62-year-old ex-Microsoft executive jumps from Seattle barge to Poland, carrying Ukrainian refugees
At 62, Rick Thompson is a comfortable retired ex-Microsoftie who lives on a houseboat in Portage Bay, walks 8 miles a day and likes to get out on his rowboat.
Since March 23, however, he has been in Europe ferrying Ukrainian refugees to safety in his rental Volkswagen van.
Everything about Thompson’s background – as VP of Microsoft, once co-owner of Ferrari of Seattle, owner-operator of Seattle Chocolate with his ex-wife, Jean Thompson (she’s now the only owner) – involves being very personally involved in a project.
He says he knows he could have sent money to any number of charitable groups.
But Thompson felt compelled to be there in person to help. The United Nations says that as of April 2, more than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine, nearly 10% of its population.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. This is the first time in my life that there are really clear good guys and bad guys,” Thompson says.
Being there means a personal connection and receiving a thank you from someone like Tamara, a mother from kyiv who doesn’t want her last name used. Her group in that Volkswagen van consisted of Tamara and her son; Tamara’s mother, Tamara’s sister and her two children; and another woman and her son.
Thompson drove them 1,000 miles from Przemysl, about 8 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border to a refugee center in Brussels, a city with a large Ukrainian community.
“Our acquaintance with Richard is a gift of fate!” Tamara, wrote, interviewed for this story using Telegram, an encrypted app. “…He gave us hope and faith that we are not alone and that there are kind people like him…”
Thompson rented the van in Berlin after arriving on a flight from Seattle and immediately headed to Poland. His plan was simple. He would volunteer to drive refugee families to wherever in Europe their final destination might be.
Thompson ended up in Przemysl, a town of about 60,000 people, after reading about it. The New York Times described the city as “turned into a massive aid machine”.
He knew that in Przemysl he had to find the Tesco hypermarket, the British retailer that had closed there, a victim of COVID-19. Now its walkways are lined with mattresses for refugees seeking shelter.
“I parked across the street and walked. There was a hodgepodge of volunteers. Polish Scouts, Polish Girl Scouts, firefighters, Polish military, Polish police,” says Thompson. “I said, ‘What can I do?’ “He showed his passport and filled out a form. He succeeded in rallying with officials.
At Tesco, he was asked an important question: how far was he willing to drive refugees?
“Anywhere,” he replied. “They lit up like a Christmas tree.”
That first day, he was asked to drive a mother and her four children to a farm in Kepno, Poland, about 320 miles away.
It is mainly women and their children who constitute the refugees. Almost all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been banned from leaving the country in case they need to fight.
Thompson understood the natural apprehension women would have about a single man with a pickup truck.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime asserts that “human trafficking from Ukraine is a well-established illegal industry” and that with the war, “people fleeing conflict find themselves in a very dangerous and precarious situation”.
For the mother-of-four, Thompson says a Ukrainian-speaking friend of hers sent a three-minute WhatsApp voicemail to vouch for him. There wasn’t much reaction from the band, says Thompson. “They were sad and exhausted.”
Thompson got the group to their destination as fast as he could. He bought the family’s hot dogs at a gas station and gave the mother whatever money he had, about $25.
Thompson has 70 friends on a thread where he tells them about his trip.
For this first trip to this farm, he said in his first e-mail: “Actually, they don’t even know that I exist. Their dilemma and their fear overwhelmed them so much. Who knows who they left behind, and they had barely packed anything. I understand …”
The next day, back at Tesco, center officials asked him to drive Tamara’s group to Brussels, a two-day drive away. They spent the night in Dresden, Germany, and Thompson paid for the group’s stay at the motel.
This time, he says, at the start of the trip, he asked a Bulgarian woman he knows to call, speak to the group in Russian and vouch for him. It seemed to put the group at ease, he said.
Thompson himself used the Google Translate function on his smartphone to communicate with his passengers. With some, like Tamara, the exchanges were longer.
In the Telegram text exchange for this story, Tamara writes of the life she left behind in Kyiv: “There hasn’t been a quiet day – constant sirens, rocket explosions, fighter jets flying overhead kept us and the children in terrible and constant fear. It cannot be described with words. Every day the kids and I sat in the basements not knowing if we would make it out alive or not.
She says that “quite by accident” at Tesco she learned that Thompson’s van could accommodate her large group.
“We saw his eyes and his smile, we did not doubt for a second the modesty of this wonderful person,” says Tamara.
Her third trip carrying Tesco refugees was to take Lisa, who also did not want her surname used, and her young son, Demjan, from Przemysl to Prague in the Czech Republic, a journey of 500 miles. She had friends there and hopes to find a job.
She had decided to leave Lviv, in western Ukraine, which was relatively safe but which has been hit by rockets in recent days. After a rocket attack, Lisa texted, her thoughts were, “Am I still alive? I’m alive.”
After this trip, Thompson decided that his van would be no longer needed in southern Ukraine. This is where the Russians pounded towns with rocket attacks.
After 15 hours on the road, he found himself in Siret, Romania, on the border with Ukraine.
He found the border crossing full of volunteers offering hot food, tents with beds to rest in, medical aid and cabins staffed with speakers of many languages.
Thompson emailed his friends: ‘So I made my ride offer known to as many people as I could and just stood there and waited. There had been no volunteer drivers at this crossing, and most people thought my offer was odd, if not downright bizarre.
“In the end, a Romanian volunteer from the Salvation Army came to pick me up. He listened to a conversation of refugees and offered a group of 8 people direct passage in my van to their destination. They accepted. Destination: Varna Bulgaria. Was I “necessary”? No… Were they incredibly grateful to be driven for 11 hours, instead of days and days of trains? Yes.”
He asked Tamara to speak in Russian to this new group of three mothers, a grandmother and four children, all from Kharkiv. This city suffered fierce bombardments by the Russians. The husbands stayed to fight.
The group, wrote Thompson, “erupted with emotion when Tamara spoke to them”. He told his friends list that he made sure to tell the refugees that the money he gave them came from contributions from friends, from a GoFundMe page that had been set up, and that now stood at over $42,000. Lots of money to distribute.
Thompson’s next destination is Palanca, Moldova, on the southern border with Ukraine. It is another crossing point for thousands of refugees.
Thompson’s return ticket to Seattle is for April 23.
He does not intend to return sooner to his barge. Right now he has a goal.