welling up, wondering if tchildren were ever going to see their dads again."

Getting back into Bulgaria involved a long wait but little beauracracy, said Laura.  "All Ukrainians or vehicles with Ukrainians in were directed in to separate lines, passports scanned and stamped out of Romania and into Bulgaria. No questions, no scanning of pets or checking of vehicles and no covid vaccine certificates required."

Once back in Bulgaria, the families were placed in various accommodation, including a holiday home owned by an English couple. "All the properties were offered rent free," said Laura. "We have funds to pay for untilities as at the moment there is no government help. We gave all four families some money to get food and essentials from money donated by friends mainly in Brightlingsea."

Laura said that people in the area had been welcoming, though she said that given Bulgaria's history as part of the Eastern bloc, there was some pro-Russian sentiment among the population in general as many grew up being told that the West was ready to attack. The countryside still has many relics of the cold war – such as abandoned bunkers and military installations – which Laura likes to explore.

And reflecting on their rescue mission, Laura said: "It was the right thing to do at the time. We just wanted to help our friends get their family out."

• A friend of Laura and Phil's has started a GoFundMe appeal for funds to help refugees. It can found here.




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