Sitting on the corner of a bed with a colorful blanket, Elena looks wearily at a little black Chihuahua, intrigued by our visit to this refugee shelter in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. This Ukrainian woman in her twenties arrived at night with her two brothers and her mother, Tatiana. Pregnant, Elena can “give birth anytime”† The mother and daughter decided to leave Odessa, 200 km from the Moldovan capital, on Friday, March 11, after the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. They left their husbands responsible for “to defend” Tatiana’s mother, “too old to leave”†
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“Tired but happy”, the two women, who share the same piercing blue look, drove in the south of the country eight hours before they arrived at the Moldovan border. Like them, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nearly 400 people have visited this shelter, in a sports complex of the Academy of Economic Studies that has been converted into a dormitory, canteen and donation center.
The team in charge of the center, led by Marian Stan, white hair and smiling eyes, is well established. To the right of the building entrance, refugees arrive to register and “be informed of their rights”† In the same room, baby diapers, bed frames, clothes and food are piled up. “Donations from the Moldovans” more than “necessary” to meet the needs of refugees. Like Marian and Diana, many Moldovans have made it their mission to welcome those fleeing war. “I understood that it could happen here, that we too could become refugees”says Marian, alternating between French, Romanian (the official language of Moldova) and Russian.
According to figures from the Moldovan Foreign Minister as of March 13, there were 101,000 refugees in the country, of the 328,000 who have entered the area since the start of the conflict. In relation to its population, 2.6 million inhabitants, Moldova is the country with the largest number of exiles. An enormous logistical and human challenge for the poorest country in Europe, where the average salary is around 150 euros. However, the Moldovan state managed to establish a functional organization in a very short time, thanks to the solidarity of the Moldovans with “their siblings” Ukrainians.
40 minutes south of the capital, Igor Hîncu and his wife Victoria help refugees full-time. The craftsman and owner of EducJoc, which produces wooden toys, gave us an appointment in his workshop, in the heart of the village of Florini, typically Moldavian with its small streets and pastel-colored houses. Igor’s room, filled with toys and maps of European countries, smells of smoke. His tools have been running at full blast since the beginning of the war. The man manufactures and distributes his products, including a puzzle map in the colors of Ukraine, to refugee children for free.
The idea to help came quickly. The Saturday after the start of the war, Igor “round in circles”† It’s his birthday “but he doesn’t have the heart to celebrate”† The man then gets a call from UNICEF asking for toys. “There I told myself that we had a task, that we could help and bring something positive to often traumatized children”, he explains, sipping his tea. A crowdfunding campaign has now started “in Germany” hoping to continue the mission.
In addition to the toys, Igor, Victoria and their two children have welcomed fifteen people since the beginning of the war. Most Ukrainians arrive disoriented, “anxious”must therefore “gain their trust”† “A woman who came with her son was very suspicious, but we did everything we could to reassure her”says Igor with a smile. The next day she left for the airport to reach Istanbul and left me her car and the keys.” The family is “always in touch” with those who left. Even if “Victoria is tired”the door remains open for as long as necessary. “We may be the poorest country in Europe, but we want to help and above all share peace”breathes Igor as he looks at the snow.
Back in Chisinau, dressed in an unusual white coat for the month of March, it was impossible to miss the Ukrainian license plates. Ukrainian and European flags float on many official buildings, while calls for solidarity multiply on billboards. A logo appears regularly: that of Moldova for Peace, a group of volunteers that supervises the reception of refugees for the government.
The team occupies a room with large ocher velvet curtains in the Central Government Building, a huge Soviet-style building. The room, a meeting room in another life, is the command center of Moldova for Peace. The excitement is palpable. The fatigue can be read on the faces of the volunteers.
“From here we take care of the special needs of refugees”, explains coordinator Mariana Turcanu, behind her rectangular glasses. A center needs food for children? A refugee is looking for a family member? Does a coach need to be chartered near the border? Here the problem will be solved. Alex, in charge of answering the phone that constantly rings, sighs. Food and coffee are self-service in a corner of the room. Some have spent whole nights here. Emotions are strong, not a day goes by “without tears”.
Moldova had never received so many refugees. “We have learned by doing”gives in willingly Mariana Turcanuwhich should coordinate the aid of the Moldovans, but also the government and international organizations such as the UN or UNICEF. “A tango not for two, but for six.” But as volunteers struggle, here and in centers across the country, “without Moldovan hospitality nothing would have been possible”† More than two thirds of refugees in Moldova are hosted by individuals. “A unique model”allowed by the fact that “most people here speak russian or ukrainian”† Victoria, who is responsible for organizing transport, tells us that a campaign is being prepared to thank the people of Moldova.
Marcel Spatari, young minister of Labor and Social Security, hopes to see this wave of solidarity last. “It makes sense that things are going well, we have very good relations with Ukraine and Romania”, he explains to us between two encounters, in perfect French. Will it last? First, there is the financial issue. “We spend a lot of money, only the reception costs 5 million euros, or almost 1% of the annual state budget”, he makes clear. International aid, notably from the UN and the European Union (EU), is on the way.
“We receive 30 to 40,000 people a day, it’s manageable, what happens if we get to 100,000?”Marcel Spitari, Moldovan Minister of Labor and Social Security
Above all, the minister wants to ensure the long-term support of his population. “We have little money and a lot of vulnerable people. In a few months, even a few weeks, people will wonder why they are not being taken care of.” The government response this week was to increase “pensions and the minimum wage”† The long term is also what Mariana Turcani is thinking about: “We will have to integrate these people into the labor market. We will also have to find books, teachers because we are short of them… One in eight children currently present in Moldova is Ukrainian.”
Moldova will not be able to cope with this crisis alone. The prime minister ruled that the country was overwhelmed by the influx of refugees and appealed to Europe. “We need support from Europe, especially for foodalso insists Mariana Turcani. We share the same values, which we defend here.” When donations come in from the west of the continent, there have also been pledges to relocate refugees. France and Germany are expected to receive 2,500 each.
Most refugees arriving in Moldova will have to solve the same dilemma: whether or not to leave the country. Elena and Tatiana don’t know what to do yet. Tomorrow they have to decide whether to stay with this neighbor “close to Odessa” to come back soon “When the War Ends”, or if they leave for an EU country. For now, a night’s sleep away from the bombs, an ear to listen to their story and the smile of a volunteer from the visitor center is enough.