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“Exhausted, weary and grieving”: a humanitarian worker explains what life is like for refugees from Ukraine

More than 2 million people have now fled Ukraine for neighbouring countries. As the conflict intensifies, Caroline Brennan – an aid worker with the international arm of CAFOD, a member charity of the Disasters Emergency Committee – explains what life is like for the thousands of refugees crossing the border at Otaci in Moldova.

At the border between Ukraine and Moldova people are exhausted, weary and grieving. Children drag their suitcases and mothers and grandparents rest where they can for a few hours, maybe a few nights. 

At tents along the roads and at bus terminals and transit points, refugees fleeing from conflict seek warmth, food, coffee and information. They are having to make decisions they never intended to make under extreme duress: where do I go? Who can I trust?

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Warm blankets, water and food at the border between Ukraine and Moldova (left), Non-governmental organisations and volunteers from various Moldovan villages help refugees on the border between Ukraine and Moldova (right)

Many women have crossed the border without their husbands and children without their fathers. There is little privacy; no space to collect yourself or explain to children what is happening.

People struggle to make decisions without their partner next to them because so many people have had to stay behind. They wonder how far they should go for safety now when they hope to safely go back home?  

There is so much uncertainty here. Pain. Fear.  

Stories from the Ukraine-Moldova border

I arrived in Moldova on 2 March and have been travelling to the border and different areas of the country to talk with refugees from Ukraine and Moldovans. I met Sharif*, one of thousands of people who has crossed the border from Ukraine at the Moldovan town of Otaci, where he is struggling to provide for his family and figure out what comes next.

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Caroline Brennan is an aid worker with the international arm of the Disasters Emergency Committee charity.

Sharif lives with his wife and three grandchildren in their car where they have been staying for three nights. The car is packed with their belongings and the children continue to ask questions about why they are there. Food and other supplies are largely provided by Moldovan volunteers at the border crossings who are there of their own goodwill.  

“My little grandchildren are asking, ‘Who is making all the sounds of the bombs?’ And I don’t know what to tell them,” Sharif tells me. “They keep asking me how long we are going to sleep in the car. I know this is really happening, but what my eyes can see my heart cannot accept. I am a refugee from Azerbaijan to Ukraine. Now I am a refugee again, but where to? I don’t know.”

Refugees become refugees again 

For many people in Ukraine, their safety net was already worn thin. Years of conflict along the country’s eastern border caused by the 2014 crisis had already displaced 1.3 million people from their homes and claimed 14,000 lives. 

Some of those who were internally displaced eight years ago find themselves leaving everything behind yet again.

One of my colleagues in Ternopil, a city in western Ukraine, told me about Lyudmila, a woman who had previously fled the 2014 conflict in the country. “We didn’t know we were leaving forever,” Lyudmila told her. “We went with one suitcase.” 

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Valeri is a Moldovan volunteer, helping Ukrainian refugees arriving at the Otaci border.

She and her family settled in Kharkiv and later in the capital, where she found work at a private company. However, less than two weeks ago, they found themselves fleeing bombs again and arrived in Ternopil. “We have no acquaintances in this city,” Lyudmila said. “I’m told I have to go abroad, but I can’t – this is my land and I want to be here.”

Hospitality at the border

Those fleeing on foot, taking the train to interior areas of Ukraine or travelling across the border on buses are extremely vulnerable. They may have no place to go, no money to pay for shelter and no extended family in another country. They’re at the mercy of the charity, hospitality and compassion shown to them when they arrive.  

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This woman fled her home in Odessa, Ukraine. She is waiting for her family to cross the border to seek safety in Moldova (left), Tatiana fled her hometown of Odessa with her daughter and son. "Our plan is to stay in the capital of the Republic of Moldova, Chisinau, for the time being. I hope that after a while we can just return to our homeland" (right)

But what is so remarkable is the outpouring of generosity and compassion by Moldovans. Here, in the poorest country in Europe, Moldovans are filling their cars with petrol to help transport families to safe shelters or even to the Romanian border.

Moldovans are making food in their homes to bring to those in tents and at transit points, where they are spending their days offering help and assistance as people arrive from the nightmare in Ukraine and try to navigate this place and time.

Valeri Perov, a Moldovan helping at the border crossing, told me: “It’s hard to watch what is happening. In my first three days here, I was in shock. I wasn’t able to do anything. My brain stopped. Then, I thought: ‘We have to do something.’

“When you’re far away and seeing this, it’s like you’re watching a movie. But when you are here and actually talk to people, you feel the emotion. Women and children arrive crying, scared and disoriented. They don’t know where to go. They are not expecting people to be here to help. We are not a rich country, but we are here helping out of our pocket. Because you can’t see this and not help.” 

Compassion and care

Working with a humanitarian organisation, I have found that so much about conflict is told through the displacement of civilians, the movement of vehicles, the relocation of frontlines and the destruction of infrastructure. But, actually, so much of this story is emotional. The wounds are far beneath the surface as people navigate deep pain, loss and sorrow that will last far beyond the rebuilding of a school or a house.

We can’t overlook the toll this takes on the trajectory of people’s lives and the compassion and care needed from all of us that will be essential for people to heal.

So, while we do everything we can to ensure people have a safe place to sleep, food to feed their children, clean water and information about what their options are, we are also trying to ensure they have trained support for counselling and managing grief, distress and trauma. 

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When I worked in Jordan and Lebanon during the early period of the Syrian refugee crisis, I remember how critical emotional care and counselling were for adults and children. Many women arrived with their children, having fled an attack or extreme danger and were now heads of their household, navigating a new country, a different language and trying to figure out just where to go, who to trust and what to do. Mothers were worried about their children regressing in key milestones: wetting the bed again at age 12, not talking, shaking at the sound of broken glass or an aeroplane.

Now we are able to learn from those experiences during other emergencies around the world and they can inform the way we respond to the unique needs here.

Right now, in Moldova and across the region, we are putting emphasis on psychosocial support, even if families are staying here for just a few hours or a few nights. Our support will always be mindful of these holistic needs throughout this emergency however it evolves. 

*Name has been changed

Donations can be made to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal or by calling 0370 60 60 900 . 

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Images: Getty; Schimbator Studio for CRS Caritas Moldova; Cafod.