The dads who risked their lives to make Ukrainian children smile this Christmas

  • Report by Granada Reports correspondent Mel Barham

A pair of dads have risked their lives to return to Ukraine and deliver voluntarily aid and Christmas presents to children in the war-torn country.

Steven Holland from Hartford in Cheshire and his colleague Richie Deakin from Birmingham have been working as high-risk security advisors in Ukraine since February.

But after escorting a production team working on an ITV documentary called Children of Ukraine, they decided to return with aid and presents to spread some Christmas cheer, and put a smile on the children's faces.

Richie said: "We actually just wanted to go there and just give a Christmas present to the kids. That's how it all started. It's just escalated from there."

The pair were joined on the trip by producer director Shahida Tulaganova who had also worked on the original documentary.

Shahida, 47, has been covering life in Ukraine since 2014, when Russian hostilities began.

When people got in touch asking if they could help after seeing her film, she set up a crowdfunding campaign with Steve, and they planned how they could return with Christmas presents.

They were especially keen to revisit children they had previously met, and were ecstatic to be able to see Andriy again.

"When the war started his mum and dad went off to fight, and he wanted to build a check point," Steven said.

"Seeing him last night was an overwhelming amount of emotions because I have genuinely sort of missed him, I've been concerned about him.

"It's been an emotional rollercoaster, but if you could see the smile on those children's faces there is nothing on this planet that will ever give you the satisfaction of what we have seen and what we have gained on this trip."

"I don't have time to play games anymore", says 11-year-old Andriy

Steven and Richie are no strangers to hostile environments - their roles, for Emerald Solutions Group, involve taking production teams and journalists into war zones with the task of keeping them safe.

With two vehicles full of donated aid, they set off mid-December on the perilous journey through Ukraine, delivering to orphanages and refuges across the country.

But the duo hit problems almost immediately, as they struggled to cross the border into the war-torn country.

They were then met with extreme weather and found themselves sheltering from bombs and missiles as they tried to deliver their gifts.

But despite challenges Steven, Richie and Shahida managed to hand out the presents, much-needed aid and leave donations at local hospitals as they travelled from city to city.

Richie Deakin, Shahida Tulaganova and Steven Holland delivering presents to children in Ukraine. Credit: Steven Holland

What route did Steve, Richie and Shahida take?

  • Lviv (mountain regions)

  • Kyiv - the city was attacked with Long Range Ballistic Missile and Kamkazi Drones while they were there

  • Kharkiv - The city was attacked with Long Range Ballistic Missile and Kamkazi Drones while they were there

  • Zaporitshia

  • Dnipro

  • Khemelnytsky

  • Lviv

  • Steven Holland talks to Gamal Fahnbulleh and Vicky Grimes after returning from Ukraine.

Speaking in a video diary, Steven said: "We have been met with huge problems today trying to get into the country.

"I think it all stems down to the Polish border guards not speaking to the Ukrainian border guards.

"We made lots and lots and lots of phone calls, however we're in and that's the main thing.

"The problems that we've got are the roads are horrific.

"You throw weather conditions in with that and the whole place just comes to a standstill, and so it's probably going to take us a couple of hours to get through to Lviv."

As they navigated the country, they found themselves under attack from long-range missiles, and saw the devastation caused by the bombing.

In another diary entry Steven said: "Ukraine was under attack today - Kyiv was hit the left bank missiles the city is out of power... it's hard to say in the 21st century that a city like Kyiv is living in conditions it's living in because all the electricity is out.

"It's in complete darkness, it's just really sad."

The pair visited orphanages and town hubs to hand out the presents and aid to children and families. Credit: Steven Holland/Children of Ukraine

Prior to going back to Ukraine, Steven said they were aware of the danger they were putting themselves in.

Steven said: "We are willing to put ourselves in harm's way to ensure that these people get what they need.

"It is extremely dangerous, let's not sugarcoat it - we're going into a war zone. And the further east and the further towards Russia that you push, the more dangerous it gets.

"There's going to be some areas that we go into which are constantly under bombardment by the Russian army, they are consistently under attack by drones, and we are consistently under surveillance, so we have to be very aware of what we are doing and very cautious of what we are doing.

"But will we do it? Yes, absolutely."

ITV Granada caught up with the dads at the beginning of December as they planned to return to Ukraine

The idea to take an aid truck to Ukraine came about after Steven's latest deployment to Ukraine.

He was working with a production company who were making a documentary for ITV called Children of Ukraine.

Part of ITV's Bafta-winning Exposure strand, Children of Ukraine hears directly from 10 children, showing first-hand how the war has changed and shaped their lives as they live through the conflict.

Steven Holland while he was embedded with a special forces unit in Ukraine. Credit: Steven Holland

Steven says the children that he met during the filming of that documentary had such a lasting impact on him that he knew he had to go back and help them.

"I saw first-hand the emotional and physical trauma that was caused. I was emotionally invested at that point," he said.

"There was no way that I was coming home, as I normally would, and saying right, next job.

"These are innocent, innocent children, just like yours and mine. And it's not their fault and they need help."

"I'm scared when it goes boom boom"

They are still appealing for donations of money, and were inundated with gifts and everyday essentials from the local community.

Steven said: "We still need warm clothing, nappies, baby food, anything, you know, that people believe will help a child and a family in the Ukraine during this hard time."

"My community here in Northwich, has been absolutely outstanding.

"The schools are on board now, I have parents texting me asking, how can we help?

"My little boy's room is packed full of donations and presents to take with us."

The pair are still appealing for both money and physical donations to take with them.

If you want to donate to the cause, you can find out more here. You can also watch the full documentary Children of Ukraine on ITVX.

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