It’s hard to imagine that a mere 2 months ago, we were bonefishing in Belize and golfing in Hawaii. Now we’re literally and emotionally worlds away from those warm and carefree days. Please indulge us today as we speak about these brave Ukrainians and generous Romanians.
Today we drove 7.5 hours NE to the border of Romania and Ukraine near the Siret. Nataliya (guide) wanted to give the military camouflage apparel we had purchased to her husband, who she hasn’t seen in 5 weeks. While she wore our armored vest and wheeled a suitcase loaded with another vest, protective eyewear, gloves, chlorine tablets, slacks, and jackets for 10 men across the border. We walked as far as we could with her and said a teary goodbye because you just never know, right?
So now, you might be asking yourself, “why in the world did we purchase these military clothes”? Because some of the men are fighting in civilian clothes. Her husband saw a young man in flip-flops.
Then we watched and listened at the border, the faces of dazed and exhausted refugees walking with their lives in a suitcase. We waved to the Romanian President who’s here for an on-site tour. The 50 NGO tents welcome them to Romania with food, medical aid, pet aid, drinks, transportation, or just a smiling face. We met volunteers from Turkey, Greece, Texas, California, Florida, and of course….the Southern Baptist Church. The initial tent and the largest was the Israel tent. That meant they were on the ground first to get that prime location. Did you know that Ukraine has a substantial Jewish population?
It’s 4:30 and Nataliya has returned safely. Her large rollaboard is now filled with Ukrainian children’s books since we can’t find any in Romania. She’s pale, her eyes red, she slumps into the back sleep and is mercifully asleep for 2 hours. I can’t imagine what her brief visit with her husband was like.
Now as promised, some of the people we’ve met.
*Dodo- is a 44-year-old paramedic who has a private ambulance company. He hasn’t left the train station since February 25th. He was once a military person, a club bouncer, and has his own ambulance, which he now sleeps in. He is virtually obsessed with helping the Ukrainians. On the night of the 25th, the first refugees began to arrive, he found a quiet room for them, and his idea of welcome rooms for Ukrainians only was born. He now has three rooms at the train station and is in the process of establishing one at the airport. He has a crackerjack team of volunteers who are translators and handle the stock of donated clothes and food. Warm food is provided daily by room 1 in coordination with World Kitchen. He is noticeably proud yet humble as we tour his facility with him.
He has no use for the Red Cross and its regional director. They didn’t establish their room (room #4) for Ukrainians until March 12th yet they take all the credit in interviews for all 4 rooms. They help themselves to his storage room without the courtesy of an ask. He is more than willing to share but an ask is not a big thing in his eyes. We inquired if there was anything he needed beyond the obvious, food and he mentioned room 3 needed the snap-together rubber mats for a children’s play area where they could safely play on the floor. A run to the Jumbo toy store netted a 20’ x 20’ colorful toy area.
*Sasha- She’s an uber volunteer who runs room 2 at the train station. She’s mid 30’s, a Ukrainian refugee herself, she speaks excellent English. Her days are 14 hours, she can never give enough. Her husband is back home and fighting, she tears as she speaks of him. Her shelves of food look almost bare. She’s noticing the beginnings of donor fatigue she tells us. At around day 45 of the war, the donors who were passionately giving are now slowing down in their efforts. If this war lingers, this will become an even greater issue. So, we leave the train station with a grocery/sanitary/toiletries list that would choke a horse. We’re headed to their version of Costco, a club store called Selgros. Another card in Jamie’s wallet as we join the membership to shop in bulk.
*Olya- is 33 but looks 45. I would be dead from stress with her last 3 weeks. She’s from Mariupol, we’ve all read that her city is 90% flattened by the bombings. Her home was destroyed, and her father's (who died last year) grave was bombed but she’s only concerned for her 22-year-old brother Valentine, who’s on the front lines in Donbas (eastern Ukraine). She escaped in a car full of people while bombs exploded on either side of the road. She said, “I was initially terrified but I woke up the next day and now I’m just angry”. She volunteers at the train station, she’s an interpreter.
We met her while shopping at the military store. Her brother Valentine is the rocket loader for a shoulder launcher. He has no protective glasses as debris shoots out from the rear of the launcher or earplugs. He’s been told to open his mouth while the rocket shoots so his eardrums don’t shatter. He also needs knee pads and bullet holders for his vest. We gladly help her shop and add it to our pile.
Olya has a degree in economics and had just opened her own dress shop before the war. That’s now gone too but the tears flow, it’s her brother she’s terrified for, those are just things. She’s dressed in a designer woolen suit, an expensive jacket, and heavy, thick hiking boots. She’s been in Bucharest for three weeks but this is her only outfit. When she fled, she thought she’d only be gone for 1-2 days. We couldn’t tell you who was happier, us or her, when we took her to the donation center (at the clinical psychologist’s office) that still had a few pairs of our new shoes in her size.
A couple of interesting notes.
*Highway system- Their roads once out of the city are really two lanes with an additional half lane on each side. So, you try to drive in the half-line (we’d call it a shoulder) and use the full lane while passing. An interesting challenge when there’s oncoming traffic and a huge transport truck is in the half lane.
*Whats App-no one uses texting here, everything’s done on this app.
*We’ve personally met or seen US military personnel, mercenaries, and a brigade of 200 volunteers (retired military) from the Country of Georgia, all wanting to do their part. It’s a secretive group that responds minimally to our questions. A typical answer is “something like that” with a small smile.
Tomorrow, we’re headed to Ikea to purchase furniture and items for the Ukrainian Children’s Resource Center. Our nonprofit RTQ along with two child clinical psychologists (Adela and Peter) will be founding this center. They will have two classes a day for Ukrainian children 4-10 who are experiencing PTSD, grief, anxiety, and depression for free. Twenty-five percent of the children in these classes can be Romanian children. We met Adela at her office last week where one room is designated for food and clothing donations. She is pretty amazing. Her donation center got 50% of our donated shoes. We’ve also restocked her pantry. The room for clothing and food will move to the main floor. Our plan is to hire 2 Ukrainian women to man this room, keep it clean and work on social media for donations. Creating jobs for 2 women feels good too!
Sue and Jamie