Millions of Ukrainians have left their homes since the threat of Russian invasion became a dreadful reality on the morning of 24 February. Local public authorities from Cahul in neighbouring Moldova, as well as volunteers and civil society in the region, have mobilised to help, to guide and to host them.
As soon as the war started in Ukraine, the local authorities in Cahul created a Crisis Unit under the city council, and since that day, it has worked around the clock. This is where humanitarian aid and donations – from both economic operators and individuals – are stored and distributed. They also provide blankets, food, hygiene products, as well as information about food for refugees and ways to be tested for COVID-19 and vaccinated on demand.
As well as the Crisis Unit, the local authorities in Cahul also arranged temporary placement centres for Ukrainian refugees, which currently accommodate over 100 people at the dormitory of the ‘B.P. Hasdeu’ State University, the ‘Nufărul Alb’ sanatorium, and the Cahul Maternal Centre. Many refugees benefit from the generosity of local inhabitants and are given shelter by people from rural areas of the district.
“Local authorities mobilised on day one,” explained Tatiana Romaniuc, deputy mayor of Cahul municipality. “The Crisis Unit was established immediately, responsible persons were designated, and volunteers were identified. We are in great need of volunteers, because the Unit works 24/7 and this means day and night shifts. There are people who volunteer to stay overnight and provide support to those fleeing the war. People need information about accommodation options, documentation, details about crossing the border, transportation, and other types of support. These things may seem trivial, but trivial things became essential overnight. Our life is in permanent movement. Every day, we guide, inform, provide accommodation to 200-250 people. Some people get registered, obtain documents and continue their journey towards other countries,” says Romaniuc.
Many people provide help immediately. They respond on the internet, they mobilise themselves, they offer accommodation, transport, clothes, food, health care or translation services. Some refugees, who decide to stay in Moldova for a longer term, themselves become volunteers and help their compatriots.
“We analyse in our team various ways of integrating refugees, including children. We have already received some requests from them. We set goals to manage the situation in the long run. We discussed with various cultural and education centres in order to see what possibilities are available for involving refugee children in various activities. We received expressions of interest from the Creativity Centre, dance teams, the ‘Maria Cebotari’ music school, Fine Arts School, and many other centres. They came up with offers and ideas for the longer term,” Romaniuc added.
Stela Vodă works at Cahul Municipality and has been a volunteer in the Crisis Unit since the very first wave of refugees.
“I’m with the Crisis Unit from the very beginning. We are working around the clock here, but I don’t feel tired. Here is where I live emotional moments, I meet people with incredible life stories. Many refugees get here in a lot of pain, some of them are soaking wet, without any clothes and it’s most difficult to see small children that have nothing. Here, at the Crisis Unit, we try to provide these people with everything we can. At any time. Be it day or night. I try to keep things well organised, to manage the collected things, to organise products, and to mobilise ourselves so that we can manage if the inflow of refugees is higher. Many local organisations got involved. Besides volunteers, many public organisations from Cahul have been mobilised and they provide accommodation or hot meals. They work with the local authority or carry out separate activities to support the refugees.”
“There’s an unprecedented mobilisation of organisations from Cahul. They cook hundreds of meals every day. They collect hygiene products, food for children (aged from zero to 18 years), blankets, and baby clothes. People mobilised quickly and all of them help,” Vodă added.
A significant share of refugees get to Moldova by crossing the Giurgiulești – Reni border-crossing point. Around 10,000 people cross the border daily, entering the Republic of Moldova. Border Police officers lead refugees to an improvised tent where they are offered tea or coffee. From here, most of them, mothers and children, walk on foot around two kilometres to Galați Customs, the border with Romania. Volunteers organise transport, especially for mothers with small children.
Irina taught at the Waldorf School in Odesa and has now been forced to leave the town. She is frozen but is determined to carry on. She is concerned to get to a warm and safe place before the evening comes.
“We will see where we get. We could go to France or Switzerland. There is a community of teachers that invited us. We haven’t decided yet which way to go. It’s important that we reach the Galați Customs. Maybe we will go to Switzerland. We have a school community there, friends, and we will see how things work out,” confesses Irina.
Galina, aged 40, was among those who queued up for kilometres to travel from Ukraine to Moldova, escaping from Izmail, a town in the Odesa Region in south-western Ukraine. Located192km south-west of Odesa and 80km from the point where the Kilia branch of the Danube enters the Black Sea, Izmail was the Soviet Union’s largest port on the Danube.
“I feel lost. Everybody is running. It was so hard to make this decision. I had no choice. I must take care of my boys. My husband stayed to fight. I decided to leave while my eyes were welling up with tears. All I wish is for the war to end and for us to go back home. My life’s work is back in Izmail. My home, my household – everything is back there. Lately the air-raid sirens were going off more and more often, and then I used to hear all kinds of sounds coming from the sea and I could not stay calm. We fear for our lives. We’ve seen what happened in Kyiv, Mykolaiv or Kharkiv,” says Galina.
Galina doesn’t know which way to go, but she would like to get to the Galați border-crossing point. In Romania, she will make a faster decision. The refugee inflow increases. Many of them come with friends, relatives, or pets. Alyona is 33 years old and fled from Odesa with her three children.
“We used to hear bombs every day in Odesa. People are dying, do you see what’s happening? Life doesn’t matter anymore; it is worth nothing. Both military and civilians are shot. Innocent mothers and children are dying. It is horrible and terrifying. I have so many friends in Kharkiv, but they cannot leave even if they wanted to. It is impossible to get out. That’s not because of the lack of a green corridor, but because they are bombed all the time and it is very dangerous,” says Alyona.
Alyona does not have a clear destination either: “The sirens we hear every day are frightening. We stayed in the basement for a couple of days, but we couldn’t take it any more. My husband decided to stay and to fight for our home. I hope I will get to Bulgaria. I have an aunt there. We wrote to each other a little during this time, but nothing is clear. It is important that I get there. I speak Bulgarian and even if my aunt doesn’t help me, I hope I will find a job there.”
This article was written as part of the EVA project ‘Strengthened Gender Action in Cahul and Ungheni districts’, funded by the European Union and implemented by UN Women.
As part of the EU-funded EVA Project, 100 canvas bags with hoodies, puzzles, umbrellas, food containers and thermoses have been offered to the humanitarian effort.
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