“I have no clue what I’m doing”, says Cyril. “I’ve got the vest but I’ve only just arrived.” The South African looks cheerful and a little dazed. “Apart from English, I only speak Afrikaans and Zulu – sure they’ll come in handy.”

He is the latest recruit in an ad hoc army of yellow-bibbed volunteers at Przemyśl train station in south-east Poland, dishing out food, drink, toiletries, mopping the floor and arranging transport and accommodation for the quarter of a million Ukrainians that have passed through the station in the fortnight since the war began. These few hundred aid workers and volunteers form a thin fluorescent line between a messy sort of order and a humanitarian disaster.

“At nine o’clock on Monday, I saw an interview with a Ukrainian woman walking from Lviv to the border,” says Cyril, a 39-year-old fund manager, standing in the station’s crowded main hall. “At 10 o’clock I was gone.” He drove for 22 hours from his home in Surrey, sleeping in lay-bys. “All the hotels are booked, so I think I’ll sleep in my car. But that’s fine.”

Cyril is one of the significant minority of volunteers who have come to Przemyśl from abroad. Jack, 34, a burly, bearded Englishman with a tattoo creeping out from his sleeve, stands on one side of the hall with his friend Troy, both looking a bit out of place. They also made the long drive to south-east Poland and arrived last night. Jack is holding a cardboard sign: “Free lifts to Rzesvow & Krakow. 3 people!”

“People are surprised we’re offering it for free,” says Jack. “We say ‘of course’! Not gunna charge, are we”. They’ve brought a stack of children’s magazines, the sort that come with a plastic toy, and are handing them out from a backpack. “Anything we can do to help, really.”

Troy (L) and Jack inside Przemyśl train station, Poland.

The two met on holiday in Thailand two years ago. Jack runs a granite worktop business and Troy, from Essex, works for a loft conversion company. “We just saw it on the news,” says Jack. “We’ve got little kids of our own. It’s just sad, innit. I thought, ‘who’d be mad enough to go with me?’, and right then this one phones me saying ‘we’ve gotta do something!'”

They haven’t had any takers yet. “I don’t think we look the type to offer lifts”, says Troy. “We look a bit tough.” As he says this, a policeman wanders over and asks to check their IDs. 

In the large cobbled square outside the station, Benjamin, a 19-year-old Christian from Germany, hands a printed card to a man standing smoking with a bottle of Coke under his arm. The man takes it and thanks him gruffly, not wanting to engage or offend. The message, printed in Russian and Ukrainian, says: “Don’t worry. There is hope.” 

“You need supplies, you need food and drink, but in your heart you also need comfort,” Benjamin tells me. “I need it and people from Ukraine need it.”

Benjamin outside the station.

In the middle of the square a group of around 30 refugees – women, young children and a few teenagers – are huddled behind a cordon, waiting for a bus to take them to Krakow, a hub for onward transit across Europe. A ten-year-old girl in a pink hat weaves through the press of bodies at the station’s entrance, a white cat glaring out from the transparent rucksack on her back. 

Edging through the crowd in a big camper van, gesturing apologetically, is Josef. He has driven from the Black Forest on a rescue mission with his colleague Joachim and Joachim’s Ukrainian wife, Nadiya. Her elderly parents escaped from Odessa with a handful of belongings and survived a harrowing four-day journey to the border. They are due on the next train.

“They are 81 and 83,” says Joachim, a tall balding German. “They’re quite sick but they had to get out. It was a bit tense if they could catch the train in the first place.”

Are they alright? I ask. He smiles and shrugs. “I hope so, I think so.”

Josef (L) and Joachim who have come to rescue Josef’s parents-in-law.

Before the trip, the two men were friendly, but not particularly close. “We were colleagues and are now friends. He is the chief doctor at the clinic where I work. He knew my situation, had the van and volunteered. He said ‘I’ll be the driver. You be back up.’ He’s been a very calm and cool driver.”

Standing nearby with a cardboard sign is Ali, 31, from a small town in Punjab, Pakistan, where his family are poultry farmers. He is married to a Pole, Alina, but only came to visit Poland for the first time a month ago. He’s been staying with her in the city of Poznań. She starting volunteering near the border when the war started, but initially advised Ali against coming.

“There have been a lot of problems involving people with my skin or darker skin,” he says. “Rumours of people getting aggressive to those people crossing the border. I don’t know what was going on. But then she said, ‘we need you, come.’ So I’m here.” His job is to direct anyone wanting to get to Berlin to someone parked nearby, willing to drive.

Ali, from Pakistan, whose wife is Polish.

“I just came to help people”, he says. “I have no particular political alliance. Otherwise I’m just looking at news all the time on the phone. What good’s that?”

It’s late afternoon now and a light snow is falling. I’m standing on the station platform with Marta, who works for T-Mobile in the nearby city of Rzeszow. The day before, I watched as Marta went up to a small girl, standing by a wall, crying. Marta bent down and offered her a fluffy bunny and a chocolate egg. Tears instantly gone, the girl nuzzled the toy on her cheek and beamed back at her.

Today, Marta is handing out Polish sim cards and helping Ukrainians connect to the mobile network. “People don’t speak much, they are too traumatised,” she says. “I just hope that one day they get home.”

Marta looks after a young Ukrainian girl on a Przemyśl station platform.