Moldova’s Ukrainian Refugees Find Stability, But Long for Home
Chișinău has granted Ukrainians temporary protection status, with automatic rights to housing, healthcare, education and work.
Olena Koval used to work with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in her city of Odesa. But 15 months ago, she was forced to flee her own home following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“I would have never thought that one day I would have to escape war from my own city,” said former journalist Koval, who since 2015 had been working with the Desyate KvitniaNGO, which provides assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Now living in the Moldovan capital Chișinău and working for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the 37-year-old has a whole new perspective on the issue.
“I have learnt that no matter how much you explain to people what it means to flee, to find refuge and how you feel what that happens, you will never understand until you experience it,” Koval said. “I like that I have short-term contracts, for a month, for a month and-a-half… They are temporary, they make me feel that also my staying is temporary, that once the contract will end, I will return home.”
Moldova opened its borders to those fleeing the war in Ukraine, at the height of the crisis in spring 2022 hosting more displaced Ukrainians per capita than any other country.
Official data show that in 2022 nearly 850,000 Ukrainians crossed into Moldova. Since then, nearly half have returned to Ukraine, while others moved on elsewhere. According to UNHCR, as of June 4, 2023, 109,664 Ukrainians were registered as refugees, about four per cent of the country’s population of 2.5 million.
In January 2023, the Moldovan government granted temporary protection status to Ukrainian refugees and some third country nationals, with automatic rights to housing, healthcare, education and work.
“The government's efforts are major as it has taken measures to approve the regulatory framework to grant temporary protection to Ukrainian refugees,” Raisa Dogaru, director of the ministry of work and social protection’s National Employment Agency, told IWPR. “[This] simplifies employment, business registration and the development of alternative childcare services, which [in turn] creates jobs for both Moldovans and Ukrainians.”
The measure marks a new phase in the provision of assistance, in line with a shift in refugees’ attitude towards their own displacement.
“Most people are realising that they will not go home soon, that they need to stay in the country with a different perspective, to integrate,” UNHCR country director Francesca Bonelli told IWPR. “The temporary protection will give the refugee children the opportunity to be fully integrated into schools and to adults the possibility to work with a long time perspective.”
“MY HOME IS MY FAMILY”
Koval first went to Transnistria, a Moldovan territory which broke away from the central government in the 1990s and shares a 450km-long border with Ukraine.
“On February 27 we took the road to Cuciurgan, we only had a few hours to cross as rumours started circulating that the Transnistrian authorities would close the crossing,” Koval recalled. “After six hours of standing in line, we drove into Transnistria. After us the border was closed.”
Koval and her family lived with acquaintances in Tiraspol, the de facto capital. For weeks she felt trapped: there was no turning back and no moving forward. Then eventually she got a job with UNHCR and her sister and nephews relocated to Germany.
The de facto authorities said that nearly 20,000 Ukrainians remain in Transnistria as they can rely on a network of relatives and friends.
Olga Atrahova was born and raised in Transnistria, but left soon after finishing her studies and lived in Odesa for the last 22 years. The 38-year-old found herself living there agains after fleeing the war.
“My home is my family,” said Atrahova. Her two children are with her, and her husband is serving in the Ukrainian army.
“I try not to monitor much of the news, for me it’s enough that he calls in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening via video link, saying that everything is fine.”
Atrahova has also been volunteering with organisations supporting refugees since last summer. It is hard for everyone, she said, but in Transnistria, it is harder.
“It is poorer and now, with the temporary protection [measures] there is a lot of misinformation and confusion. The region is unrecognised and people don’t understand that they have to abide by both Transnistrian and Moldovan laws. A lot of volunteers are now explaining it,” she said.
Humanitarian assistance is also available in Transnistria, although subjected to delays, while cash support is only available in Chișinău-controlled territory. This makes the work of volunteers critical to support elderly, disabled people and children.
AID TO INTEGRATION
Moldova’s open arms policy has allowed Ukrainians to build new lives in the country, and support has moved from emergency aid to integration.
“[At the beginning] It was imperative for us to be very quick in our emergency intervention, to provide humanitarian aid and services at the border and at the principal point of arrival in the main cities in Moldova,” explained Bonelli, adding that aid included essentials to those had left with little as well as institutional support to hospitals and shelters. Since March 2022, each eligible refugee is also entitled to cash support of 2,200 lei per month ( 123 US dollars) provided through bank cards.
As the war continues, there is a sense of solidarity fatigue, but Bonelli remains adamant.
“We don't have the time and we don't have the space to be tired of being human,” she said.
Employment also plays a key role in people’s decision to remain.
“[We] have received over 1,100 notifications of employment from Ukrainians,” explained Dogaru. “With the support of the territorial structures of [the ministry of work and social protection’s National Employment Agency] available throughout the territory of Moldova, approximately 35 per cent of the total number of displaced persons were employed.”
Challenges remain. Salaries in Moldova are lower than in Ukraine, refugees face obstacles related to their knowledge of Romanian language as well as a mismatch between their skills and competencies and the jobs available.
Atrahova described some unexpected success stories.
“We had a man in his 70s who attended pastry making courses, received a diploma and is now earning a living baking cakes,” she said. “We recently got him registered for temporary protection. He told us that he had never thought that at almost 80 years of age his dream could come true.”
Others continue to work remotely. Violetta Mojaeva, retained her job as an executive in a construction company in Odesa even after she moved to Moldova. The 36-year-old decided to leave Ukraine after her ten-year-old daughter began to hide when she heard loud sounds.
Recently, she continued returning to Ukraine but “we were in the park when a motorcycle passed by, [making] loud bangs, and my daughter hid under a bench,” she told IWPR. So they decided to stay.
“Where my child is, there is my home,” Mojaeva said. “What will happen next, I don't know”.
Children, who make up 33 per cent of all Ukrainian refugees in Moldova, remain psychologically vulnerable.
Many women are effectively single parents, away from their husbands and traditional support networks and with limited opportunity to work. These burdens come on top of the grief, loss, uncertainty and separation from loved ones faced by all affected by the war.
“The trauma is complex and multi-layered. It is related to what people go through as well as what they experience afterwards, the conditions in which they live, how they have managed, or not, to adapt to their new life,” said Ana Niculaes, who works with various mental aid programmes in Moldova “Mothers’ stress and depression can have a massive impact on children, as has the separation from their fathers.”
As refugees cope with their traumas, many find solace in their own community: groups on social media provide information about anything from schools to food, from events to medicine distribution. That sense of community has strengthened women like Atrahova who said that they had learned to rely on their own resilience.
“People are coming to terms with the time passing, everyone realises that it will take more and that they won't be back soon. I like everything in Moldova, I like the work, and I like the people, but I don't fully accept that I can't go back home yet,” Koval continued. “But they, we, do want to go back home.”
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.