Ukrainians Find Warm Welcome in Moldova

But Europe’s poorest country calls for international aid to accommodate huge influx of refugees.

Ukrainians Find Warm Welcome in Moldova

But Europe’s poorest country calls for international aid to accommodate huge influx of refugees.

Ukrainians refugees arrive at the Mirnoe-Tabaki border crossing point in southwestern Moldova.
Ukrainians refugees arrive at the Mirnoe-Tabaki border crossing point in southwestern Moldova. © Aurel Obreja
A woman enters Moldova pushing a baby in a pram. Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 years of age are now allowed to leave Ukraine, and many accompany their wives and children to the border and then turned back.
A woman enters Moldova pushing a baby in a pram. Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 years of age are now allowed to leave Ukraine, and many accompany their wives and children to the border and then turned back. © Aurel Obreja
A few tents have been set up to provide with immediate assistance to refugees, who are then transported to one of the 78 accommodation centres across the country.
A few tents have been set up to provide with immediate assistance to refugees, who are then transported to one of the 78 accommodation centres across the country. © Piotr Garciu
A Ukrainian woman in the building of the border crossing of Mirnoe-Tabaki in southwestern Moldova.
A Ukrainian woman in the building of the border crossing of Mirnoe-Tabaki in southwestern Moldova. © Piotr Garciu

Until late February, the Mirnoe-Tabaki crossing point in southwestern Moldova was mainly used by those traveling to the neighbouring Ukrainian city of Bolhrad to shop for cheaper groceries.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, the flow has reversed direction.

In total, more than 270,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Moldova, with about 170,000 proceeding onwards to other countries in Europe and beyond. Those who remain are a fraction of the over one million who have found shelter in Poland. However, Moldova, with a population of just over four million, now has the largest concentration of Ukrainian refugees per capita: almost 4,000 per 100,000 residents.

According to the 2014 census there were almost 200,000 Ukrainians in Moldova, making up the largest minority in the country, followed by the Gagauzians. Although Moldova has welcomed the new arrivals, the authorities have called on other European countries to share the burden to avoid Moldova imploding under a pressure that is pushing the country to breaking point. With a GDP of about 4,600 US dollar per capita, Moldova is considered Europe’s poorest country.

“Everybody has come together to host, to provide shelter, to provide food, to provide assistance to those who are fleeing war,” Moldova’s prime minister Natalia Gavrilita  told US secretary of state Anthony Blinken in Chisinau on March 6. “But we will need assistance to deal with this influx, and we need this quickly.”

The government coordinates food and transportation as well as medical, translation and psychological support, and works with the Moldova for Peace volunteer group which then liaises with the business community, charities and NGOs.

The arrivals are overwhelming the system, with paperwork mounting as applications for asylum surpass 3,400. The World Health Organisation has sent a team of doctors to support the already strained health care system.

Those arriving at the Mirnoe-Tabaki crossing, one of the 12 border points between the two countries, are mainly sent to accommodation centres set up in Taraclia, a town of 13,000 about 30 kilometres to the north.

At the Mirnoe-Tabaki crossing Elena, 33, said that she was heading further north to stay with some relatives in the town of Causeni. The shop assistant from Odessa arrived with her 11-year -old daughter; her husband had to stay behind as men between 18 and 60 years old cannot leave the country.

“Many relatives are calling us from Poland, Germany, Portugal and even from Australia. All of them are inviting us to stay with them, but I want to go home,” Elena told IWPR.

“Ukraine’s tragedy united the people of Moldova.”

For Anna, 30, this was her second experience of displacement. In 2014 she left her native city of Luhansk due to fighting between government and Russia-armed separatist forces in the east of the country. After enduring several months of heavy shelling, she and sister moved to Kyiv. Eight years later, they once again experienced conflict.

“It was 5.30 in the morning,” Anna told IWPR. “A bang woke me, I started crying hysterically. I immediately called my sister and told her that it was war again and we had to leave the city,”

Anna - who used to organise tennis tournaments - grabbed a few belongings and left with her sister to join relatives in Moldova on March 7.

“I texted them on the way here; I hope nothing happens in Moldova, otherwise we will have to flee the war for the third time, this time to Romania,” she continued. “We are lucky that our relatives in Moldova have an empty house, it is modest, but at least we can live in a warm and safe place.”

The sisters were met at the border by some of the hundreds of Moldovans who, across the country, have been volunteering to distribute aid, to host, to drive those who arrive to friends and families or simply to the border with Romania.

Vladislav Grati, 27-year-old from Comrat, a town halfway between Minroe and the capital, has created a group chat in Telegram to coordinate local assistance.

“The idea came right after the first refugees arrived as authorities were unprepared,” he said.  “Fifty people were settled in one of the churches, but they did not have enough food, blankets, warm clothes and hygiene products. Therefore, we started to collect things; we gathered everything that was necessary and distributed it with several cars.”

Grati said that the community response had been enthusiastic. When a woman with two children arrived with only one small backpack, it took just a few hours to collect toys, clothes, baby formula and hygiene products and find them a place to stay, he recalled.

“Our people are not well-off, but they are ready to share whatever they have with the Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes to a foreign country,” he said. “Ukraine’s tragedy united the people of Moldova.”

Cafes and restaurants have offered free food and some deliver cooked meals directly to accommodation centres. Local authorities are also supporting those who arrive to find jobs and enroll their children in schools and day care centres.

The Moldovan government has opened 78 temporary reception centres all over the country with a total capacity of about 6,500 people. Most, however, are hosted by Moldovans, like Natalia Kirillovskaya who has so far had two families come to stay in her two-room apartment in Comrat.

“At the moment I am hosting a woman with two children from the city of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi. They did not have any relatives in Moldova and did not know where to go,” Natalia explained. “I have relatives in Ukraine and as a child I often spent holidays in this beautiful country. It is very painful for me to see what is going on there. I don’t understand those who support Russia’s military actions.”

This publication was prepared under the “Countering Disinformation in Moldova Project”, implemented with the support of the United Kingdom's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

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