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Newcastle couple making a difference in war-torn Ukraine

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A lot of people talk about making a difference in someone else’s life, but few follow through that mindset with any kind of conviction.

Newcastle couple Shane and Agnes Burrell, however, are the exception to that adage.

The local documentary filmmakers will soon embark on an aid delivery run in war-torn Ukraine.

And, they’re calling on their fellow Novocastrians to lend a hand.

Newcastle’s Shane Burrell films in Maidan Square in Kyiv.

The pair, who’ll be returning to the battle-scarred country next month, has not only established a GoFundMe page to assist those in need but they’ll distribute as many winter supplies as possible… in person.

“At this stage, we’re just asking for financial donations,” Shane said.

“We’ve got contacts in Ukraine to buy sleeping bags and things like that, as people over there prepare to face another bitter winter.

“By having money, we can support their local economy and the residents directly.

“We’re just going to purchase the necessary goods, and build bundles, before delivering them as we travel through the country.

“Even a gesture as small as this can give them hope.”

Agnes Burrell speaks with the children in a village in Ukraine.

Shane explained the quest became the Burrells’ “passion project” after visiting Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s nation in August 2022.

“For Agnes, who’s Polish, and I, we’re both storytellers and I’ve been in the film industry for a long time,” he said.

“But, what we’ve been doing, particularly pre-COVID, was going and volunteering with NGOs (non-government organisations) and telling stories in the field in some unsavoury areas of the world.

“I think we feel drawn to these places and these people… and just elevating their voices.

“So, last year, we were afforded the opportunity to go into Ukraine with another Newcastle group, David Stevenson’s YWAM (Youth With A Mission), to document their mission, which was to construct essential accommodation for locals near Kyiv who had lost their homes and livelihoods.

“We were living in Poland, during that period, and had a car, so we told them: ‘we’ll just drive over, join you and start filming’.

It’s like Newcastle, for instance, except it’s been bombed.

Shane Burrell

“Then Agnes and I came across a beautifully-challenging tale, involving two girls, that grabbed our hearts and attention.

“We’re just like ‘we have to tell this story’.

“So, we’ll finish that on the back of our project to assist the Ukrainians.”

The international conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in February 2014.

Following Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, Russia annexed Crimea from the country and supported pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian military in the Donbas war.

The first eight years of discord also included naval incidents, cyberwarfare and heightened political tensions.

In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And, so far, the war has resulted in a refugee crisis and tens of thousands of deaths.

“For me, when we first arrived at Kyiv, what I noticed most was just how conditioned we are as westerners to fill in the gaps of the story in our brain based on what we absorb, which is mostly Netflix and the media that we see,” Shane told the Newcastle Weekly.

“Agnes would probably say something different.

“However, even right up to the border crossing when we’re going in, we were talking to some American aid workers and they’re like ‘make sure you’ve got Jerry cans of fuel because all of the diesel’s being reserved for the Army’ and all this sort of stuff.

“We’re like, okay, this is just adding to what we already feel is going to be hectic and crazy.

“But, it’s the total opposite… and that is what’s shocking.

“Anyone I’ve showed the film to, they’ve reacted: ‘oh my goodness, it’s a modern western society’.

“It’s like Newcastle, for instance, except it’s been bombed.

“The people just deal with it and, when you’re there, no one’s afraid, even if a missile strikes and blows something up.

“Agnes has a friend that she went to school with who’s been over there since 2014, when the war started on the front lines.

“He literally told her, a building behind you would get hit… everyone would drop their things and go and help, and then return, pick their stuff up and go on with their day.

“It’s just a matter of fact.

“So, it is hard not to get swept up in that. You’re not afraid.

Agnes and Shane Burrell in Ukraine.

“When we were in the village, there was some machine gun fire and a few blasts and rockets and stuff… and your adrenaline pumps in those moments.

“However, when you’re with the people, it’s just like ‘let’s get on with it’.

“It’s very surreal and very interesting.”

Shane said he was confident the Newcastle and Hunter community would dig deep to help the Ukrainians.  

“This region is quite well-known for opening its heart, and its generosity, which is what we’re counting on,” he explained.

“Anything we can take over is going to impact some lives and assist someone.

“We don’t want to go back empty-handed and just shoot a documentary.

“We’re determined to be able to give something immediate [to those in need]… we want to do good.

“Meanwhile, the documentary will continue to raise the profile, and open people’s eyes, to the fact that there’s the youngest and the smallest victims of this thing who are trying to make sense of it.

“The way these kids are dealing with everything, and what they’ve gone though, is inspirational.

“Especially, the ones in what you would almost call a sister city to Bucha.

“That was the scene, according to local authorities, where 458 bodies – 419 of which were killed with weapons – were recovered from the town, including nine children.

“Even photographic and video evidence of the massacre, and mass graves, emerged on 1 April 2022.

“So, Bucha received a lot of press because of that.

“But, this village was actually on the other side of the airport that the Russians were trying to take control of.

“In the end, it was flattened.

“At Bucha, there are holes in buildings and many were hit.

“And, then all the tanks lined that street, so it was very visually impacting – and attracted plenty of attention.

“However, this little place was just a sleepy summer home-style village where 500 people lived.

“But, it was almost, I think, 80% destroyed.

“And, yet, it got no press, no media… it’s something I can’t fathom.

“They’re the stories not many people outside of Ukraine know about.”

Residents can donate on the GoFundMe page gofundme.com/f/ukraine-winter

You can also contribute to the documentary and become a virtual team member by visiting patreon.com/pinkmonkey_agency

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