Expat game changers: She quit her job and drove over 12,000 km to help refugees

Lisa Marie Cunniff and a small group of expats have launched a language school and wellness center to help 'empower' refugees in Czechia.

Kathrin Yaromich

Written by Kathrin Yaromich Published on 13.06.2022 14:45:00 (updated on 26.07.2022) Reading time: 8 minutes

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Originally from the UK, Prague-based English teacher and yoga instructor Lisa Marie Cunniff has been living in the Czech Republic for 10 years. As for many people, February 24, 2022, marked the beginning of a new life chapter for Lisa, one filled with sorrow and pain, purpose and gratitude. 

But instead of wallowing in negative headlines, Lisa Cunniff and her partner Sophie Malone made a courageous decision, one that required resilience and strength, and eventually led them to establish the new Empowering NGO. 

Together with a group of like-minded people, she has set up a language and wellbeing center, which provides employment, language courses, and trauma therapy to refugees.

Prior to that, Cunniff and Malone spent the first month of the war helping refugees escape Ukraine and in doing so realized that it would take an even bigger effort to help these displaced people further integrate into Czech society. 

We spoke to Lisa about what it was like to be on the frontline of helping refugees, the stories she heard, and the challenges her organization is facing in its infancy.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you do when you first heard about Russia's war in Ukraine?

As soon as my girlfriend and I heard what was happening, we drove to the border. The first time we picked up a 15-year-old boy, a 50-something mum, and a 70-year-old grandma. They couldn’t speak any English, and we could see how difficult it was to communicate and for them to do anything anywhere. Luckily, they were coming to their family, and it was rather emotional to see them reunite.

After that, we realized we had to do more, but we couldn’t do so with our tiny car. We started calling car companies, and we were overjoyed when one of the companies, CarLove, agreed to a discounted hire to help with our cause. We called our friends in England, and money just started coming in fast to help us. Our landlord offered a month's free rent to get the pressure off this. We quit our jobs for a month and did 8000 kilometers of driving. Every trip took us at least 30 hours.

Delivering goods to the humanitarian aid corridor at Ubla, Slovakia - Ukraine border. Photo: Lisa Marie Cunniff
Delivering goods to the humanitarian aid corridor at Ubla, Slovakia - Ukraine border. Photo: Lisa Marie Cunniff

How many people have you transported in total?

We brought 34 people, two dogs, and two cats. 

Describe some of the stories you heard from the people you picked up.

One family from Kyiv told us how they had seen their neighbors killed. It was a mum with two children, one of whom was a 15-year-old boy with his girlfriend. The woman was happily married, they had their own beautiful house with a garden, and the kids were both musicians and artists who were doing really well in life. They said that Russian soldiers were coming in and terrorizing families who locked their doors, dragging them out on the streets and killing them, including children. So, this family opened all their doors and all their windows and wrote big signs saying “Children. Please just come in, don't shoot.” The soldiers came into the house, destroyed their mobile phones and their laptops, and then they let them go.

Lisa Marie Cunniff with one of the Ukrainian families. Photo: Lisa Marie Cunniff
Lisa Marie Cunniff with one of the Ukrainian families. Photo: Lisa Marie Cunniff

There were these bittersweet moments when I told a mum and the daughter that I liked their oversized sweaters, and they told me they were the dad’s, so they can feel close to him. So that was a good, kind of easy story that we came across.

Some families we picked up were mainly elderly, very sick who ended up in hospital. One of them had fallen off the train in Kyiv and had broken ribs, two black eyes, and it took him and his wife 10 days to cross the country. By the time we had him, he was coughing up blood, but his wife was refusing to let us take him to the hospital.

What we realized was that people in trauma just needed a safe space for a few days so they could start thinking rationally again, so we'd make excuses to stay. For instance, with the man who needed to go to the hospital, we said we couldn't move on to the next place yet (which was true), so we stayed with them for a couple of days until the wife realized her husband needed to go to the hospital, and we immediately called the ambulance. 

Did spending time with all these families influence your next steps?

Completely. After a month of going to the border, we were exhausted, our time was coming to a natural end. We then started to think about how we could help more. We'd seen that the families who could speak English were much better able to get the help they needed, they were able to find a common language somewhere with someone and ask for what they needed. Whereas the people who couldn't understand any Czech (and some could at least pick up something) really struggled.

What services do you plan to offer refugees?

The first idea was to provide a language center, and we decided we could employ Ukrainian English teachers who were teachers back in Ukraine and needed jobs here. The first person we found was a professor at Kyiv University, and she's become an educational consultant for us so she's the one that teaches setting up the curriculum and organizing everything. The other teacher is from close to Lviv, and she has become one of our main English teachers.

Photo: Lisa Marie Cuniff
Photo: Lisa Marie Cuniff

This sounds logistically and emotionally challenging. What drives you personally to get involved on this level?

I feel such a great sense of purpose that it is a driving force and I'm just learning to ride and stay balanced on the wave. We both feel this way.  It's something stronger than we have ever known.

When I was 6, there was a gas explosion that killed a lot of people.  My grandad, who was also a gas worker, did a fundraising event for the families with me. So I've got a bit of his attitude. I also have my own history of trauma and two nervous breakdowns. Through yoga, meditation, and other practices I learned about healing trauma. Also in yoga, there is seva, which is a practice of selfless service, and it is something that comes naturally to me if I see a cause that I want to support. I was trained to be a social worker when I left school and have had some volunteer experience in this field.

I know that if you don't have a community and you don't have strategies for dealing with the pain, it can really send you on a very negative path in your life. But if you immediately have that structure set up to help you, then you've got a much better chance of having a healthier relationship with your trauma. That's why we decided to set up a well-being center in addition to the language school. We currently have three trained, fully certified psychologists from Ukraine to work with us. We just need the funding to pay them.

And now you're back at work and struggling a bit to get support for the project.

Yes, I'm still working a normal job and then doing this. I've been working from 8:00 am to midnight flat out for weeks. Over the last few weeks, I've had to cancel my own lessons a lot, and I didn't work while driving to Ukraine. Now I'm going into summer, which as a teacher I don't get paid, so I'm really putting my own finances right on the edge. 

How has the expat community rallied around you?

We felt a lot of support from the community. We were really happy when we found a perfect building for our center, and the landlord agreed on exchanging the three-month rent for refurbishing the place. Our friends agreed to help us for free, we just had to buy the materials.  They are all expats and empowered us to open our centre.  The CEO of Insighters, the company where I teach English, made a contribution of CZK 50,000 and a full team of people to do graphic and website design, which empowered our project to come into reality. For a long time, it felt like we were riding this kind of wave with everything falling into place and us being mere facilitators.

Do you feel like the wave is no longer there?

Yeah, sometimes. We have been through this whole process, we've obviously met a lot of other people who've been really active, and now they face similar obstacles.

People are still desperate for integration, language, an opportunity for work, and for their kids to make friends. We have the potential to employ eight Ukrainian people and one Czech.

You list several fundraising methods on your site. Tell us a bit more.

We offer some unique ways one can make a contribution. For instance, we have an annual membership program for companies with exclusive services, including a three-day developmental training for employees, exclusive access to unique nature immersion retreats and permaculture events, discounts on team building events and English lessons, and brunch and events with the community. We came up with this idea because we wanted to combine fundraising with giving back to our contributors. We also offer yoga and activity days in schools and are really excited by this project but expect it will be successful from September. In addition, we also offer special services for individuals and companies, such as translations, language lessons, and even massages and reflexology.

Are people kind of getting used to the idea of war?

Everybody's got used to the war. When I hear people say, ‘Oh I've already given,’ I think, what do you think these people have given? They've given up their life, they've given up their husbands, they've given up their homes, jobs, and everything they knew to try and find some safety. Sure, people have given what they probably thought they could, but if you speak to someone from Ukraine just for a minute, you want to give them anything. You can see the pain in the eyes and also the gratitude for the help.

How can you help the center?

  • Contribute. To help the center start running, donate to cover the costs for the first six months until Empowering can receive EU grants and government subsidies.
  • Donate. Donate items that the center needs to provide language courses, trauma therapy, and wellbeing therapy. See a wishlist here.
  • Become a member. The center offers an annual membership program for companies with exclusive services.
  • Use a service. Consider using the center's services, such as translations, language lessons, massages, reflexology services, and more. 

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