By Christie R. House
March 14, 2023 | ATLANTA
A year ago, Natalia made a quick but monumental decision to grab what she could and leave the life she and her son knew in Ukraine. The sounds of explosions near her home deeply frightened her 10-year-old as the Russian invasion of her country progressed.
“In that moment,” she told Church World Service (CWS) staff in Moldova, “I realized that the most important thing was my son and that we had to leave.”
Natalia and her son are just two of many hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine who have made their way over the border to Moldova, which is a fraction of the size of its much larger neighbor. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and being close by, receives Ukrainians who cannot afford to travel any farther.
“The Moldovan people and government have been remarkably welcoming and generous with Ukrainian refugees,” said Roland Fernandes, general secretary of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). “We have partnered with CWS to support the refugee center in Balti, Moldova. Methodists helped to launch CWS in the mid-1940s after World War II, and we really have not seen such a large need in Europe since that time.”
According to the UNHCR, almost 750,000 Ukrainian refugees entered Moldova in 2022 and over 102,000 have remained – almost half of whom are children.
“The past year, since Russia invaded Ukraine, has challenged all of us to put our values and shared humanity into action for our Ukrainian neighbors,” stated Rick Santos, president and CEO of CWS. “I am incredibly proud of the partnership between CWS and UMCOR in Moldova. Thanks to the support from UMCOR, we expanded our supply distribution programs to include long-term, comprehensive support, such as livelihood development and access to medical and counseling services.”
Once in Moldova, Natalia found a welcoming community that she described as “a warm hug.” She found a place to live and started volunteering at the CWS-supported distribution center in Balti, in the northern region of Moldova. She helps distribute food and clothing to other Ukrainian refugees. She joins a large community of refugees focused on helping one another, who understand her experience and, like her, have made a home in Moldova while waiting for the day they can return to Ukraine.
A center of warmth in Balti
At the CWS refugee hub in Balti, refugees can pick up food and hygiene supplies, get medical or mental health support and connect to other available services. Warm clothes for the winter and blankets are distributed by volunteers like Natalia there, helping to shield the new arrivals against the winter weather.
“All of the supplies that we distribute are purchased locally,” the Moldova center reports, “which also means funds that local business owners can use to support their families through this winter.”
In addition, as Russian weapons target electrical grids in Ukraine and energy prices have taken a sharp leap upward in Moldova, CWS is helping to install renewable energy infrastructure, such as solar power, to support long-term energy independence.
Another UMCOR grant helps provide education for women and children in Balti and food distribution, education, accommodation and protection for refugees in Chisinau, the capital city, in southern Moldova.
The gift of education
Vitalina, also from Ukraine, sought shelter in Balti with her two sons. The predominant language spoken in Moldova is Romanian, which made it difficult for her sons in school, who only spoke Ukrainian. Vitalina’s children attended a school in Balti while also attending online classes through a Ukrainian school, but her oldest son needed to pass exams in Mathematics, Russian and Romanian so that he wouldn’t fall behind in Moldova.
An online post about Romanian classes offered through a program sponsored by UMCOR brought Vitalina to the CWS center. She discovered that she and her oldest son could take Romanian classes together. In addition to the language lessons, Vitalina’s family also received regular food and hygiene supplies from the project.
“I want to express my gratitude for this opportunity. It meant a lot to me,” Vitalina said. By learning the local language, a door has been opened for her and her children to participate in and contribute to their new community. She and her son have returned for a second course in Romanian.
Through the UMCOR-CWS partnership, 20,000 Ukrainian refugees like Vitalina and Natalia are being reached and resettled in Moldova, creating safety and opportunity for the refugees and relieving some of the burden on the Moldova communities.
After a few months in Moldova, Natalia’s tears of sorrow have turned into tears of gratitude. She and her son have created a peaceful life, as Natalia confirmed: “In this city, my son and I feel safe. He is smiling, he’s singing, he’s drawing, he’s going to school online. I am also teaching school online to Ukrainian children.”
Despite the war, Natalia remains hopeful. Recently she was reunited with her parents, who came to live with her in Moldova. Her father was excited to see his grandson and said, “to be one family in one place is the moment we finally feel totally safe.”
Through continued efforts in Moldova and volunteers like Natalia, CWS and UMCOR hope to help other refugees find the same safety and warmth that Natalia and Vitalina and their families have found.
Gifts to UMCOR’s International Disaster Response Advance #982450 can now be designated online for relief and recovery efforts in Ukraine. Click on the link above to find out more.
Christie R. House is a consultant writer and editor with Global Ministries and UMCOR. Stories of Natalia and Vitalina come from the CWS office in Moldova.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)
Founded in 1940, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is the global humanitarian relief and development agency of The United Methodist Church. A part of Global Ministries, UMCOR works in more than 80 countries worldwide, including the United States and its territories. Working in the areas of disaster response and recovery and migration, UMCOR responds to natural or civil disasters that are interruptions of such magnitude that they overwhelm a community’s ability to recover on its own. Learn more about Global Ministries by visiting www.umcmission.org or by following www.facebook.com/GlobalMinistries and Twitter.com/UMCmission.
Church World Service
Since 1946, Church World Service has supported refugees, immigrants and other displaced individuals, in addition to providing sustainable relief and development solutions to communities that wrestle with hunger and poverty. Learn more about our work and join our global home base for refugee solidarity at www.cwsglobal.org.