CW: war, displacement
The effect of the conflict in Ukraine on its surrounding countries has been unprecedented. A refugee crisis has unfolded on an enormous scale. In this article I will focus on Romania, a country with historic ties to Ukraine, and one whose response to the unfolding crisis has outdone expectations with an astonishing display of generosity. It has proven to be a lifeline in ensuring those on the frontline of the crisis have the funds to continue their work.
For this article, I interviewed Florin Misiuc, a Romanian engineer, who now lives and works in Hertfordshire. His hometown of Gura-Humorului is located in a northern Romanian county called Suceava, which borders Ukraine. The neighbouring town, Siret, is a crossing point with Ukraine, and many stories have been shared with him of the events there.
I begin by asking him what the initial reactions were to the outbreak of the invasion and ensuing refugee crisis. He says that people were “surprised” but not shocked; that “none of us have been through this situation and we just don’t know how to behave. You’re trying to stay sane and rational, but you can’t stop asking yourself questions of where this is going to end or how it is going to unfold”. He adds that “I think people were expecting the refugees, but it was a surprise to see how sympathetic locals were there,” particularly given that “we don’t see many foreigners here. There might be some Ukrainian traders but not big waves of immigrants”.
Romanians came together to meet the crisis head-on. Florin has never seen such a massive mobilisation to a migrant cause in Romania, and indeed there has never been a comparable event. “It was just amazing to see people from all sorts of backgrounds and various trades come together,” he says. “Churches of all factions put differences aside to help organise the response and to buy and supply toiletries and nappies”. Since the Ukrainian government declared martial law, the refugees coming from Ukraine are now mainly women and children; men aged 18-60 have been prevented from leaving the country and instead conscripted to join the resistance movement.
Florin tells me that Romanians collected Ukrainians from the border and provided accommodation and food “no questions asked”. Even at the onset of the crisis, “they did not ask for money even though a lot of Ukrainians wanted to pay and had money”. Since limits on cash withdrawals have been imposed on Ukrainians, Romanian generosity has been vital in avoiding a humanitarian crisis. The daily withdrawal limit “is nearly nothing in Romanian currency” and so worth even less in Europe, meaning that “people are stuck there and can’t move on”.
He tells me about a woman with five children, aged two months to 14 years old, who fled Ukraine to Romania. The rest of her family headed to Warsaw in Poland. The limit on cash withdrawals was not enough for her to pay for transport or food or communication. “It’s just heart-breaking thinking that they [her family] don’t know about each other”, Florin says; “all they know is that some of them took the path to Warsaw and some took the path south to Romania”. She is now trying to find other people wanting to go to Warsaw so that they can hire a coach or bus together. Without Romanian generosity, her situation would be substantially more desperate.
Local businesses have given their services and “helped however they could”. Many transport companies offered to take Ukrainians to airports. Florin has heard of people driving from Bucharest, 300 miles to the north, to collect Ukrainians and drop them off at airports in Bucharest. “These extraordinary levels of solidarity are not what you see day by day”, Florin comments. So far, it is mainly people who are in a better financial position – “the ones with cars who could travel quickly” – who have made it to Romania. Most of this first wave are hoping to travel westwards and seek refuge in other countries where they have relatives or friends. There are likely to be further waves of refugees, depending on how the situation unfolds.
Romanian communities abroad have played a key role in funding the relief effort. I ask Florin to tell me a bit more about how he personally has been involved. He tells me about a friend whose extended family owns tourist chalets in their hometown, Gura-Humorului. Since the crisis began, they have swapped tourists for 60 Ukrainian refugees. The family’s resources are limited, and so they sought help from those abroad. Florin’s friend works in London and “explained the situation to his mainly British colleagues in the office, who all felt sympathetic and put in whatever they could”. Florin, too, provided money and asked his colleagues and friends for help. Florin’s generosity is humbling: “You might think it’s cheap to buy food, but it’s not, and it’s not only food; there are young children there, so you need nappies, toiletries and more.” He tells me that “we’ve managed to raise about a thousand pounds in 48 hours, which will feed those women and children for a few days”.
I ask if the power of social media has been important. “Absolutely” is his response. This is the first major European conflict which has been fought in the social media age. The management of the crisis has been made more effective as a result. Romanian communities across Europe can coordinate the donation and transport logistics of essential goods through online platforms like Facebook groups, where requests from those in need can also be made. Florin reports that after one request, “a lot of people brought water and sandwiches to help the refugees – at one point there was just too much food there.”.
Social media has also brought the conflict much closer to all Romanians – regardless of geographical location – and made it feel more real. “Individual stories aren’t that touching, but when you open social media, you are instantly flooded with countless stories – it hits different,” Florin says. Florin is also a part-time DJ, and is in contact with numerous Ukrainian musicians who are constantly giving updates on their situation: “They treat each message as if it’s their last one.” There is a lot of hate towards Putin. They just don’t understand why this is happening.
I ask Florin if he thinks the Romanian generosity being expressed stems from a sense of shared history, or mainly from pure sympathy. He agrees that there is an element of common culture; the southern side of Ukraine was part of Romania until it was lost during the Second World War to the Russians, and many ethnic Romanians still live on the Ukrainian side of the border. However, with the Ukrainians from Kyiv now reaching the border, the cultural tie is far weaker. Despite this, Florin thinks hard times generally bring people together, especially given geographical proximity: “The wars in the Middle East and elsewhere never felt that threatening, but now it’s just around the corner.”
The stoicism of the Ukrainian defence has been admirable and has drawn respect from Romanians. “I think no-one expected Ukraine to resist that much,” Florin admits. Ukrainians are conscious that on their own they don’t have the military capabilities to defeat an army like Russia’s, but morale is still high and is being boosted by crucial external support. A story spung to Florin’s mind about two of the first families that arrived at the chalets in the first days of conflict, when men were still allowed to leave Ukraine. “The men said at some point that they will make sure their families get safely to Spain where they have some friends and then they will return back to fight. And I thought that is just absolutely brave”.
I ask Florin whether he thinks that the images that have been shared by the people he follows on social media present a different narrative to that of mainstream media. He replies, “Generally not, but of course it depends on what media you tend to follow. There is lots of misinformation. I have learnt to take everything with a pinch of salt. Both Russians and Ukrainians have war propaganda to motivate their troops and that isn’t informational.” Social media misinformation is present in Romania and has intensified since the invasion with “trolls commenting on nearly every post”. I ask if this has the capacity to stir unrest in Romania, but Florin is confident that few Romanians will fall into the trap of misinformation given the historic relations between the countries. Romanians harbour a general distrust and dislike of Russia because of their experiences during and after the Second World War.
Are people fearful for the future? Florin is upbeat, as, while opinions are split, the population is generally not frightened, and trusts the NATO alliance and the EU: “There is big support for the European community”. There has also been a collective realisation of the importance of joining NATO, “because otherwise we would have been in the situation of the Republic of Moldova, which does not belong to a military alliance; they are quite frightened at the moment because they don’t enjoy the protection we have”. Florin concedes that “of course, there are concerns economically,”, but affirms that “people are generally not afraid of hot war on Romanian territory”.
However, there was a lot of concern last Thursday (24th February) about increased jet activity in Romanian skies. This was in response to Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty being invoked by Romania together with Poland, the Baltics and Hungary, which convened NATO’s main decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council. The invocation of this collective defence article, which is triggered when one or more of NATO’s member states consider their “territorial integrity, political independence or security” to be threatened, reinforced the operations of the NATO airpolice. Despite this activity being intended to ensure the safety of NATO members, Florin says that for those on the ground “there is a lot of noise which is a bit frightening, and when you don’t know what’s happening and nothing is displayed on flight radar, it is really concerning.”.
Over the coming days, weeks, and months, Romania is expecting many more refugees, as indeed are many other Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. The European Commission’s aid packages will be important to ensure that these countries can cope with the pressures they will face; Florin notes that the Romanian capacity to help is limited due to its finite ability to accommodate the enormous number of refugees. From the accounts Florin has received, it seems that the Ukrainian refugees are conscious of their compatriots on the trail behind them and want to move on quickly. It is difficult to predict what will happen next and when this tragedy will end; we can only hope that peace and justice will come swiftly to Ukraine and that its people can safely return to their land.
Image Credit: Public Domain