In Chișinău

Paula Erizanu

I arrived in Moldova in mid-April, just as the UK government announced it would be sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. I shared the news with friends from Moldova for Peace, a group of volunteers helping provide information, accommodation, transport and food to 77,000 of the 475,000 Ukrainian refugees that have crossed the Moldovan border since the start of the war. They were shocked by Britain’s callousness. Around 75,000 refugees are still in Moldova, 95 per cent of them hosted by individuals rather than refugee centres. But as the war drags on, Moldovans are looking for ways to make their hospitality efforts sustainable – while facing security risks and impoverishment themselves as a result of the war. Inflation has reached 27 per cent.

On the streets of Chișinău I heard a lot more Russian than usual: most refugees here have come from the Russian-speaking areas of Odesa and Mykolaiv. Maybe half the volunteers helping to pack food bags in a warehouse at the Moldova-Film studio are Ukrainian: ‘We thought of giving back, after the kindness we’ve received,’ many of them told me. Refugees in the city can come and pick their bags up from the warehouse; Moldova for Peace are looking for a way to provide delivery services outside Chișinău.

As we packed up cans of tomatoes and bags of sugar, my neighbour, Vasilina, told me she’d be turning 72 in a couple of days. Born in Moldova, she moved to Mykolaiv for work fifty years ago, immediately after graduating from university. (It was all the USSR then.) She married a Ukrainian and lived there for most of her life. A week after the invasion she left Mykolaiv with her daughter, a primary school teacher who has continued her lessons online, and granddaughter. The three women are staying in a relative’s house near Chișinău while he is working in Italy. This is one of the happy cases: refugees who have their own space, for free, and are able to work. Others are sharing small flats with their hosts, renting, or staying in refugee centres. There is nowhere to rent in the city any longer; Moldovans looking to move are also stuck.

Several Ukrainians work full time at Moldova for Peace. A woman I recognised from the warehouse told me she’d like to return home to Kyiv, but needs to have her flat checked for mines first. The other co-ordinators are young Moldovans with NGO experience. Many of them were previously involved in pandemic relief efforts and those networks have proved helpful now. They mobilised on the first days of the war and have given their time for free. But more than three months later they need to be able to earn a living, and crowdfunding covers only part of their daily costs. About eighty international organisations have been deployed to Chișinău, and some of them have provided funds to pay the warehouse workers. To pay for the other parts of the initiative – co-ordination, accommodation, transport, information on the border – they applied for money from Plan International, the UNCHR and other bodies. Since mid-April, after almost two months of full-time volunteering, 35 co-ordinators at Moldova for Peace have been paid for their work. Others still offer their time for free.

There was a series of unexplained explosions in the unrecognised breakaway republic of Transnistria at the end of April. Since the incidents on the right bank of the river Nistru, refugee centres in Moldova have had applications from Transnistrian asylum seekers, according to Lidia Melnic, who works at MoldExpo. The exhibition centre was turned into a Covid hospital in 2020; since March 2022 it’s been the biggest refugee centre in the country. People have their own cubicles, with one or two beds, separated by plastic walls and curtains. There is little privacy and a lot of noise – from children, pets, couples having sex. Tempers flare easily.

Some of the younger children in the play areas were drawing pictures of houses, of home. A few of the older ones were on their phones. With support from the UN Population Fund, the Youth Media Centre in Moldova has created an ‘Orange Safe Space’ room. There are online classes in the morning, then extracurricular activities and psychological support – which extends to women and the elderly – in the afternoon. The World Food Programme provides three hot meals a day. The leftovers go to a dog shelter. Still, there aren’t enough supplies: when I was there, they had to be frugal about tissues.

Lyuda, one of the receptionists at the UNCHR centre, had worked as an accountant in Mariupol. She was staying with her nine-year-old daughter in a room in student halls in Chișinău. She was worried about the events in Transnistria. ‘If the war comes there, I will leave,’ she told me. ‘Most likely for Germany.’

Outside the centre, dozens of Ukrainians were queuing to collect their monthly £100 cash hand-outs from the UNCHR. Moldovan hosts meanwhile are getting two rounds of £150 from the World Food Programme.

Another refugee centre has been set up in the State University’s former politics faculty building (FRISPA). Most of the Ukrainians staying there are Roma or Azeri. Clothes were hanging out to dry in the courtyard when I visited; people were strolling or talking in small groups. I was briefly worried about a child hunched on the stairs to the entrance but he turned out to be focused on assembling a Kinder Surprise toy. The guard told me he also worked at the Prosecutor’s Office. ‘Things are jollier here,’ he said.

I spoke with Ecaterina Luțișina, the manager of the centre, as she took a cigarette break from her twelve-hour shift. People kept coming up to her: new arrivals looking for a room, older ones in need of hygiene products, children asking when they’d get the coloured pencils they’d been promised. Ecaterina asked me to fold a few piles of donated clothes. A few children joined in. Most of the clothes were in good condition but some were stained. ‘I don’t know why people back away from taking dirty clothes, you just wash them,’ one of the boys said.

When we’d finished with the clothes we moved onto assembling and counting the pencil and paper sets. ‘Let me count, she doesn’t know how to do it, because she doesn’t go to school,’ one girl said of her younger friend. ‘My granny also likes to draw,’ another girl said, taking a spare set. Since I was there, the Youth Media Centre has done repairs to open a new Orange Safe Space room at FRISPA.

I met with Dorin Frasineanu, a government official. ‘Most of our resources have gone into crisis management,’ he told me. ‘We are reaching the limit of our sustainable borrowing capacity, and the money our development partners have promised to us is mostly going to international organisations rather than our state budget.’ To relieve the pressure the Moldovan authorities co-ordinated with the government in Bucharest to provide buses at the Moldova-Ukraine border that would take refugees straight to Romanian cities. Frasineanu visited the crossing at Palanca during the first days of war. ‘In every old woman I saw my grandmother,’ he said.

‘You are on the frontline of the humanitarian crisis, the first point of safety refugees reach,’ an Austrian therapist told volunteers in an online training session. ‘If they have a good experience, they will remember you for the rest of their lives.’