Since February 24, more than 450,000 refugees have crossed the Ukrainian border and 100,000 have temporarily settled among the four million inhabitants of Moldova.
While citizens await the visit of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, UN News visited the country.
Originally from Odessa, Natalia and her one-year-old daughter currently live in the MoldExpo exhibition complex, which has been transformed into a refugee reception center.
“I was offered to go to Europe, to France,” says this 34-year-old mother. “But I don’t want to go that far. I hope it’s all over and I can go home,” she explains.
When the war started, it was impossible to sneak into the vast area of the spacious pavilions.
“There wasn’t a square meter free, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life and people just kept coming,” said Svetlana, an interpreter who helps the UN and other organizations communicate with the local population and the refugees.
“The people of Moldova immediately started collecting money and literally filled the exhibition center with various goods, they kept bringing things,” she continues. “My friend, a lawyer, has temporarily moved closer to the border to provide legal advice to newcomers. And there are hundreds of people like them.
A flexible space
Today, the MoldExpo complex, which until recently served as a Covid hospital, is home to 360 refugees. During the first days, it received up to 1,200 people at night.
The exhibition center has been transformed into a transit center where people, exhausted by the perilous journey and the madness of war, find shelter, a hot meal, legal advice and, above all, human compassion.
It gives the locals some peace of mind when figuring out where and how to go from here.
The crowds outside
There are always long lines at the Ukrainian embassy in Moldova. Staff are overworked, making it difficult for those who fled quickly to replace documents they may have lost or left behind.
“We are Gypsies of the Dnieper,” a woman said in response to our greeting. “I have a daughter in Germany, but we can’t accompany her there because we don’t have our identity papers and it takes time to replace them.”
For now, she lives with her sisters and daughters in a small box at MoldExpo – hoping to go to Germany.
Stationed to help
At MoldExpo, UN staff, NGOs and volunteers work around the clock.
The UN has organized “blue dots” for families with children and UNFPA provides an “orange safe space” for the specific needs of girls and women.
Some people need medicines and other forms of medical help.
In ‘safe orange zones’, refugees receive instructions on how to avoid the cleverly designed nets of human traffickers.
Natalia says it’s hard for her to control her emotions when she watches people who have lost everything in the blink of an eye.
“I had this case that left me reeling for two or three days,” she says, telling the story of a 75-year-old former university professor from Kharkiv.
This woman’s son is a soldier, her daughter and daughter-in-law are doctors, while her son-in-law is a police officer.
Obligation none of them was allowed to leave Ukraine, so the old lady had to take her five grandchildren – from 4 to 14 years – to safety alone.
“She couldn’t stop crying,” Natalia continues.
“She’s been calling them for two days and all phones are off; she is afraid that something has happened to them, Kharkiv is constantly bombed. Everyone in our center was comforting her, we were trying to reach them with our phones and distracting the kids with candy.”
Fortunately, a few days later it turned out that all four were still alive, there was just no connection.
While tens of thousands of people receive economic aid from UN agencies, MoldExpo also has a financial aid center.
“People are ashamed to take money, but they just have to,” said Natalia, who works at the UN Material Aid Center.
“We often hear: ‘don’t get me wrong, we had everything there, we didn’t want anything’. Many of them offer to volunteer and ask how they can help.”
Open houses, hearts
A lump-sum grant of approximately $190 is awarded to families hosting refugees for at least a week. But is it really a question of money?
Margarita Yevgenievna is 73 and has no plans to retire as a teacher yet.
She shares her small two-room apartment with refugees.
“The three people from Odessa are in one room and I am in the other. Until the war is over, they will live with me,” she said, adding, “I also have three children from Ukraine in my class.”
Still crossing the border
The flow of refugees has since decreased considerably, but has not stopped.
About two hours from Chisinau, UN agencies and the Moldovan government have set up a tent camp on the Ukrainian border.
Refugees can rest or spend the night there, depending on the timetable of the buses that take them further into the city or to Romania.
“We did not even expect such a welcome, we went to work randomly, it was just too scary to stay,” said Irina, who had just arrived from Odessa with her son. “We are very grateful to Moldova and the UN.”
A warm welcome
At Chisinau airport, on the wall between the passport control booths, one can read the following words: “Moldova is a small country with a big heart”.
The head of the United Nations will arrive soon to support the refugees and personally thank the Moldovans and everyone who helps them.