Never have I felt my heart break and become whole in a single moment.
My tiny and overloaded Peugeot comes to a stop on Strada București, house number 83, the pop-up refugee center in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. Currently setup in an old building downtown, the driveway runs through a big yellow archway at the front with a short corridor already filled with a line of people patiently waiting for the facility to open. Upon seeing my load of supplies strapped to the trunk and cargo rack, the crowd parts, giving just enough room for me to squeeze down the middle. All eyes are on me as I slowly make my way through. Some express curiosity and interest, while others simply look unhappy, tired, and frustrated. This is understandable. Many of these people have arrived in Moldova from Ukraine to find they cannot access their funds, housing has become scarce, or despite the myriad of European programs available to incoming refugees, complications and difficulties in navigating them are not uncommon. Multiple families can be found sharing a single living room or seeking refuge in empty commercial buildings while each attempts to figure the next steps to this nightmare.
For those unfamiliar, Moldova is an independent country with only two adjoining neighbors. On its western border, Romania shares many historical and cultural qualities such as language, folklore, and similar religious makeup. Physically though, Moldova is practically enveloped by Ukraine. The northern, southern, and eastern borders are all shared with Ukraine with refugees entering from all three sides. Moldova’s interior also suffers from political complications. Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway state made up of Russians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians in near equal portions had declared independence by Russian separatists with an unknown number of soldiers, some from the Russian Federation, residing within.
To further the challenge, Moldova is not considered a wealthy country in Eastern European standards. Chișinău is beautiful and can feel quite modern, but outside the city limits, the country is mostly rural, and to a degree, quite rough. During my time here, I have not had access to potable water unless commercially bottled. Water is in fact the main reason for my coming. As a former contractor and electrician, I have come offering my skills to help with resettlement opportunities. My original call was to repair a water pump system for two people offering housing for incoming refugees, but since I was already driving from abroad, I thought to fill my empty cargo space with needed supplies. These houses, one of which I am staying in, are just outside the city. Despite by all definitions being a modern home, there are key features missing that many consider standard. In my case, we have no internet connection outside of cellular, hot water is not available throughout the house, and our heat sources come from either wood burning or heat lamps (the kind you see in a reptile terrarium). Another issue was the houses are practically inaccessible by car. There is only one solid road in the village, so unless you have a high-clearance four-wheel-drive, you park off this main road and walk the rest of the way. Add rain to the mix and even walking becomes a slippery and sloppy mess.
While all these challenges present logistical and political issues with incoming refugees from Ukraine, their growing numbers have begun to strain infrastructure, housing availability, and supply of basic goods. In a country where drinking water and heat is not standard in every home, this presents a problem when the population has grown by a staggering 16% in the past two months, the most refugees per capita in the world (UNHCR). Looking at Ukraine’s other neighbors, Poland has seen far more in numbers cross its border, but as a European Union (EU) and Schengen Zone member, refugees are greeted by humanitarian organizations and then free travel without restriction to and from any other Schengen member state. Romania, like Poland, is both large in size and an EU member. Much smaller Moldova is neither. Still, it offers temporary refuge, and being a former state of the Soviet Union like Ukraine, Russian is regularly a common language between the two. Once inside, refugees then navigate programs to grant travel onwards with extended visas, or they stay in Moldova. These programs do exist in significant numbers and the costs are often covered by the sponsoring state, but talking with refugees, many either struggle with understanding the requirements and procedures, or wish to stay close to Ukraine while their loved ones remain inside. It’s a complex situation to say the least.
Back in Chișinău, my little car laden with bulk toiletry and hygiene products creeps through the parted crowd in front of the refugee center to reach a small parking lot in the back. There, I was greeted with a warm welcome. Almost all the volunteers here are refugees themselves. The center provides food, supplies, and priceless information to hundreds of families every day. A train of volunteers begin to help unload the supplies which have journeyed many miles and been donated from multiple countries. There is a sigh of satisfaction as I stare at the empty trunk and cargo rack, while an inaudible sigh of relief can only describe my car’s suspension returning to its standard, uncompressed position.
Despite most of us speaking multiple languages, finding a common language amongst us falls short. I am introduced to one of the few English speakers, and through her, their words are translated – Though, no translation is needed to see the gratitude and excitement on their faces. Hearing one choke up with the start of tears in her eyes is enough to put me in shock. I had not anticipated this.
Weary from the long drive, they invite me inside for tea and a tour of the facility. We squeeze through the line at the front door and enter the lobby where visitors check-in. Here, volunteers meet individuals to connect them with services, register passports and contact information, and issue care packages which are either pre-made or tailored to particular needs. We continue further into the building. A room with stacked boxes overflowing with clothes, bedding, and shoes are all organized by type and size. Next door, food, drink, and cooking related donations are followed by a room for toiletries, hygiene, and basic unregulated medicines. In the last room, my own donations are set into a pile where they will be sorted to make their way into the hands of those in need. When I was first connected with the center, they requested baby food, hygiene and bathroom products. There were curious looks back in Croatia and again in Romania as a strange foreigner stuffed grocery carts full of bulk toilet paper and baby formula into a tiny lime-green French compact with German license plates. Once the car was full, this strange man then began strapping big items to the outside, at one point, running out of straps and using his belt, a bicycle cable, and just about anything to prevent the mass amounts of toilet paper from falling off and clogging up the Romanian motorway. Despite their piercing eyes, I was proud to be this strange man.
My time at the center has been powerful, and the more time I spend here, the longer I wish to stay and continue working with such wonderful people. Volunteers tirelessly assist and offer any assistance to anyone who enters the front door. We share and swap stories, learn about one another and our backgrounds, and drink lots of tea and coffee. – Seriously, a lot. They explain that in their culture, an empty glass is just unacceptable. In mine, it’s generally disrespectful not to drink what is given to you. It was a dangerous feedback loop, but eventually, I accepted this tradition. I either leave my cup with drink remaining or risk over-caffeination and hydration. Over tea, our conversations could become quite difficult, but those were washed away by a strong spirit of positivity and love that fills this place.
One by one, the work never ended until it was time to close. The directors of the center eventually arrived with another load of supplies in a more suitable cargo van, not an undersized green coupe. I was surprised to find they are Russian citizens living in western europe, who were only in Moldova on a brief visit when war broke out. Wishing to help, they asked a local church if they could briefly utilize an empty commercial space to store donations while the wave of refugees came through. Instead of a wave, the refugees became a steady stream in February, and currently in April, they haven’t stopped. What started as two people gathering donations for a couple weeks grew to a full operation with 18 volunteers. A couple volunteers work remotely in other countries answering emails, phone calls, Facebook inquiries, and Whatsapp text messages. Even the government has begun recognizing their operation as a major asset to refugee resettlement. When someone calls a government line seeking assistance, they will utter the keywords, “București 83.” Originally just a street address, their de facto organization now has a name.
Directors, Maxim and his wife Manya are generous hosts and reinforced the positive stereotype on Russian hospitality. Conversation over traditional tea and biscuits are commonplace in the center’s breakroom. Because of his position, Maxim regularly excuses himself as volunteers pop in with questions or when his phone chimes, demanding his attention. While he runs around, managing the frontend and connecting donors to recipients, Manya prefers working behind the scenes. Together with the team of volunteers, they have kept the operation alive. Unfortunately, their time is running out. Like me, they are in Moldova on 90-day visas. Their plans before the war included only a brief stay in Chișinău. Even when they opened the center, they thought it would be temporary, a couple weeks at most. Instead, that 90-day deadline is rapidly approaching and the line outside the center refuses to wane. With their departure from Moldova inevitable, Maxim and Manya are preparing to pass the entire refugee center to the volunteers. In particular, Nina, who fled Odessa a month earlier, has found herself running the facility quite efficiently. She and her daughter, who is no more than 12 years old, work everyday. She is strong and confident as a leader, but more importantly, she seems to maintain the camaraderie and friendship amongst the whole team.
It is important to understand that all but one of the volunteers from Ukraine are women. Under martial law, Ukrainian men of military service age are forbidden from leaving the country. This tethers many refugees close to the border. They are waiting to see their loved ones. Once given the ok to return home, they will not waste even a minute.
My week here in Moldova has included meeting some amazing people with incredible stories, but it also falls nicely with Easter this weekend. Nina along with Sasha, another volunteer in her late teens, sit down with me to talk over lunch. They ask me about my family in the United States and our Easter plans. The Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe celebrates Easter a week later than its western counterparts. I explain this and how I keep in touch with video chats, phone calls, and text messages. Reciprocating the same question, Nina and her daughter, who are staying in Chișinău, will attend the massive service at the Cathedral. At the thought of Easter, a very important holiday to most Ukrainian families, Sasha’s face turns sorrowful as she holds back tears. She is staying a 40-minute drive outside the city with her grandmother in a little village. Her father and two brothers remain in Odessa to defend the city. She will celebrate Easter with her grandmother, but this year, it will be less of a joyous event. I am invited to join a family (many actually) for their Easter weekend festivities and their midnight service. This will be a strong way to end my time here, as next week, I head into Ukraine itself and then onward back to Germany.
Our talks about our families, theirs divided between Moldova and Ukraine, mine still in the United States, sparks interesting self-reflection. They have been forced apart. Uprooted and displaced by war leaving behind brothers, sons, fathers, and husbands. In my case, I had left freely without the threat of war or tragedy. There is a degree of grief and guilt at this thought. They would give anything to reunite with their family in Ukraine. Am I selfish for leaving my own loving family behind? At the same time, am I selfish for leaving these people when there is so much that needs to be done? Hearing stories from field researchers, I had imagined this dilemma, but always assumed it would present itself as guilt upon returning home. Regardless, my experience here has made a positive impression on my life, and each volunteer, myself included, is making an impact on Moldovan and Ukrainian lives. In all my years of trying to find myself, taking on new jobs and projects, and often wondering if I’ve made the right choice, it is moments like these that confirm becoming a geographer was truly right for me.
On the evening of my departure, there is a long goodbye in the parking lot. A flurry of selfies, hugs, and handshakes as I walk out followed by waves as my unladen green Peugeot rolls down the driveway and through the front arch. Looking left and right, the street parking is dominated by Ukrainian license plates. I made it to Moldova and successfully accomplished what I came here to do. But still, I do not want to go. My heart feels a heavy weight, as if chained to the very place I am leaving. I consider changing my plans. I can fetch another load of supplies and come right back. There are plenty more housing projects I can help with. But alas, there will always be more to do and people to help. For now, my own family and life at home call for me. I have not seen them in months. It’s time. I take a breath, shift my car into gear, and turn onto Strada București, driving away from house number 83.