This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
CHISINAU, Moldova — The hem of her purple skirt brushed the tiled floor as Kristina Paleshev anxiously paced while cradling her crying baby daughter Maria.
Sitting at a table with aid workers, forms and documents spread out before him, her husband, Oleksandr, once again explained what had happened: the Russian artillery bombardment that killed their neighbour. The heartbreaking decision to abandon their home in Mykolaiv. The scary eight-hour drive through western Ukraine to the Moldovan border. The car breaks down when they arrive in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. Their five children who wake up with a start during the night at the slightest noise, afraid of being attacked again.
“We want to go back. I love my country and my city,” Paleshev, 38, said as a tear rolled down his cheek. “I cry because our people are being killed.”
Paleshev, her husband and their children are among the 3 million refugees who have fled Ukraine since the February 24 Russian invasion. While most refugees, especially those from the Kyiv region, flocked to Poland, around 350,000 entered Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries.
Most of the evacuees are women and children, as most men of fighting age have been ordered to stay behind to defend their country. Now government workers and aid groups trying to help are conducting a rushing symphony in multiple languages, from Russian and Romanian, which is spoken in Moldova, to French and English. They fingerprint and photograph refugees, verify documents and provide emergency cash to those most in need.
Paleshev said his children still had nightmares.
“They cry at night, even now,” Paleshev said. “Every noise they hear scares them. They can’t believe there is no war in this country. They just want to be safe.
And although the flow of refugees across the Moldovan border has increased from tens of thousands a day to around 2,000 today, according to aid groups, there is no end in sight as Russian forces intensify their assaults and target civilian areas.
Paleshev’s family fled with little more than clothes on their backs, his daughter Maria wearing the same insulated snow pants three days later. They did not forget to take documents and a few toys, and rode almost nonstop past Odessa and along the Ukrainian coast, crossing the border the day before.
“In three weeks, we have had 3 million displaced people and we don’t know when it will stop,” said Kisut Gebreegziabher, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The large flow of refugees to Moldova – even though around two-thirds of them have passed through other European Union countries – is causing concern in the small country, which is only slightly larger than the state of Maryland and has fewer inhabitants. than Kansas. According to some estimates, Moldova spends more than $4 million a day on refugee services. His family income per capita is $2,145 a year, compared to $33,700 in the United States.
Continued:Millions of refugees are fleeing Ukraine. Where are they going?
Congress last week approved $13.6 billion in Ukraine-related aid, including $6.7 billion for refugee aid and economic aid to countries like Poland and Moldova, but the money hasn’t started flowing yet. In the meantime, US-based aid groups like Catholic Relief Services and Samaritan’s Purse are filling in the gaps.
Margot Durin, CRS program manager, said Moldovans fear the influx of refugees will overwhelm their country. She said the vast majority of refugees were stopping over in Moldova as they fled southern Ukraine, proverbially catching their breath somewhere safe before heading west to European Union countries offering residence and work permits.
Sitting in her temporary office, borrowed from Moldovan immigration offices, Durin helped local volunteers and UN staff register Ukrainian evacuees for accommodation and transportation. Many Moldovans in the Chisinau region have opened their homes to refugees.
“The solidarity shown by Moldovans towards the refugees is incredible,” Durin said.
Moldovans offer shelter to refugees
Like a piper, Dr. Gilad Gassner snuck into a refugee shelter in central Chisinau, handing out plastic medals and party horns to children with few toys. Hundreds of refugees are staying in temporary shelters across the city, including this one at the main convention center, which operated as a COVID-19 treatment site.
Minutes into her journey, the honk and buzz of kazoo-shaped party favors echoed through the building, making the shelter feel like a child’s birthday party, as masked and fancy-dress clowns sang songs. songs, made balloon animals and blew soap bubbles, making some refugees’ dogs bark.
Anya Guzhiyenko smiled as her son, Sasha, 4, shook a giant, slinky toy and battled balloon swords with another refugee. Guzhiyenko and her son fled Mykolaiv and arrived the night before. Mykolaiv, which is near Odessa, was heavily shelled by Russian forces and dozens of people were killed.
“It’s fine here,” Guzhiyenko said via a translation app. “We feel safe.”
Continued:Full of stoicism and unspoken fear, Ukrainians prepare for battle by saying goodbye to families
An Israeli pediatrician, Gassner and a team of doctors and volunteer doctors flew to Moldova days before, working with the national government to gain emergency certification to practice.
Inside the shelter, Gassner said the distractions were deliberate: Families suffer from ailments ranging from generalized anxiety to constipation caused by long bus rides during which there was no time to stop to go to the toilet. The team distributed everything from blood pressure medication to antacids and ibuprofen, and referred those with greater needs to local hospitals and dentists.
“They haven’t slept. They’re very stressed about the things they’ve seen back home and they don’t know the future,” Gassner said.
Psychiatrist Rachel Gissan, 41, who works with Gassner, said many refugees just need to feel heard and are empowered by telling their stories of escape.
“People have a normal response to an abnormal situation,” she said. “People don’t want to be labeled sick. They want to move on, they need to function. So they have this facade and they keep going. Even if their child is coughing and has high blood pressure, people won’t come to us. ask for help. We have to go ask them.
Continued:Jimmy Hill, American killed in Ukraine, was ‘true to his love’ and stayed with his sick partner
“We just need time”
Standing in the weak March afternoon sun outside the shelter, Oleksander Paleshev lifted a whistle to his lips and blew, signaling the children Ivan, Nicolay, Irina and the namesake Oleksander to gather as Kristina approached carrying little Marina. Kristina was still wearing her purple skirt and Marina was still wearing her snow pants, but both smiled.
After visiting the processing center the night before, Kristina and Oleksander decided to try their luck in the UK, which offers work permits to refugees. Before her children were born, Kristina was a web designer and fondly remembers the English people she worked with.
The family decided to sell or abandon their broken car – it is at a nearby mechanic waiting for parts – and fly to London with Kristina’s sister and her family, who left Mykolaiv with them. The day before, she had in tears wanted to go home. Now she hopes for a fresh start but doesn’t know how soon they will be gone.
Meanwhile, the family of seven shares four single beds in a 10ft by 24ft partitioned space in the convention center-turned-refugee site. The children do not sleep well. They normally go to bed at 8 p.m., but the noisy shelter means they don’t fall asleep until around 10 p.m., she said.
Still, the idea of a better life away from the terror of the Russian attack makes her optimistic. Although they left behind their home and all their possessions, the family is reunited. That’s what matters, she says.
“Every day is better, every next day is better. I’m hopeful,” she said. “The kids are happy. Everything will be fine, I think. We just need time.”
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