Pablo Arrigo runs a mail-order seeds business from a comfortable town on the outskirts of London, but the horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has propelled him on a mercy mission.

“This is a Dunkirk moment,” he tweeted, before setting off from his home in Harrow to deliver aid to those fleeing over the Ukraine-Poland border, with a plan to bring back refugees. The Italian admitted to feeling scared, but concluded: “Their need is bigger than mine . . . it’s going to be grim but I can no longer sit in Harrow and watch.”

He is one of thousands of people across Europe who have been moved to act this week as an estimated 1mn people have poured over Ukraine’s western borders to escape a relentless bombardment by invading Russian forces.

From Berlin nightclubbers donating the proceeds of their raves, to a nine-year-old girl selling prints of her “Rainbow Tears” painting, the helplessness and dread felt by ordinary people at the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has turned into a remarkably speedy rush to help.

“This is the least we could do for those fleeing,” said a volunteer at the Polish White Eagle Club, a community centre in south London, where huge quantities of donated goods filled up all available space in only a few days and volunteers formed a human chain into the car park to load waiting vans with supplies.

In Hungary, the Budapest Bike Maffia community group initially thought three minivans would be enough after it began collected supplies, including food, toilet rolls and nappies. They ended up filling eight minivans, a large truck and eight cars “crammed floor to ceiling”.

“By the time we got to our warehouse on Saturday morning just before 10am, there was already a queue. Hundreds of people. Soon it looked like a football stadium with thousands of people descending on us,” said Zoltan Havasi, who helped co-ordinate the efforts.

Budapest Bike Maffia collects aid for Ukrainian refugees
The Budapest Bike Maffia collects aid for Ukrainian refugees © Marton Monus/Reuters

Similar community efforts were under way elsewhere around Europe, from Scottish boy scouts to Germany’s Patnerschaft Deutschland-Ukraine/Moldova collective who trucked aid to the border in a borrowed bus.

Ravers rallied support in Berlin, famous for its vibrant techno clubs that enjoy close links with Kyiv’s party scene.

The German city’s club commission has organised a fundraiser this weekend, the first time clubs are reopening after the coronavirus lockdown, under the banner “Club culture united — Stand up for Ukraine”, with a portion of the proceeds donated to aid organisations.

Volunteers across Germany have set up websites and notifications on the Telegram messaging app for people to share updates for Ukrainians. One site offered volunteers the option of providing assistance with transport, supplies or translations. Elsewhere, people have been appealing for sponsors and drivers to take aid convoys.

Images shared on social media showed thousands of Berliners greeting trains carrying fleeing Ukrainians with flowers and signs offering places to stay.

People hold signs offering housing to Ukrainian refugees at Berlin central station
People at Berlin central station offer housing to Ukrainian refugees arriving in Germany from Poland © Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In Belfast, prizewinning author Jan Carson was so “fed up doing nothing” that she organised a gig in the city this weekend, where local writers will read the work of Ukrainian peers “to raise some money and show our love”.

Pearl Swift-Vyner, a nine-year-old English schoolgirl, hopes to raise £2,000 by selling signed prints of her striking painting showing a multicoloured eye. 

Circus groups have taken to social media to offer assistance to fellow artists with accommodation, work and transport.

In Ireland, the furthest-flung corner of the EU from the war, an online news site published a piece in Ukrainian entitled “If you’re a Ukrainian travelling to Ireland, here’s what you need to know”.

Ireland has waived all visa requirements and will issue three-year permits allowing Ukrainians to live and work as EU citizens. The government has said it may need people to help house an expected influx of as many as 20,000 refugees.

Banks in several countries have waived fees and some phone providers are scrapping charges for calls to Ukraine.

Germany’s train operator has offered free services to Ukrainians and in Budapest, the Danubius Hotels Group has opened the country’s largest hotel to refugees with full-board included for the nearly 500 rooms.

Uber has offered unlimited free taxi services between the Ukrainian border and Polish cities, while Hungary’s Wizz Air announced 100,000 free flights and Polish public television said it would stream shows in Ukrainian since about half of the refugees entering Poland are children.

As well as food, people have provided sleeping bags, sanitary towels, medicine and baby equipment. But charities cautioned that what was needed most now was money.

Andrew Morley, head of charity World Vision International, who has just returned from the Romanian and Moldovan borders where relief operations are under way, said: “I’ve never seen a more heartbreaking situation.

“All the children I met were crossing the border in tears, with pain and fear in their eyes. They were lost and scared. They need the basics, simple, practical help . . . but we need financial support to do this.”

Outside south London’s Polish club, retired businessman Nick Horseman arrived in a family estate car and offered to drive the aid boxes to where they were needed and return with a vehicle full of Ukrainian refugees, even volunteering to put them up in his home.

“I spent two days watching this on TV and thought ‘I’ve got to do more’,” he said.