Text and photos: Ole Christian Eklund
Russia is invading Ukraine, and the citizens are fleeing to the border crossings of neighbouring countries. Refugee 4 Refugees are in Romania to help handle the crisis on the border by establishing a transit center. I am following their work and will share my experiences on this blog. Follow me here for updates.
Today it’s time to say goodbye. This will be my last update from Siret in Romania. These past six weeks, which should really have been one, have been educational. I’ve got friends for life from all over Europe and from the United States. I am deeply touched and humble to the Romanian hospitality and not least the Ukrainians I have been meeting. A big Thank you to Refugee 4 Refugees and Omar Alshakal who let me stay with them these weeks so I could write their story here. Another thanks to Ane Kandal that made it possible. But now it’s time to go home to my everyday life again. At least for a few weeks before I travel to Montenegro with Kairos Workshops on May 7th. I’m looking forward to that. Then I have to switch from the documentary to the more creative side of me. Well, thank you very much. It is not impossible that new stories will be posted later. So, cherrio and stay tuned!
Ending with this little series that really warmed my heart. Not the best quality as it is taken through the bus window.
Luda Lavrentieva, who lives in Berkeley, California with her Romanian husband Marce Nita, says her mother passed away on February 23 and she planned to travel to Kyiv for a funeral. She was quickly told by friends in Kyiv that she would not come under any circumstances. The Russians had already started bombing on the outskirts of the city. – I was out of my grief for not being able to come to the funeral. Everything was stopped. No funerals, no transport and the city trams stood, the bridges were closed by guards. The city was simply paralyzed, she says.
Her father, Oleg Lavrentiev, who is 93 years old, was suddenly left all alone in the apartment in the city. He was helpless and went into a deep depression since he had lost his loved one. He just wanted to die. Luda’s friends were worried and asked her to come as soon as possible. Her father did not take care of himself. He relies on medical care to change catheters every month, but his doctor was evacuated when the Russians invaded the country. – We looked everywhere for a new doctor for him and finally some friends in Kyiv found someone who could help. I talked to him on the phone at least twice a day and asked him to persevere. Death comes when it comes, but right now you have to persevere until I come, she told him. Eventually she managed to convince him so he started to take care of himself again.
– My father never went down to the bomb room, he stayed in the apartment and took his chances. The rule was that when the plane alarm went off, everyone should turn off the lights. There was also a curfew from 8 pm in the evening until the next morning. Sometimes there was a curfew for 36 hours.
There were still forms of social services that worked, so her father was provided with food, but not on the days of long curfews. Then he was on his own. But he had water. It was quiet in the building he lived in. This made him more depressed. He heard no neighbors. Probably because everyone had evacuated. Luda wanted to get him out of there, but he wanted to stay in the apartment. She spoke to those responsible for the evacuation, but due to security, meeting points and times had to be kept secret. This made it difficult for her to prepare her father for evacuation. Finally, after much searching, she found someone who could take her father to Chernivtsi by car where she and her husband met him and got him across the border at Siret and here to Refugee 4 Refugees.
Luda was never allowed to bury her mother privately, but after a while a bus with several coffins was set up for a joint funeral on the outskirts of Kyiv.
Now I have been here for almost five weeks and have finally decided to go home. It is good and sad at the same time. Wednesday the 13th and Thursday the 14th I will spend on a car trip and in Bucharest before flying home. These weeks I have gotten to know so many wonderful people. The meetings with Ukrainians have been very tough. My trips into Ukraine have shown me a country in mourning, but at the same time a people of integrity. The Romanians who have lined up and helped us in every way have impressed me. Refugee 4 Refugees have also taught me a lot about volunteering and relief work in crisis. I’m so grateful for everything. But I still have a few days left and hope to write some more stories. Stay tuned!
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At the border in Siret, aid organizations and other volunteers come and go. New faces all the time every week. Sometimes Norwegian also appears. As mentioned earlier, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) was here and observed. Today, Save the Children appeared with Secretary General Birgitte Lange in the lead in a group of five. They have been in different places, but now here at Siret. I had a short chat with her.
Lange says that they are here to get an impression of what is happening to the young refugees from Ukraine in Romania. Yesterday, they visited a counseling office run by Save the Children Romania that helps parents and young people, a day center in Iasi, run by the authorities, which for the occasion has been turned into an orphanage with 43 Ukrainian children with their caregivers coming from an orphanage east in Ukraine. – The children are strongly influenced by what is happening in the home country. Being an orphanage child is in itself a difficult situation and now they have also been through a traumatic escape, Lange points out.
Furthermore, they have visited a transit reception with 450 beds where there have been 3,000 refugees so far. – We have also had conversations with Save the Children Romania to see how they work with this crisis. Today we are here in Siret where we have been to an asylum reception and a reception for unaccompanied minors and now here on the border to talk to our local volunteers and hear how they contribute, she says.
Save the Children Romania has 300 employees and has several initiatives they are working on aimed at children. – Among other things, they have educational services, health services and protection against violence. In connection with the war in Ukraine, it is important for us to ensure the children stability and predictability since they are now in the middle of a demanding situation. They must be provided with pre-school facilities, school education and child-friendly playgrounds. Children must be allowed to be children and the parents must also be able to get a few hours break. We have good contact and work closely with the Romanian authorities to be able to provide the support needed locally, Lange concludes.
On Saturday, ambulances, fire trucks and rescue equipment arrived as a donation from France to the humanitarian base at Suceava airport. On Sunday, a large number of firefighters came from Ukraine to take over operations. A thorough review of vehicle use and safety was conducted before the procession began. The long procession then drove from the airport and towards the border crossing at Siret where they then drove on to different parts of Ukraine where the need for equipment is greatest.
Sunday was a very cold day at the airport. It was very windy and my hands were freezing. I was not there long, but I got to review the equipment before I got in the car and drove the 50 minute trip back to Siret. Fortunately, the press officer in Siret was present and could take pictures of the procession.
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On Monday, I was with Hands on Global, a partner with Refugee 4 Refugees, in Ukraine. There they have set up medical help at the invitation of the mayor. Yesterday we were in Rengach, a village on the outskirts of Chernivtsy which is the nearest large town to the Siret border crossing with Romania.
The small hospital does not look like anything that is in operation. More like a relic from the 50’s, dilapidated and with old equipment and interior. This village normally inhabits 1,200 people, but due to the war it houses many more. The village is in a region consisting of 20 small and large places including the city. Of the 20 places, only three are Ukrainian, the rest are Romanian.
A large number of Jews lived here, but in the 90s many of these traveled and left several villages empty. They now fear that when the older generation disappears, (because there are many of them) an even larger part of the region will be depopulated.
Hands on Global treated about 70 patients before unpacking and thanking them. They travel to small towns around the city to relieve the health care in the region.
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Yesterday we went to a small town, also close to Chernivtsy, called Novoselytsya with a slightly larger hospital / clinic. Here there was not much opportunity to take photographs, but just being present gave me a boost of empathy and not least experience. The team worked hard to cover the need for medical treatment or consultations and by the end of the day they had 75 patients drop by three doctors, Valerie, Becky and Khalil, a midwife (Lina Knutsdatter Thingstad from Norway) and a paramedic, Vanessa.
Here I had the opportunity to witness something special. When we arrived at the place, I took the trip to the main street in the city, which is a stone’s throw away from the hospital. Almost all the hospital staff stood there waiting for something. I thought this was special, so I lined up with them and waited. After a long while, a pickup truck with a coffin on the loading platform arrived. A priest and a helper went out into the street and the priest prayed and they sang something resembling a hymn before disappearing. The car drove on. It was a war victim. Obviously a member of the hospital, but that’s just my speculation. It was impossible for me to get an answer to what this was. Anyway, a strong experience that came to me. It has otherwise everything I have seen and experienced these two days.
An example is Igor who I met at the hospital. He was there with his wife who needed medication for stress and anxiety. We sat outside and he told me that he has prostate cancer and needs to continue the treatment which has now been stopped because the hospital he usually receives treatment from is no longer operational. He has obtained all the diagnostic papers and a recommendation from a military hospital for treatment abroad. A new law in the country says that male patients in need of treatment abroad can travel to get this before they have to return.
The problem is that after two attempts he is stopped at the border and required to present a written invitation for such treatment. He is under 60 years old and therefore forced to stay. This then becomes a problem because the border guards then break the law. We agreed to meet this morning on the Ukrainian side of the border so that I as a journalist could be there when he showed his papers and that I could somehow put some pressure on the guards so that they had to let him travel. We were to meet at 0900, but he had already been there when I arrived and was again rejected and returned to Novoselytsya. This hurt me a lot and I have thought a lot about him today. I really wanted to help him. Igor did not want any pictures, which I respect.
In Suceava, Cornelus Miron sits and watches TV. It is the morning of February 24 and the images from Putin’s invasion are rolling across the screen. Cornelus immediately thinks of the border crossing at Siret and gets in the car. He arrives at the border around 1pm and meets a few refugees who arrive in groups.
The police are already in place, but nothing is organized. There is also no one else there to help. Suddenly a young medical student from Poland appears. She has come from Chernovtsy. She is scared behind the mask she is wearing. Cornelus is the first volunteer on site, and immediately realises that a lot of help will be needed here eventually.
He contacts his wife in Suceava so that the Polish student gets a place to spend the night, i.e at their home before they can send her on a plane to Poland the next day. Cornelus is the pastor of the Baptist church in the small town of Calafindesti, 15 km south of Siret. On this day his life would change forever.
To reach as many people as possible, he filmed the situation directly on Facebook, sent the video to others on WhatsApp and asked for help. He went to the store and bought water and food. In a short time, almost a hundred volunteers showed up and during the first day, about a thousand refugees crossed the border. Then it was quite chaotic. It took four days before the authorities showed up with the border police and fire brigade so that the situation would not be more chaotic than it was. Cornelus became a national celebrity when national television arrived and wanted to interview him. Since then, a number of NGOs and more volunteers have appeared. Including Refugee 4 Refugee, at the request of the authorities, which is my main story.
Back in the small Baptist church, Cornelus reorganized the basement floor for accommodation. In a short time, he received help from the mayor of a town in Austria who collaborates with an Austrian NGO. They sent beds, sheets and blankets. He gathered a bunch of volunteers to host the arrivals who they picked up from the border in their own minibuses.
In a short time, more space was needed and today he also uses the side building. They have also installed showers and washing machines. In total, the church has a capacity of 45-50 refugees at a time. At first there was a full house every day, but now they have 75-80% coverage. The church also has its own kitchen which is served by 20 volunteers on rolling shift arrangements. With hosts and drivers, Cornelus has 40 volunteers who work around the clock. Most are bilingual, Romanian and Russian / Ukrainian. Most of the refugees the church houses are from larger cities such as Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, etc. and the arrivals want to move on to Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain.
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Early this morning I went to the border to see when the Ukrainians come over. I got the impression that the border was closed on their side at night. This turns out to be wrong. The border is open 24 hours a day, but the buses do not run at night, so everyone who comes by bus arrives in the morning. Otherwise, there is a small steady stream of cars. The crossing have slowed again a bit.
It is cold again after we have had a few days of nice weather with good temperatures. I am sitting in a warm tent that houses both volunteers and refugees. Now the Salvation Army is also in place and at a table I find Olenka and her son Dmytro. They are from Pokrovsk. Five days ago, their city was bombarded with artillery and bombs and the family sought refuge in a bomb shelter for two days.
When an opportunity arose to escape, they went west and their journey took three days before reaching the Siret border crossing. I look at Olenka’s facial expression how scared and worried she is. The son Dmytro tries to smile, but I understand that he has also seen and experienced things a child should never experience.
Along with them is Tim from the Salvation Army. He speaks their language and acts as an interpreter. Not everyone wants to talk to me. They are probably too tired of fleeing to spare some time with the press. Still, many are welcoming and nice. For me, it is a privilege to be present here at the border.
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In one of the suburbs of Mariupol lies a family of four sleeping. At three o’clock in the morning they wake up to distant noises of explosions. The rest of the night they are unable to sleep and at ten o’clock in the morning they get in the car and drive to another family member. This is how the nightmare begins for Valentina, Alexander, Vasilisa, Egor, Svetlana and their pregnant Yorkshire terrier.
We sit around one of the tables in the big house that Refugee 4 Refugees are renting here in Romania on the border with Ukraine and drink tea while we talk. Because Valentina is the only one who can speak a little broken English, a lot is conveyed by gesturing and Google translates. Vasilisa, eight years old, proudly shows off the three little puppies they have with them and serves us biscuits and sweets and takes care of her little brother Egor, who is 13 months old. She seems unaffected by what is happening.
Valentina says that they drove to the house of Alexander’s sister – Svetlana – where they stayed until the next day. Shortly after, Russian artillery began to shell the area so everyone drove into the center of the city. There they found an apartment they could rent. They stayed here for three days in safety before Russian forces began to shell the city from all sides.
Svetlana could see from the balcony that her neighbourhood was being bombed. There were no escape routes so they sought shelter in a basement. They stayed there for two weeks without water, electricity or gas and no access to ATMs to withdraw cash.
Gallery (all photos are private)
They had to go out into the streets to make a fire for cooking and they collected enough snow for half a glass of water for each per day. Food was not easy to find; Valentina says that there was only one shop open in the city so there was a struggle for the goods. They lived under constant fear of bombs dropped by the Russians in waves and constantly had to seek refuge while the streets were filled with corpses.
On March 15, they were finally able to get out of the city, escaping to the city of Zaporijia – an 11-hour journey. There they found a kindergarten that had been opened by volunteers for people seeking refuge. Here they finally got to wash, eat and rest. The next day they went on to Dnipropetrovsk where they got an apartment. They spent two days here figuring out what to do next. This is where Tiffany, their Yorkshire terrier, gives birth to three puppies – two females and one male.
Next, they went west to Chernovtsy and spent the night there before coming to the Siret border crossing, where they eventually found refuge in the R4R house. During their journey, they spent a lot of time in prayer and were happy but tired when they finally arrived. From here, they plan to continue their journey to Lecce, Italy, where the mother of Alexander and Svetlana lives. Valentina’s sister and brother are missing in Mariupol and no one has heard from them. To date, over 20,000 have been killed in the city.
After we finished talking, Svetlana comes to me with a video on TikTok. It shows a beautiful city with lots of flowers, beautiful architecture and streetlights. Suddenly it shows the city under attack by missiles. She starts to cry and I try to comfort her as best as I can.
It was a special experience to visit the other side of the border. The afternoons quiet down. The Ukrainian border closes during the night, so the people waiting have to spend the night in their cars or in a heated tent with small compartments with camping beds and blankets.
In the morning, they line up and pass over to Romania. This pattern is repeated every day. A wave of refugees in the morning, then a slower afternoon. The authorities are still expecting a large influx eventually due to the pressure on the Polish border.
Andrea is in the large tent, trying to get an overview over what R4R can potentially offer. We learn that most of the refugees don’t want to carry more than what they already brought with them. They primarily wish to get out of Ukraine. There is still a need for blankets for the tent.
A single woman has been stuck on the border for ten days. She doesn’t have papers and is not allowed to pass. She didn’t bring anything when she fled, and has not been able to change clothes since she arrived. Her cell phone is broken, so she can’t call her family. She asks us if she can use one of our phones with her SIM card, but we have turned off mobile access because we are outside the EU and it is too expensive to keep it on. It was painful not to be able to help her right away, but we got a new SIM card on the Romanian side and will get her a new mobile phone if we can. We’re also putting together a bag with necessities she needs and will give it to her as soon as we can cross back into Ukraine.
On the Ukrainian side, men and boyfriends are saying their goodbyes. All men between 18 and 60 years old have to stay in the country. It is difficult to watch. Emotions take over and I tear up several times. They don’t know if they will ever see each other again. Or if they can ever come back. Many are fleeing homes that are destroyed by bombs.
The Ukrainians don’t have much to offer, but there are a couple of tents with food and beverages. They boil water for tea and coffee on wood stoves. Everyone is friendly and smiling, and they offer to share what they have, but we quickly sensed the pain under the surface. Their country is at war, a terrible invasion.
It can take up to six hours in line to get through the border checkpoint some mornings. It’s no wonder emotions can get high. A mother with two children is tired and overwhelmed. The children are trying their best to behave. We stand in line as well, as NGO and press members. There are no exceptions that we can observe. Fortunately there wasn’t much of a line when we returned to Romania, so it only took 40 minutes to get through.
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Refugee 4 Refugees are working every day to prepare the transit area. They are building a system that is meant to last as long as it is needed, so the focus is on construction and organizing to put in place infrastructure and logistics. Poland is nearing capacity for taking in refugees, so we expect an increased flow at this border crossing when that happens. Asma and Ali, who are in charge of logistics, are busy preparing a free store where the refugees can get everything they need. Everything is sorted and stocked on the shelves according to category. Asma and another volunteer are doing the same in the pantry behind the kitchen in the main building. It is impressive to watch their efficient process.
Behind the scenes, Ane Kandal collects donations and makes sure the bills are paid. She performs a vital function and works day and night to ensure that R4R can help the refugees with what they need. She started her own company called R4R SUPPORT after working as a volunteer in Lesvos in 2017. Everything she collects goes directly to R4R’s work in Lesvos or Romania. Her company is registered and engages an accountant. She tells us that there was a need for an initiative from Norway, and this is her passion project that takes the majority of her time when she is not working as an elementary school teacher at Langhus. You can support her efforts here or contribute to R4R SUPPORT Vipps 709039 (marked Ukraine, for Norweigians only) or for R4Rs own fund raising HERE.
There’s ongoing, smaller side projects to support other organizations. We are always approached by other, large NGOs that either offer assistance or need help. Omar is kept busy most of the day with these collaborative efforts while we are preparing the property where the center is being established.
Late last night, Andrea from the Netherlands arrived. She has experience as an aid coordinator and organizing work, and has been in charge in Lesvos for a long time. She will start planning and divide the work among the first group of R4R volunteers that arrives on Thursday. She comes across as authoritative and organized, which is a necessity in her role. Today, she accompanied Omar to the border to get an overview of the situation and meet with the authorities.
I have not been to the border since Saturday, but have been helping out as a volunteer due to the need. Once the groups of volunteers start arriving, I can free up more time to photograph and write.
It was quiet at the border today. We thought. At least it was quiet on our side. Very few refugees crossed while we were there. There had been little traffic all day, according to the health care workers who were present. However, they knew that there was a large number of refugees stuck on the Ukrainian side and the processing was slow due to lack of staff. The volunteers took the opportunity to clean up and organize the supplies they hand out.
It was a surprise when the Norwegian Refugee Council showed up. There was a brief conversation before they hurried on. We were there for around an hour and three families came across during that time. One person was in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the line grew on the other side. This means that we could likely expect a wave of refugees shortly.
We heard yesterday that two newborn children with Romanian citizenship had crossed the border in poor health. They were airlifted to Bucharest with paramedics. I was not at the border when this happened and have no information about how they are doing now.
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Yesterday was a day of rest and much needed processing of thoughts and impressions. Even if I’m not inside Ukraine, it is taxing to be a photojournalist in these circumstances. I am constantly thinking about these people who have gone through hell to come here. When I arrived on March 3rd, I had very little knowledge about how the aid organization I’m following does their work. It’s been a steep learning curve.
Refugee 4 Refugees is a thoroughly professional humanitarian organization. When they take on a project, they complete it in a skilled and organized manner. This is a large project that requires extensive planning and preparation in order to get off the ground. This requires time. Logistics and infrastructure also needs to be put in place. Additional volunteers will arrive next week to assist R4R in setting up the systems that will allow the project to continue as long as it is needed. If you would like to volunteer for R4R, you can follow this LINK.
The authorities seem to have better control of the situation at the border now. Anyone working for aid organizations now needs a permit or ID to be in the area. We have also registered with the government department in charge and can move freely to help. This has taken some time to complete. Yes, I’m also volunteering when I have the opportunity. It would be impossible not to help.
A station wagon pulls in. Three people jump out and start pulling out bouquet after bouquet of tulips. White, yellow, and red. They spread out in different directions and start handing them out to all the volunteers while thanking them for the help they have given to Romania during this crisis. I feel a lump in my throat. This was beautiful and very much appreciated.
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Today, the trailer arrived with the equipment that Refugee 4 Refugees needs to implement part of their efforts. While they wait for the rest, they have started settling in refugees from the border crossing in the house so they can rest and get the care they need. Another building on the property is being made ready to allow for more refugees to rest and potentially sleep.
Refugees are arriving in a steady stream, but there are periods where the processing pauses, especially when there’s a shift change for the Ukrainian border officials. Then they have to wait. Waiting is common, some waited up to 6 hours to cross. No wonder they are tired and frustrated in addition to being traumatized by their experiences.
A summary of the situation in numbers as of March 10.
The city of Siret:
402 is the total capacity for the camp at the local sports arena.
3223 have stayed in the camp.
3207 have moved on.
1958 have stayed at a local school, that has a capacity to house 140
1892 have moved on.
The border crossing at Siret:
106,300 have crossed into the country from Ukraine.
79,500 of these are Ukrainian citizens.
15,100 have left Romania.
9,100 of those are Ukrainians.
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It is heartbreaking to hear the Ukrainian refugees’ stories from the invasion. The children are visibly traumatized. With Oleg Friesen from the Refugee 4 Refugees team as interpreter, we talked to four families who shared their stories with us. Some did not wish to give their names or be photographed. Here is what we can share about them.
A woman with two children does not yet know where they are going from here. They came from Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine, where a nuclear power plant is located. The family had to evacuate when the fighting came closer. They drove to Siret in the family’s car, but the father had to leave the mother with the children at the border. He was not able to leave the country and doesn’t know where to go. His future in Ukraine is uncertain.
Victoria and Ivan are from Irpin, north of Kiev, where there is intense fighting in the streets. They tried to escape on the western highway, but Ukrainian forces had defeated Russian forces and the roads were full of burned vehicles and dead bodies. It was obvious that the boy was traumatized. They decided to go south instead, to friends in Kamyanets Podilsky, near the city of Vinnitsa. The city is not far from the border to Moldova and was bombed early on during the invasion. From there, they fled to the border of Romania and arrived in Siret after waiting for 4 hours at the border crossing. They are traveling on to Victoria’s mother, who lives in Hamburg in Germany.
In one of the tents along the road that leads to the border, we met a multi-generational family of five from Kharkiv. They spent five days in a bomb shelter before they divided up in groups and traveled with different modes of transportation to the border. The youngest, an adult grandchild, had to stand on a train for 18 hours. One of them tells us that her mother’s apartment was hit by a missile that destroyed the living room. The mother happened to be in the hallway and survived. They have relatives in Russia and are in a state of shock. They can’t believe what Putin is doing to them. Their Russian relatives are influenced by state propaganda and don’t believe what is happening. They think Ukrainian forces are attacking their own people and blaming Russia. The entire family is continuing to Germany. They will be picked up by family members who already live there and are also bringing emergency aid to Ukraine. They tell us with great sadness that their beautiful city no longer exists.
Iliona, her son Kiril, and her parents lived in a house they owned in Kiev. The house was bombed to rubble. They stayed for four days in a bomb shelter before they could evacuate. It took them three days to reach the border crossing in Siret. They have friends in Poland, but they have declined to help. A local Christian aid organization has committed to taking them to Cluj-Napoca in Romania. From there, they can travel freely. The dream is to return, but there is nothing to come back to anymore. Young Kiril dreams about going to Finland to become a professional soccer player.
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March 8th – International Womens’ Day
Everything is starting to fall into place. Preparations are made for transit, and food, showers, and personal necessities are provided. This morning, we sent the last refugees on to their next destination. Since it is International Womens’ Day, I’m sharing color photos from the border. All women and children were given tulips on arrival, a touching sight and wonderful initiative. It is still somewhat chaotic and disorganized due to the lack of a coordinator on site. So far, almost 100,000 refugees have passed through and the need for an organized reception is increasing. I will give more details about this later. Meanwhile, please support R4R HERE.
Another worry is that there is human trafficking activity on the border of Poland and Romania. It is uncertain whether it is organized or not, and if it’s groups or individuals. Men, women and children are tricked and taken to other locations in Europe or other continents. Their freedom is taken away and they are sold as sex workers or slaves. This is a grave concern with the increased number of refugees that is expected to be coming over the border. The UN and NGOs warn that women and girls are at risk of becoming victims of sexual violence while fleeing.
I spent today at the base. It is a hostel that Refugee 4 Refugees have contracted with. This is the command center for all activities by R4R at the border of Siret. The plan to contribute with food distribution at the local sports arena was not necessary, so the efforts are now focused on establishing a transit plan at the base. This will help relieve the pressure on the border crossing. They are also working simultaneously on logistics. It is a large apparatus that is being launched. There have been meetings throughout the day, and meanwhile, a few families who stayed here have been sent on. I have spent the day observing and learning. I plan on using a day or two to volunteer.
The work is tiring. Omar Alshakal (a refugee from Syria) is the leader of the organization and has an impressive capacity and fortitude. I am in awe of him and the rest of the leadership team, that consists of Ane Kandal (Norway), Asma Rossilia (refugee from Morocco), and Ali Sami (refugee from Iraq). All except Ane live in Greece. They are all aid workers at Levsos.
March 5th and 6th
The flood of refugees continues and has reached 75,000 in Siret. Efforts are still not well organized. Refugee 4 Refugees are trying to get the last approvals to set up a reception center at the border. Everything they need to set it up as well as staffing is ready on short notice. The problem is the Romanian bureaucracy. It is very slow and decision making processes are not clear. Omar, the leader of R4R, is either on the phone or in frequent meetings with local authorities.
The good news is that the fire department, who is running the camp at the local sports arena, has asked R4R to help set up a kitchen that can serve 2 to 3 meals per day. At this time, the refugees stay only one to two days in the camp, but nobody knows if this will change with the arrival of many more refugees as the situation in Ukraine escalates. Omar will present their plan to the chief tomorrow. He seems like a person who is able to make decisions.
The camp has room for 400 people in 60 tents. Currently, 300 refugees are in the camp, but according to Alin Galenta, the press liaison for the camp, they are expecting many more refugees to arrive shortly.
Back at the border, I came across a group of Indian students from Kharkiv in Ukraine. They shared that it was easy to cross the border. The problem was to get from Kharkiv to Siret. They all seemed relieved and happy to have reached safety.
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March 4th – The first day in Siret
Today has been a quiet day, according to the team, but the continuous arrival of refugees makes an emotional impact. They look tired, but calm, and appreciate the help they receive. A large number of aid workers have put up provisional heated tents and booths with free food. Organizations range from the Red Cross and various NGOs to the local fire department and border police. The immediate impression is that the efforts are not coordinated and there’s no overall plan. This is what R4R wants to offer – professional help from experienced aid workers. Personally, I will need a couple of days to get settled and absorb all the impressions.
The organization Refugee 4 Refugees has experience from aid work in Lesvos. All the team members are also refugees. Omar has focused his efforts over the last few days to get a new receiving area set up by the border. This will provide better overview and control for the authorities and local aid organizations. He was close to reaching this goal today, but needs more permits and signatures from the right people. So far, everyone has referred him to others for a decision, and the team is frustrated by their lack of progress. They hope to get this established as soon as possible. So far, 62,000 refugees have crossed into Romania at the Siret border crossing. They have arrived by bus or by car. Those who arrive by bus are directed to a provisional camp at a sports arena nearby. I have no information about this camp yet.
At the moment the team is somewhat unsettled. Omar is exasperated and tired. He is continuously on the phone or in meetings. The need for his knowledge is there, but it is difficult to get clear answers. The situation is chaotic, and international news agencies are present. Clothes and other donations from all over Europe are piling up. The volunteers do their best, but it is obvious that a system needs to be put in place.
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March 3rd – Arrival
After a stopover in Bucharest, Rumania, the last leg to Suceava was completed in a turboprop plane. We waited 30 minutes past the scheduled departure time for a Danish Red Cross team to board. During the flight, I sat next to a Canadian woman who shared that she was on her way to pick up her mother, who lives right inside the border of Ukraine. She had flown in via Poland and was worried about the mother, who didn’t understand why she needed to evacuate. She seemed reluctant and felt there was no danger where she lived. The Canadian woman in the seat next to me was understandably both concerned and exasperated. She told me that several other passengers were traveling for the same purpose.
When I arrived in Suceava, I was met by two team members from Refugee 4 Refugees. I will introduce you to all of them in time. We drove to the small town of Radauti where we are staying, approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the border. I arrived tired but in good spirits, and received a warm welcome from the others. We are lucky enough to be staying in the home of two group members. The remainder of the evening was spent on a short introduction and a brief overview of the current situation.