My heart breaks: Moldovan women mobilise to help Ukrainian refugees

More than 400,000 people from Ukraine have crossed into the Republic of Moldova since Russia’s invasion on 24 February. According to Moldova’s Bureau for Migration and Asylum, over 1,600 Ukrainians had requested asylum as of 10 March.

Tatiana Costei (right), 32, is a member of JCI Ungheni and a volunteer at the Sculeni border crossing between the Republic of Moldova and Romania. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Vitalie Hotnogu

The first days of March saw temperatures of -3⁰C in Moldova, with queues growing, despite the cold, snow and rain. Among those arriving at the Sculeni border were Nadejda, 63, and Ina, 39, a mother and daughter from Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.

“We were living in fear every day under the sound of sirens and bombing,” recalls Nadejda. “Although that was our home, it was impossible to stay. We decided to move in with our relatives in Vinnytsia [central-western Ukraine], where we lived for a week. … We lived in the basement most of the time.”

When eight Russian missiles hit Vinnytsia and completely destroyed the town’s airport on 6 March, Nadejda and Ina had already moved on to Moldova, accompanied by Ina’s father and 7-year-old daughter, who has epilepsy.

Nadejda (left) fled Ukraine with her husband (right), daughter and granddaughter. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Vitalie Hotnogu

Nadejda and her husband grabbed some clothes and Ina took her daughter’s favourite toy. “I don’t know what’s next. My husband stayed behind. My daughter and I couldn’t resist any more. I could feel the danger approaching. Our friends stayed in Kharkiv and are still hiding in the basement. Their children have high fevers and they are helpless,” says Ina.

Ina and her daughter fled to seek safety in neighbouring countries. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Vitalie Hotnogu

The family reached the Sculeni border crossing between the Republic of Moldova and Romania, where refugees are welcomed by a group of volunteers from Junior Chamber International (JCI) Ungheni, a civil society organisation. Under a tent, they provide shelter to all those who cross the border, offering tea, a hot meal and warm clothes. Those who are in a hurry receive sandwiches and move on. Nadejda and Ina’s family were able to rest in a warm place and get help finding transportation to Romania.

“All we want is to reach my [other] daughter in Ireland,” says Nadejda. “I never thought I would live through this. We would like to go back. My daughter-in-law stayed in Ukraine together with my son, who couldn’t leave. She decided to stay behind with their baby.”

Ludmila (right) fled Odessa, Ukraine, with her daughter Polina (left) to seek a safe haven in neighbouring countries. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Vitalie Hotnogu

Thousands of families cross the border at Sculeni daily. Ludmila, 41, and Polina, 21, a mother and daughter from Odessa, arrived after a long trip. Despite everything, they retain their optimism, says Polina: “I am terrified of what is happening in our town. But we stay optimistic and hope for a peaceful future.”

Odessa is unrecognisable. The historic cultural and educational hub, known as the City of Heroes for its defence against the Nazis in 1941, has been largely abandoned.

“People are leaving and my heart breaks. I want peace, I want this to end so we can live in peace. My husband is a police officer and stayed behind to fight, together with my son-in-law. There is no other way. They stay behind to defend the home,” adds Ludmila.

At the Sculeni border crossing, the queue of cars waiting to enter Romania keeps growing.

Together with the volunteers, the border police are the first to welcome the people from Ukraine. For almost two weeks, they’ve been working non-stop, showing dedication, professionalism, and care for refugees. Many of the officers are women: according to the General Border Police Inspectorate (IGPF), 77 women were hired in 2021, and women account for 30 per cent of all border police officers.

Border police at the Sculeni border crossing between Moldova and Romania register people fleeing the war in Ukraine. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Vitalie Hotnogu

The Border Police have been on duty since the first day, checking passports and luggage, and trying to manage the influx.

“I am both emotional and happy that I can help, and at the same time, it is difficult to see children fleeing from their homes. This is our mission: to help and ensure the border security of the Republic of Moldova,” says one of the police officers.

JCI Ungheni volunteer Veronica Gârbu has been involved from the beginning of the crisis. “I felt I had to get involved. I have relatives in Ukraine who could not come to Moldova so I decided to support them somehow, or at least to help the people who come from that side. I collect things, I sort them, I prepare parcels and provide all the support I can. I cried a lot on the first days as I listened, emotionally, to their stories.”

Veronica Gârbu is a member of the non-profit organization JCI Ungheni. As a volunteer at the Sculeni border crossing, she sorts donations for refugees from Ukraine. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Vitalie Hotnogu

The groups grow every day, and at the Sculeni border, volunteers communicate intensively with local public authorities and border service agents to coordinate the flow of refugees and share responsibilities.

“Our help is essential in this situation and their grateful eyes are the best reward for us,” says Gârbu. “If there was a cause to dedicate all our efforts, energy and kindness to, then this is it.”

Another JCI Ungheni volunteer, Tatiana Costei, makes juice, sandwiches and hot drinks and distributes these to those in a hurry: “I worked 10 hours yesterday; today, I have been here since 8 in the morning. I don’t feel tired or anxious. I am willing to help until the end. We provide the refugees with warm clothes, blankets and warm food. If the flow is more intense, we prepare food takeaways so they can eat on their way.”

As a mother with four children reaches the border crossing, the volunteers ask: “Where are you going?”; “Do you need transport?”; “How can we help?” The tent is stocked with water, sandwiches, fruit, winter clothes, hygiene products and blankets. Some volunteers prepare food, others provide transportation.

Vera is a 50-year-old single mother from Kyiv: “We hid for six days in the basement. At one point, the sirens were on three to four times a day, and my children did not sleep for a week. We didn’t have anything to eat, we did not know how to survive. There was no bread in the shops, all the food was sold at once. If you didn’t spend two hours in line, you couldn’t buy anything. As a single mother, without any support, with four children, I just couldn’t manage to find anything.”

Vera, a 50-year-old single mother of four, fled the war in Ukraine. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Vitalie Hotnogu

When the bombs started to fall closer to their house, Vera found a way to flee: “We left at 7 in the morning. In 24 hours, we reached Moldova. We could not go directly to Poland, because we had to stay in line for three days at the railway station. In Moldova, I was surprised by people’s kindness; volunteers gave us food, hot drinks and provided us with winter clothes. My children hadn’t eaten in a week. I feel safer here. My eyelid stopped ticking. I don’t have panic attacks or nervous breakdowns. I am calm.”

Vera and her four children hope to reach Poland.

Through its EU-funded project to promote gender equality in Cahul and Ungheni districts, in partnership with UNICEF, UN Women is working to ensure that humanitarian efforts take into account the differentiated impact this conflict is having on women and men and persons from vulnerable groups.

You can help address the escalating needs of women and girls in Ukraine and those who have had to flee to neighbouring countries.
Please donate today.

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