Isabella Romine: A helping hand for Ukraine…might need a helping hand from you | Columnists
Isabella Romine Guest columnist
CHISINAU, Moldova – Located directly west of Ukraine, less than a hundred miles from the heavily bombed port city of Odessa, Moldova is one of the countries at the heart of the current refugee crisis created by the war of Russia against Ukraine.
Although no fighting took place on Moldovan territory, the effects of the war reverberate throughout Chisinau, the capital: inflation, shortage of products and, above all, the refugee crisis, the impact of which is felt from multiple ways. Walking along Stefan Cel Mare Boulevard, Chisinau’s main street, Ukrainian conversations intertwine with Russian and Moldovan. The secondary school I attend recently enrolled its first Ukrainian refugees. Landlords rent apartments for free or at reduced prices to refugees —or try to take advantage of the sudden lack of housing by raising prices. Anti-Russian protests occur almost daily outside the impending and striking Russian Embassy.
Although there is little concern about an imminent invasion, many fear that Moldova could possibly become Putin’s next target, especially given the Russian presence in the breakaway region of Transnistria. With its seat at the forefront of the effects of the war as refugees flooded into the country, anti-Russian sentiment in Moldova rose sharply. This shift is particularly evident among younger generations, who have no memory of the country’s former economic might and social protections as part of the Soviet Union.
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A first-hand view
I witnessed the refugee crisis on a more personal, first-hand level while volunteering at Smokehouse, a joint initiative between the Peace Corps of Moldova and the Small Business Alliance of Moldova. Smokehouse was once an American barbecue restaurant, but its owners offered to house a refugee center the day after the outbreak of war. It opened immediately and soon after I started volunteering there.
When I arrived in Chisinau last fall to study Russian on the US government’s NSLI-Y scholarship, I could not have anticipated that I would have the opportunity to use my language skills in a humanitarian crisis. The value of knowing Russian quickly went from academic to personal as I spoke with refugees and drove them around the center to collect clothes, hygiene products, food and other supplies during the next six weeks. Lines stretched to the gate and down the block, spilling into the streets as more refugees crossed the border, and, more than once, the center ran out hygiene products, food or other essential supplies —sometimes simultaneously.
The work was both challenging and rewarding. Many times I found myself not knowing what to say, especially to children with an incomplete understanding of their situation. Some moments stick in my memory, like when I told a little girl that I was from the United States only for her to ask if there was a war there too, or when the 8-year-old boy who had just informed me of how much better he plays chess (probably true) asked if the Hot Wheels car was really free because his family still paid in stores in Odessan.
A field effort
Smokehouse – and the rest of the initial crisis response – was not led by large organizations such as the Red Cross or the Moldovan government, but by grassroots organisations, small businesses and personal donations . While large organizations hold brand recognition and the trust that comes with it, they are also unsightly, bureaucratic and slow to mobilize. As the first wave of refugees poured into the country, more nimble and less established organizations filled the void.
The challenges of helping refugees cannot be solved by the Moldovan government alone, which rules what is often considered the poorest country in Europe. Besides its lack of resources, the Moldovan government also lacks public trust. It’s an oft-repeated refrain that the most profitable business in Moldova is politics. The Moldovan bank fraud scandal of 2014, in which prominent politicians helped steal US$1 billion (12% of Moldova’s GDP) is fresh in people’s memory.
The government has also struggled to publicize its aid. Several weeks into the crisis, Moldova opened a state-run refugee resource center about a 30-minute walk from Smokehouse in the largely residential neighborhood. However, virtually none of the refugees who arrived at Smokehouse knew of the center when we informed them, and those who did were unable to locate it due to misdirection and poor signage. On a day in March when Smokehouse supported around a thousand refugees, the state-run center hosted around 30.
And although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has set up a cash assistance program for Ukrainian refugees, providing each registered family with credit cards preloaded with 110 euros, this happened several weeks after the start of the war, when several hundred thousand refugees had crossed the border. in Moldova.
Yet organizations such as UNHCR are well enough funded to offer such significant help in the first place, while myself and other Smokehouse volunteers were often placed in the unenviable position of explaining to refugees – usually families with children led by mothers, sisters, and grandmothers who had left male relatives at home—that we ran out of towels, baby wipes, food, and other essentials.
how to help
A solution to this problem naturally imposed itself. Relatives and friends in the United States have asked to send me donations, wanting to help but not knowing how best to do so. As someone on the ground, I was a middleman: someone who could receive a Venmo transaction and convert it efficiently and directly into help. Shipments to Smokehouse from small business donations could be unpredictable in both timing and content. In the field, I could replenish missing products in the intermediate periods. Functionally, this meant that I became perhaps the most hated shopper in Chisinau’s grocery checkout lines, buying hundreds of high-demand products at once. I also responded to the need for items that are more rarely donated, such as adult diapers, toys, and children’s school supplies.
Acting as a micro-charity, so to speak, has allowed me to move around according to the most pressing needs of the moment. Of course without Smokehouse, I would have had no way to distribute these donations. And while arguably the most flexible, this form of charity only works if you have a trusted contact on the ground.
Although I am more than ever in favor of grassroots charities, there must be a balance between international organizations and grassroots organizations. Once government aid and larger charities arrived after the first week of April, Smokehouse was able to close. Smokehouse partners, including Friends of Moldova, continue to be active in reaching the country’s underserved areas outside the capital, but their budgets are dwarfed by those of the UN. This begs the question: if we could focus our attention on building a network of grassroots charities that could act faster and spend less on overhead, would there still be as much need for charities? bulky international? As climate change promises more natural disasters and the socio-political state of the world continues to destabilize, I expect this issue to grow in importance.
As for how to most effectively help Ukrainian refugees in Moldova right now, I suggest donating to Friends of Moldova. Their collaboration with Smokehouse and their continued support for refugees in resource-poor villages and towns across Moldova is a testament to the value of grassroots charity.