‘It’s closer to home’ Many Ukrainians are fleeing the war through Moldova, but some are choosing to stay there
Moldova has received thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war. According to the UN Refugee Agency, since February 24, more than 390,000 refugees from Ukraine have arrived in the country. For most of them, Moldova is a way station on the road to other European countries. However, according to UNICEF data, more than 100,000 Ukrainians are currently planning on staying there. The majority of these refugees, about 93 percent of them, are women with children, pets, and hopes of returning home in the future. Today, most of them come to Moldova from Odesa. This is the third wave of Ukrainians fleeing the war — the first two were from Mykolayiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson. In a Meduza exclusive, photographer Sergei Stroitelev made the journey from the Moldovan-Ukrainian border to various refugee centers and talked to those fleeing Russia’s war.
Ukrainian refugees begin their journey into Moldova at the Palanka border checkpoint. From there, they take buses to a small camp in the village of Palanka, where they can eat, drink some tea, warm up, and decompress. Then they disperse to various locations. Those who plan to go on to other European countries depart for Bucharest. Others, who choose to stay in Moldova, head to a temporary shelter.
The largest shelter is in Chisinau. MoldExpo is a convention center that was repurposed into a coronavirus hospital in 2020 and is now full of refugees from Ukraine. Conditions are rather ascetic, but people do not complain. For the most part, MoldExpo is a transitional point, somewhere to stay the night or live for a few days before departing for more comfortable accommodations — to relatives’ homes or other temporary housing. Moldovans work at these centers for minimal pay or as volunteers. The refugees themselves often start volunteering too, unable to sit around without anything to do, and out of a desire to help their fellow countrymen.
Pulmonary Hospital, Chisinau
33, mother of two from Odesa
We arrived [in Moldova] on March 6. [We ran from Odesa because] the [air raid] sirens were wailing, you could hear gunfire. We didn’t sleep for several nights. We don’t have a basement to hide in and missiles don't choose which house to hit. I made the decision to leave because of the kids, Arina and David. If not for them, I would’ve stayed home with my husband. I'm not too worried about my own life. While we were driving to the border, we cried the whole time, my daughter was in hysterics. We were driving to nowhere: we had never been to Moldova before, we didn't know where we'd stay or how people would treat us. My husband drove us to Palanka and went home to stay with his brother, my mother-in-law, and our many other relatives. [The kids and I] are very worried about them. We really want to go home and we believe that everything will end soon and we will go back. For now, our house is still standing, we have somewhere to return to. If, God forbid, something happens, we will plan our life differently. But I’m too scared to even think about that.
Zhanna and Yuri
52 and 62, a couple from Odesa
There was talk of war, but no one ever believed that it would actually happen. Something would go boom and a week ago, you’d think: that’s still far away. You sit quietly, hoping that everything will work out okay for you. But the last time it happened, it felt like it was right outside our windows. On top of that, we live in a high rise — it takes a while to get to the basement. It felt like a nightmare. We talked about it and decided to leave. Our suitcases were already packed. We grabbed them and ran. Yura did his military service in Moldova, in Balti, we’d come here before to get dairy [products], so we had some sense of the neighboring country. We really want to go home, we talk and think about it all the time. Sometimes, we don’t sleep at night and stay up watching the news. Our parents are still there. They refused to come at the last minute although we wanted to take them. My mother was dismissive, she said she wouldn’t abandon her apartment, and that whatever happens, happens.
18, fled Odesa with her mother and younger brother
At one point, the air defense systems were working nonstop. My brother cried all day and night. We live next to an airbase, which they were apparently targeting. Everything shook — the windows, the floor. Our windows face the airplanes and helicopters and after witnessing an explosion, it happened in front of our eyes, we realized that things could end very badly for us if we stayed. My mother and I quickly packed and got a cab. My father’s a sailor, he’s on a voyage now, safe. When he returns from sea, he will join us. We will wait it out all together until everything calms down. My fiancé is still in Odesa. He’s a soldier, studying at the military academy to be a lieutenant, in his third year. I’m hoping that he will be okay.
Pedagogical Institute Dormitory, Chisinau
18, high school graduate from Kharkiv, temporarily living in the dorms of the Chisniau Pedagogical Institute
We hid in the basement for several days. Once every three days, very early in the morning, we would go up to our apartment to take a quick shower and cook something. Then we would run back down. I remember taping up the windows in our apartment so that [the glass] wouldn’t fall out from the shockwaves. Our neighborhood was heavily damaged: the neighboring apartment building burned, its roof caved in. We realized that it would only get worse from there.
Then my dad called. He and his new family live in the village Tsyrkuny in the [Kharkiv] region. He said his house was gone — everything burned, a mortar shell killed all their pets, and they’re now hiding in the neighbor’s basement. We got ready in an hour — took everything essential: books, a bag with clothes, toothbrushes, the teddy bear my boyfriend got me, and my cat, Suleiman — I had already prepared his carrier the day before. We took all the food from the basement because we didn’t know how long it would take us to get to the border, we’d heard there were traffic jams. The trip ended up taking 24 hours, we slept in a roadside cafe. I wept when I realized that we really were leaving home.
I just graduated from high school back in Kharkiv and I was planning to enroll in university to study microbiology. I just really want peace and to go to school. I hope that they [the Russian and Ukrainian authorities] can come to some kind of agreement. I’ve been texting my boyfriend, he stayed [in Kharkiv] with his family, today was quiet he says. I've been having nightmares that I am running from a fire.
Nastya and Alena
24 and 13, sisters from Odesa
We’ve been here [in temporary housing in Moldova] since March 6. We hadn’t even considered leaving [Odesa], until the [air raid] sirens began going off at night, at two or three in the morning. Our parents stayed behind: they worry about looting and don’t want to abandon the apartment. I understand that I won’t be able to go back any time soon, but that doesn’t matter as long as we can go back eventually.
We decided to stay here in Moldova. Closer to home. I don’t even want to think about immigrating to Europe. Honestly, I still can’t believe this is happening. I worked at a textile factory, Alenka was in school. I want to go back to our old routine, to run out for errands. Alenka cries constantly, she's worried about our relatives. At least we're in touch with our parents. They’re hanging on, but they say that prices keep going up, people are panic buying everything.
28, teacher from Mykolayiv
War came to Mykolayiv. A missile hit our neighbor’s house, but did not explode. At one point, the bombing was so intense we spent two whole weeks in the cellar. The missiles hissed — I know that sound so well now. Neighboring houses were leveled to the ground. You sit there and think: I can feel my eyes opening, that means we’re not the ones who were hit. Children next to you crying, my nephews — [it was] horrible.
I left with my dog, Rocky. My husband stayed. Men aren’t allowed out of the country, and he wasn’t planning on leaving, anyway. . The place he worked was turned into an aid center, they give out food and water. He helps out there. We talk on the phone every day. He’s sad telling me about all the bombing, although initially, he was very optimistic. But they are holding the lines. We decided to go to Moldova so we could get home faster afterwards. I’m happy that there’s housing for us Right now, I’m looking for a job, but it’s hard so far — I’m a teacher, there aren’t a lot of jobs like that available. Plus, I’m traumatized now. I jump at every noise — I hear a car come up the street and freeze.
38, entrepreneur and father of three from Odesa
We finally made the decision to leave after our city’s normal civilian governor was replaced by a wartime leader. We were also scared by the ships in the Black Sea. But the biggest push came after we'd had the kids spend a week sleeping in the entryway [so that they wouldn't be hit by glass in case of an explosion]. It took us half a day to pack. We got our documents ready, sorted our things, threw everything into the trunk and left.
We have an electric car, so the trip took a little longer. We spent the night in Bilyaivka charging the car. Then we spent a whole day sitting in traffic outside of Palanka. It was a good thing we brought a Walkman with headphones for the kids so they could listen to stories. [In Moldova], we spent a few days at a hostel. I remember that once, I went to shower, and something fell down in the hallway. I’m not a very impressionable person, but for half a second, I thought it’d been a gunshot. So there is some kind of trauma.
We plan to return [to Odesa] if the situation allows it, but that’s going to take two or three years, at least. There’s not going to be any infrastructure, everything has been damaged. We need to work while we’re out here, too, I wouldn’t want to just be on the dole of another country’s government. Back in Odesa, we made craft ice cream. Sadly, all of our equipment had to be left at home because of difficulties with transportation. We posted in a group of international ice cream enthusiasts to let them know we were leaving. People from Austria, Germany, and Ireland responded and offered us jobs with housing. We chose Ireland because we figure that there are going to be a lot more Ukrainians in other countries and it’s better to go further away, to have more job opportunities.
Boarding school, Carpineni
34, from Uman, fled Kharkiv with her children and sister
My sister and I decided to leave. It was just as scary in Uman as it was in Kharkiv. [In Kharkiv] a woman’s legs were blown off while she stood in line for groceries. In Uman, someone died downtown from a grenade. Our husbands stayed, of course, they’re in [territorial] defense units. [My husband and I] had a small business — [a chain of] grocery stores. [When the war started], we abandoned everything: there was no goods, no suppliers, and especially no customers. It was easier to shut down.
The move [to Moldova] was really hard — the trip took almost 24 hours. We felt scared and hurt: why is this happening to us? How can this be? Our mother is Russian, she lives in Saratov. She doesn’t understand what’s happening, she doesn’t believe us.
We're not planning on going to any other country. Who needs us? There are so many people like us and where are we supposed to go with the kids? Of course, I want to believe that everything will work out in the end, but my hope dwindles every day.
35, mother of three from Odesa
We gathered everything essential on February 24. My husband made fun of me. But then, a few weeks ago, I watched a plane fly directly over our building and then, boom, and the glass flew out of our window. That was when we decided to leave, it wasn't funny anymore. As a mother, I don't have the right to endanger my children.
My husband and I spent a long time saying goodbye, we cried a lot. The little one probably didn’t understand what was happening at all. Maybe, she won’t even remember it — she’s only a year and a half. My older kids were more upset. When we were leaving, we worried that there are already so many refugees [from Ukraine] in Moldova, nobody wants us here. Plus, we had never been here before this mess. The volunteers at the border gave us hope, they embraced us.
[Right now], everything is okay, the children are just restless. [My] oldest, Sonya, is always on her phone, she has friends back [in Odesa]. Her brother helps out in the kitchen making lunches, he wants to feel useful. We'll stay here for now, we won’t go any further. The further we are from home, the longer it'll take us to get back. The grass is always greener on the other side and we want to go home.
42, fled to Moldova with her daughter, Marina, 22, from Mykolayiv
We remember when they began bombing civilians. Grad missiles, airplanes, the sounds of skirmishes, machine gun fire, not knowing what was going off or where, if it was your house or your neighbor's. We spent days in the basement. One time, we wanted to go back up, but as soon as we stepped out, we saw a fighter jet. We thought that it was about to crash into us but no, it was just flying low to blow up the vegetable warehouse. My husband made us leave on March 13. He tried to calm us down, he said it would all be okay, but it was hard. I'm really sad about losing my job. My daughter still has hers, she was a teacher. We are praying to God to let us get back home.
The Field House
In Chisinau, a field house, normally used by athletes, was turned into a temporary housing center for Ukrainian refugees in the first days of the war. Mostly Roma people and Azerbaijanis who had been living in Ukraine are staying there. According to NGO workers, this is not discrimination — in fact, it’s the opposite: they themselves wanted to live “with their own people.”
Headquarters and humanitarian aid
Refugee work in Moldova is organized by the NGO Moldova for Peace. The organization’s headquarters are located in Moldova’s central government building on Chisinau’s central square. All coordination is done from here — people are sent to various shelters, issues with humanitarian aid are resolved. Refugees receive the humanitarian aid at the Moldova Film studio warehouse.
Sheltered by Moldovans
Many Moldovans empathize with the refugees and welcome them into their homes. Nadezhda, 57, from the small village of Gura Bicului on the border with Transnistria, worries about Ukrainians:
“Are they supposed to sleep outside? This could happen to anyone. I have relatives in Ukraine. Unfortunately, they cannot leave. I decided to free up my heated multi-family home. First, we took in three young girls. They stayed the night and kept going. I will never forget the fear in their eyes. After looking at them, I couldn’t fall asleep all night. Right now, three families from Mykolayiv are living with us. They have nowhere to go, and they don’t want to go too far [from Ukraine]. We are prepared for this to go on for a long time, with many families coming and going.
Translated by Daria Novikov