WALES reaching the finals of the FIFA World Cup is rightly being seen as a golden opportunity to put our country on the world map. But a group of the ‘Red Wall’ football supporters has been quietly acting as Welsh ambassadors for years, raising money for charities from China to Azerbaijan to California.

Tim Hartley reports on the fans’ recent visit to Wrocław before the team’s game against Poland.  

Imagine sending your son or daughter to Llangrannog for the week, or to the west country for a half term break. And then - they don’t come back. Because that’s what happened to 67 young boys from Kiev who travelled with their coaches to a football tournament in Poland just days before the Russians invaded their country. 

In fact they crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border an hour before the outbreak of the war. The children could not be sent back to their homeland so a local charity in Wrocław, The Notice Me Foundation, took care of them. The Foundation usually helps children suffering from cancer but has now added the needs of its near neighbours to its mission. 

READ MORE: £13.3 million raised in Wales for Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal

One of the boys who was taken in by Notice Me said, "I want the war to end as soon as possible so that I can see my family and friends."

His mother, who had recently joined them from Kyiv added, "My child, who is safe in Poland now, heard a plane and asked, “Mum. Will they shoot now? Do we have to go to the basement?” We will never go back to the life we had.This is an incredible pain, a horror for the children, for people. When we hear a plane we feel threatened by it." 

The National Wales: Children at Ukraine House in Wrocław.Children at Ukraine House in Wrocław.

After a few days some of the boys were slowly joined by their mothers, grandmothers and siblings finding safe shelter in two locations near the city, in a hotel and a company’s offices.

But these were just temporary facilities and Notice Me needed something more permanent. That’s when a group of local business people handed over an extensive site in Wroclaw to them. 

They re-christened it the ‘Ukrainian House’ and have started renovating it for the use of the young footballers and their families.

Today the site on Ofiar Oświęcimskich Street is a regular construction site. Several dozen people work there 24 hours a day. Bathrooms and kitchens are being created from nothing, while beds, mattresses and desks are being brought in.  

According to Emilia Iwanicka-Pałka from Notice Me, the most important thing is to carefully plan what should be there and where it should be.

"On the ground floor we have a dining room. On the floors above, cozy family rooms and shared lounges. There will also be classrooms in which Ukrainian teachers will work with children - a real school. And when the need arises we hope to have a kindergarten for younger children."

As the Wales football team began its UEFA Nations League campaign the Red Wall fans came together to help the young refugees.

The National Wales: Tim Hartley is pictured second from left with fellow Welsh fans.Tim Hartley is pictured second from left with fellow Welsh fans.

Before the match in Wrocław they organised a party in a city centre pub, raffled a signed shirt and raised more than five thousand Euros to help the building of Ukrainian House.

When I pooped into the Hard Rock Cafe on the afternoon of the match the party was in full swing.

Men and women in red football shirts sang and chanted. It was what we have come to expect from the Welsh fans who were voted the best group of supporters at Euro 2016. Boisterous, yes, but always well behaved. 

The Wales supporters charity, Gôl Cymru, was set up in 2002 by supporters who wanted to 'make a difference.’

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Fed up with the images of brawling drunken men abroad they wanted to help children in need, yes, but also to try to improve the image of the travelling fans.

The charity has been active in more than 40 countries and offers financial help and gifts whenever the Wales team plays.   

The National Wales: Gol supporters hand over cash raised for The Notice Me Foundation.Gol supporters hand over cash raised for The Notice Me Foundation.  

Leigh James, who organises the pre-match fundraising parties for Gôl Cymru, said, "The things these children from Kyiv must have experienced are unimaginable for us. The fans were really pleased to be able to help our Polish friends build the Ukrainian House.

"It’s a fantastic project. We all like a good time on our away trips but we’re also keen to give something back to the communities who are so welcoming to us."

The challenges for Ukrainian House are huge. The present renovation and the annual maintenance costs for the entire building, food and daily shopping expenses are enormous while the list of daily needs seems to have no end.

It costs around €100,000 a month to run Ukrainian House and the Foundation is hoping the government will step in to help pay the bills and there are fears that the owners of the building may want it back at the end of the year.   

READ MORE: Roberto Martinez: 'Wonderful' that Wales are going to the World Cup

But there is some good news. Emilia Iwanicka-Pałka told me, "A couple of families have been able to go home, though not to Kyiv but to ‘safer’ parts of their homeland. And guess what? We’ve had our first Ukrainian House baby.

"Her mother came here pregnant and we now have a lovely month old baby to help look after." 

It was a rather uplifting end to our visit and we can only hope that one day, soon, we will be able to visit the children again, this time when they are safely back in Kyiv. 

Tim Hartley is a writer and broadcaster and a football fan

You can donate to the supporters charity Gôl Cymru by visiting its Just Giving page here.

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