“What made you decide to volunteer?” is a question I heard often in the weeks leading up to my time with Refugee Support Europe in Chisinau.
Each time, I felt the same word rise, each time I asked myself “is that the right answer?” There is no right answer of course, but nonetheless, I found myself saying it, and almost immediately apologising for it.
I sought and found a volunteering opportunity with RSE because the fate that has befallen Ukraine and its people has made me angry beyond words. Upset, appalled and sorrowful too, but no, first and foremost, angry.
At the Russian regime of course. But also that it had been allowed to come to this. By governments who put economic interests of their countries ahead of the safety of those in other countries. And at myself, at all of us, for being aware but not engaged, while others warned us of the consequences of appeasement.
Quickly, in those early weeks, I realised anger without action couldn’t be an option for me. I donated, I marched, I showed support in as many ways as I could, but I was not going to be in a position to look myself in the mirror without doing something more.
I’ve always been struck – in any refugee crisis, anywhere in the world – it is always countries which are less well equipped to do so that are called upon to do most when a refugee crisis develops. And sure enough, that while wealthier countries across Europe – including my own country Ireland – quickly opened their doors to Ukrainians, it was still Moldova – the least well-off country on the continent – that saw the highest number of refugees, per head of population, arriving.
Early in my time in Chisinau, I learned of the rural Moldovan tradition of “casa mare”, of keeping the best room in the house available for the unannounced visitor, a tradition brought to life by the thousands of families who hosted Ukrainian guests as they arrived. An instinctive gesture from those with limited means in response to the crisis of our times.
What can I do?
And that’s how I found Refugee Support Europe. In looking to find out “what can I do?”, I came across this nimble charity with experience of refugee crises across Europe, that had quickly established itself in partnership with local Moldovan agencies in Chisinau.
They needed help to deliver the concept of aid with dignity as the war rolled on, and thanks to an understanding wife and employer, I was available to volunteer.
Aid with Dignity
Arriving to the Dignity Centre Chisinau on Boulevard Yuri Gagarin, what “aid with dignity“ meant in practice was immediately clear, thanks to our fantastic coordinator Summer and my fellow volunteers.
The attention to detail in providing an environment that – in the midst of crisis – delivered moments of normality. Everything was to be pristine, to the point that we all left having acquired an element of OCD on how are food and hygiene supplies were presented in the market area!
Our visitors were our customers, we were there to ensure they felt welcome, valued and had choice. We were there to make it easier for them to access assistance, and to stop and take time out where needed, with a coffee or some playtime for the kids.
Who did I meet?
Very quickly my anger felt self-indulgent when I began to meet with and speak with Ukrainian families. Every day, the human impact of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine laid bare.
The woman in her late 60s, there to get supplies for her parents in their 90s – their 90s. You think of what those parents had lived through. Born before the Stalin-orchestrated Holodomor famine in the early 1930s, they’d seen the Second World War, Soviet rule through the Cold War, Chernobyl, independence, the Euromaidan, and now forced to flee the full-scale invasion of their homeland.
The teenage boy from Mykoliav who would become familiar to me over my time in Chisinau. He came to the centre several times, as he both enjoyed practicing his English, and helping other Ukrainians calling to us for the first time to understand how the Centre worked. But behind the happy demeanour, and jokes of how he packed his supplies with the efficiency of an expert Tetris player, he yearned for his city. “I’d walk home to my city today if I could.” Weeks later, I think about him daily when I read that Mykoliav has again been attacked overnight.
It’s about the small details
The moments that brought a tear to the eye almost always involved the kids. Their innocence as they played or drew in the centre’s play area. The clear trauma of some. The happy high-fives and pinching of just a couple more sweets than their parents allowed!
The small details.
So many people from Odesa, dreaming of normal summers on the beach.
The occasionally rueful response to the question як справи – how are you? – as customers arrived.
The adult daughters, living with and supporting parents, disagreeing over what to get.
The glimpses into these lives upended.
The hugs, the smiles, the tears.
And a silent woman, subdued even, probably in her 30s. Her husband shopped, but she stood by my table, holding a rose and a clear folder in a way that said “these are important to me.” The clear folder revealed her rose petal art creation, and how fragility and strength can co-exist in impossible situations seemed to be summed up by her and her art.
And among all that the smiles
For all the poignancy however, the abiding memory of Chisinau will be of smiles, happiness, even laughter. I enjoyed the occasional chuckles in response to my most basic efforts at Ukrainian, gleaned from a crash course of zoom classes and DuoLingo. “Thank you for helping” a phrase we heard over and over, and those moments with so many of our customers where the human connection was made.
And working with other volunteers
The friendship and camaraderie between volunteers was a standout. I genuinely left feeling part of the family we had in Chisinau – strengthened by staying in the volunteer house – and the wider family of RSE volunteers.
Each with our own motivations, each with our own perspectives, each truly wonderful people it was a pleasure to get to know. Though I’m sure they could have done without getting to know my almost comical levels of perspiration on our supply delivery days!
The welcome of Chisinau
Chisinau itself, at the height of the summer, also showed us its welcome. After days in the Dignity Centre, getting to wander the streets of a city in the balmy evenings far from any tourist trail was a revelation, with warm, friendly and hospitable people its greatest asset.
The support of my network
To volunteer meant to fundraise also, and while not something I had much experience of, I’m hugely grateful to family, friends, colleagues and in some cases strangers who donated. Every cent donated makes a difference with RSE. For refugees, and also for the local economy where those funds are spent directly.
The experience is one that has made me realise that while injustices in the world are rife and can feel overwhelming, we can all contribute. I hope to volunteer again with RSE, knowing that the refugee crisis is a global one, and that pressures from persecution to climate change will only see it grow.
In truth, the anger remains. Perhaps it’s even greater. It is though accompanied by perspective, of the strength, courage and resilience of those forced to leave Ukraine and of those staying to defend it.
As I was registering a family arriving at the centre one day, I noticed on the papers of one my own birthday. It was an infant’s papers. In May, on the day I turned 50, this baby was born a refugee.
If ever the UNHCR’s message that “nobody chooses to be a refugee” was laid bare to me, it was in that moment. And RSE’s message is that no refugee should be without dignity. For the opportunity to help to ensure that was the case for some, I will forever be grateful.