Since February 24, more than 450,000 refugees have crossed the Ukrainian border, and about one hundred thousand have temporarily settled with Moldova’s four million.
As its citizens wait for a visit from the UN Secretary General António Guterres tomorrow, United Nations News visited the country.
From Odessa, Natalia and her one-year-old daughter now live at the MoldExpo exhibition complex, which has been converted into a refugee center.
The 34-year-old mother said: “I was offered to go to Europe, to France. “But I don’t want to go that far. I hope it will all pass and I will be able to return home.”
When the war first began, one could not squeeze into the vast territory of spacious booths.
Svetlana, an interpreter who works with the United Nations and other organisations, said: “There is no such thing as a free square meter, I have never seen anything like it in my life and people just keep going. come,” Svetlana, an interpreter who works with the United Nations and other organizations, helps them communicate with local populations and refugees.
“Residents of Moldova started fundraising right away and literally crammed everything into the Exhibition Center, which they kept bringing in,” she continued. “My friend, a lawyer, is temporarily moving near the border to give legal advice to newcomers. And there are hundreds of people just like her.”
A flexible space
Today, the MoldExpo complex, which until recently was used as a COVID hospital, houses 360 refugees, and in its first days it held up to 1,200 overnight.
The exhibition center has been converted into a transit hub where people, exhausted from the perilous journey and frenzy of war, get a roof over their heads, a hot meal, legal advice and most importantly human sympathy.
It gives residents a little respite from determining where and how to get from here.
There are always long lines at the Ukrainian Embassy in Moldova. Staff members are overworked, making it difficult for those who quickly flee to replace any documents they may have lost or left behind.
“We are gypsies from Dnieper,” one woman said in response to our greeting. “I have a daughter in Germany, but we can’t join her there because we don’t have IDs and it takes time to replace them.”
Currently, she is living with her sisters and daughter in a small room in MoldExpo – with the hope of being able to go to Germany.
Close troops to help
At MoldExpo, staff from the United Nations, civil society organizations and volunteers work around the clock.
The UN has organized so-called “blue dots” for families with children and UNFPA provides an “Orange Safe Space” for the specific needs of girls and women.
And some people need medication and other forms of medical assistance.
In the “Orange Safe Space”, refugees are taught how to skillfully avoid the nets set up by traffickers.
Natalia said that she could hardly contain her emotions when she saw someone who lost everything for a moment.
“I had this case that shook me for two or three days,” she said, recounting the story of a 75-year-old former university professor in Kharkiv.
The woman’s son is a soldier, her daughter and daughter-in-law are doctors, and her son-in-law is a policeman.
Because of duty, none of them were able to leave Ukraine, so the elderly woman had to take her 5 grandchildren – aged 4 to 14 – to safety on her own.
“She couldn’t stop crying,” Natalia continued. “She’s been calling them for two days, and all the phones are disconnected; she is afraid that something has happened to them, Kharkiv is always surrounded. People at our center are comforting her, we try to reach them with one of our phones and distract the kids with candy.”
Fortunately, a few days later, it turned out that all four had survived, just no connection.
As tens of thousands of people receive economic assistance from United Nations agencies, MoldExpo also hosts a financial assistance center.
“People feel ashamed to accept money, but they are simply forced to do it,” said Natalia, who works at the UN center for material assistance.
“We often hear, ‘don’t get me wrong, we’ve got everything there, we don’t want anything. Many of them offer to volunteer and ask how they can help.”
Open houses, hearts
The financial package of about $190 is extended to families receiving asylum for at least a week. But is it really about money?
At the age of 73, Margarita Yevgenievna still has no plans to retire as a primary school teacher.
She shares her small two-room apartment with refugees.
“Three people from Odessa were in one room, and I was in the other. Until the war is over, they will live in my place,” she said, adding, “I also have three kids from Ukraine in my class.”
Still crossing the border
The flow of refugees has now shrunk considerably, but has not dried up.
About a two-hour drive from Chisinau, UN agencies and the Moldovan Government set up a tent camp on the Ukrainian border.
There the refugees can rest or spend the night, depending on the bus schedule that takes them into the city or to Romania.
“We didn’t even expect such a reception, we did it randomly, it was just too scary to stay,” said Irina, who has just arrived with her son from Odessa. “We are really grateful to Moldova and the UN.”
Greeted with heart
At Chisinau airport, on the wall between the passport control counters, one can read the following words:
“Moldova is a small country with a big heart.”
The head of the United Nations will soon arrive to assist the refugees and personally thank the Moldovans and all those who have supported them.