At 62, Rick Thompson is a comfortably retired ex-Microsoftie who lives on a houseboat on Portage Bay, walks 8 miles a day and likes to go out on his rowboat.
Since March 23, however, he’s been in Europe, shuttling Ukrainian refugees to safety in his rented Volkswagen van.
Everything about Thompson’s background — as a Microsoft vice president, to once being part owner of Ferrari of Seattle, to becoming owner-operator of Seattle Chocolate with his former wife, Jean Thompson (she is now sole owner) — is about 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 whole lot of time thinking about it. It’s the first time in my life that there are really clear good guys and really clear bad guys,” says Thompson.
Being there means a personal connection and getting a thank you from someone like Tamara, a mom from Kyiv who doesn’t want her last name used. Her group in that Volkswagen van consisted of Tamara and her son; Tamara’s mom, 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 sizable 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 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 city of about 60,000, after reading about it. The New York Times described the city as “transformed into a massive aid machine.”
He knew that in Przemysl he needed to find the Tesco superstore, the British-based retailer that closed there, a casualty of COVID-19. Now its aisles are lined with mattresses for refugees seeking shelter.
“I parked across the street and walked over. There was a hodgepodge of volunteers. Polish Boy 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 passed muster with those in charge.
At the Tesco, he was asked an important question: How far was he willing to drive refugees?
“Anywhere,” he answered. “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, some 320 miles away.
It is mostly women and their children who make up the refugees. Nearly all Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country in case they’re needed to fight.
Thompson understood the natural apprehension women would have about a single male with a van.
The United Nations Office on Drugs on Crime says “human trafficking from Ukraine is a well-established, illegal industry,” and with the war, “people escaping conflict are in a very dangerous and precarious situation.”
For that mom with four kids, Thompson says he had a friend of his who speaks Ukrainian send a three-minute voicemail over WhatsApp vouching for him. There wasn’t much of a reaction from the group, says Thompson. “They were sad and worn out.”
Thompson got the group to their destination as fast as he could. He bought the family hot dogs at a gas station and gave the mom what cash he had, about $25.
Thompson has 70 friends on an email thread in which he updates them about his journey.
For that first trip to that farm, he recounted in his first email, “Truth be told, they don’t even know I exist. Their dilemma and fear has so overwhelmed them. Who knows who they left behind, and they had almost nothing packed. I understand …”
The next day, back at the Tesco, he was asked by those running the center to drive Tamara’s group to Brussels, a two-day drive. They had an overnight stop in Dresden, Germany, and Thompson paid for the group’s motel stay.
This time, he says, at the beginning of the trip, he asked a Bulgarian woman he knows to call, talk to the group in Russian and vouch for him. That seemed to put the group at ease, he says.
Thompson himself used the Google Translate feature on his smartphone to communicate with his passengers. With some, like Tamara, the exchanges have been longer.
In the Telegram text exchange for this story, Tamara writes about the life she left in Kyiv, “There was not a day of calm — constant sirens, rocket explosions, fighter jets flying overhead kept us and the children in constant terrible fear. It cannot be described in words. Every day, the children and I sat in the basements and did not know whether we would get out of there alive or not.”
She says that “quite by chance,” at the Tesco she learned that Thompson’s van could accommodate her big group.
“We saw his eyes and smile, we did not doubt for a second decency of this wonderful person,” says Tamara.
His third trip ferrying refugees from the Tesco was to take Lisa, who also did not want her last name used, and her young son, Demjan, from Przemysl to Prague in the Czech Republic, a 500-mile trip. She had friends there and is hoping to get a job.
She had decided to leave Lviv in western Ukraine, which had been relatively safe but has been hit by rockets in recent days. After one rocket attack, Lisa texted, her thoughts were, “Am I still alive? I am alive.”
After that trip, Thompson decided there would be more need for his van in southern Ukraine. That’s where the Russians have been pounding cities with rocket attacks.
After a 15-hour drive he ended up in Siret, Romania, on the border with Ukraine.
He found the border crossing full of volunteers offering hot food, tents with beds to rest, medical help and booths staffed with speakers in numerous languages.
Thompson emailed his friends, “So, I made my transportation offer known to as many people as possible and stood around and waited. There had not been volunteer drivers at this crossing and most people thought my offer was odd if not downright weird.
“In the end, a Romanian Salvation Army volunteer came through for me. He listened in on a refugee conversation and offered a group of 8 people direct passage in my van to where they were going. They accepted. Destination: Varna Bulgaria. Was I ‘needed’? No … Were they incredibly thankful to be driven the 11 hours, instead of days and days of trains? Yes.”
He asked Tamara to speak in Russian to this new group of three moms, a grandmother and four children, all from Kharkiv. That city has suffered ferocious bombing by the Russians. The husbands stayed behind to fight.
The group, wrote Thompson, “exploded with emotion when Tamara spoke to them.” He told his email list of friends that he made sure to tell the refugees that the cash he gave them was from the friends’ contributions, from a GoFundMe page that had been set up, and that is now at over $42,000. Plenty of cash to distribute.
Thompson’s next destination is Palanca, Moldova, on the southern border with Ukraine. That’s another crossing for thousands of refugees.
Thompson’s return ticket to Seattle is for April 23.
He isn’t planning to come back any earlier to his houseboat. Right now, he’s got a purpose.