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The network in Romania to help Ukrainian refugees


In Bucharest, Romania, more than 4 million Ukrainians have left their country since February 24, the day Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. They've walked and driven across borders, ridden ferries and trains, and been welcomed into hostels, hastily retrofitted shelters and strangers' homes. But what happens when they arrive in a new country where they don't speak the language? What many hoped would be a few days in a new country has turned into an indefinite stay. Those are the stories we've heard this week as we've traveled around neighboring Moldova and Romania. So we start today at the port of Isaccea, a first stop for some of the more than 600,000 Ukrainians who've passed through Romania. Will you just describe what we're seeing here?

DANIEL PETROV: (Through interpreter) So here we are at the border cross point, entering Romania. We are looking at Ukraine on the other side, and as you can see, the boat has just departed. So soon enough, we'll have it on this side.

MARTIN: Colonel Daniel Petrov, speaking through our interpreter, Vlad Bolocan, guides our team through a maze of relief tents and waiting trucks filled with supplies to the Isaccea ferry landing. As we watch, a ferry loaded with trucks, cars and people disembarks from the landing in Orlovka, Ukraine, and begins to cross the Danube River. It takes about 20 minutes to cross.

First come the people on foot, many wheeling large suitcases, pushing strollers and carrying pets up the bumpy metal ramp. Volunteers and staff from various organizations rush to help them carry their loads. Petrov says this boat isn't nearly as full as in weeks past.

PETROV: (Through interpreter) We do not expect a high number of citizens this time. In the beginning, one such transport would mean about 850 people sometimes.

MARTIN: Today, it's more like a couple hundred. Petrov is in charge of this extensive operation that includes border officials, medics from three different agencies and other volunteers that all came together to respond to the waves of Ukrainians traveling here.

What was it like in those first days?

PETROV: (Through interpreter) It was, I must say, traumatizing for both Ukrainians and us, the authorities on this side.

MARTIN: Because why?

PETROV: (Through interpreter) I would use only one word - empathy.

MARTIN: Petrov tells us that for all of his years of experience working in emergency services in Isaccea, he's never dealt with something of this magnitude and complexity. But he says he's learning and adapting every day.

One big concern for Petrov is human trafficking. With so many women and children crossing international borders, authorities in Romania are acutely aware that traffickers could thrive in this situation, and they're on the lookout.

PETROV: (Through interpreter) Everyone goes under strict verification, even the volunteers - absolutely everyone who goes onto the platform. In front of this tent, we can see a colleague from the police department guarding that every person coming out of the tent is not leaving the premises. Every car will be stopped by our colleagues. And if there are Ukrainian citizens inside, they will take pictures of the passports, of the ID cards, and all of that data would be introduced in the database of the police department.

MARTIN: Carrying his fussy 2-year-old in a carrier on his chest, dad Sasha and mother Eugenia, who declined to give us their last name, walked through the Isaccea checkpoint laden with heavy duffel bags.

What made you decide it was time to leave?

SASHA: It was basically, last Saturday, our child, he needs special care. And then all of the sudden, we realized that we don't have the medicine. It is not available anymore. So that was the moment we got triggered. We understood we have to leave.

MARTIN: They came from a village nearby, they tell us, so they haven't been traveling long. Eventually, they hope to reach California, where they have family. For some, Isaccea is the final stop on a difficult journey. For others, it's only the beginning. The next stop - a train to the big city.

VLAD BOLOCAN: We are in Gara de Nord. That is the biggest train station in Bucharest. That means it's the biggest train station in Romania.

This is also the only railway station in Romania where the train lines, they end. So they're not just passing through.

MARTIN: With Vlad as our guide, we walk around the station, which has been transformed into a hub for arriving Ukrainians. There are separate waiting rooms for women and children, men and mixed families. Blue and yellow signs read Refugee Help Center. In a bright orange medical tent steps away from the tracks, we meet Faisal Hawat. He's a paramedic in Romania and has been treating about 60 to 70 patients a day.

FAISAL HAWAT: I read in their eyes, and they are suffering. And some of them come and ask us, hey, doc, I am agitated. Give me something to relax or to sleep. Some of them, they can't sleep. They have insomnia.

MARTIN: Insomnia, he says - and, of course, anxiety.

HAWAT: It's not very easy what they have.

MARTIN: Almost every empty corner of the train station is being used to assist refugees. You'd never know it had been organized in a matter of days. Yellow-vested volunteers stand ready to field questions. Vlad bumps into an old friend, Oleg Brega. He's wearing one of those yellow vests with a logo on the chest. We ask him what it says.

OLEG BREGA: Together for Ukraine.

MARTIN: Most Ukrainians don't speak Romanian, and most Romanians don't speak Ukrainian. But some Romanians, like Brega, speak Russian, and that's how they communicate. He stands around in his yellow jacket and waits to be approached by refugees with questions. Brega also keeps an eye out for refugees who are Roma, Europe's largest ethnic minority. He says many don't have documents and have been discriminated against at border crossings across Eastern Europe.

BREGA: In Moldova, I know they are segregated in a school or on a stadium. Here, they are avoided by the state workers, by the police, but we try to help and defend them and document any human rights violations.

MARTIN: How did you know somebody is Roma?

BREGA: It's easy. Skin color and - yeah.

MARTIN: There are reports of Roma people being housed separately in Moldova, but we couldn't confirm that during our visit. Back at the Bucharest train station, Brega spoke with us outside of one of the refugee waiting rooms. People are entering and exiting with weary-looking children, small suitcases and pet carriers. We asked Brega if he can take us inside.

BREGA: I can, but I heard yesterday arguments with this Santa Claus policeman.

MARTIN: He really did look like Santa Claus. He's patrolling the entrance to make sure the women and children are safe inside, but he allowed us to enter the room.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: In the back, there's a carpeted play area. Along one wall are shelves filled with diapers, baby formula, apples and bananas and pet food. And in the first of several rows of chairs, two girls are hunched over the same smartphone, picking at what must have been breakfast.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Donna, 5, is the younger girl, traveling with her father and mother. She's wearing a hot pink sweatshirt and a blue and yellow scarf - Ukraine's national colors - around her neck. She and her family happened to be in Sri Lanka when Russia invaded Ukraine. But her teenage sister is stuck, unable to leave Kharkiv, which has been under Russian attack. Dmytro Ishchuk, the father, tells Vlad that they can't find a way to get her out of the city. He can hardly bear to talk about it.

DMYTRO ISHCHUK: (Through interpreter) Obviously, everyone wants to escape, but no one is doing not one little step because they're all under attack all the time. So they're just hiding in undergrounds, etc., just waiting for a proper moment.

But he doesn't see such a proper moment in the near future.

MARTIN: Donna is playing with an 11-year-old girl who we find out is rather famous back in Kyiv. Sofia Kotlyarova is an actress and singer. She sees our recording equipment and grabs her rose gold microphone. Sofia finds the song she wants and starts to sing.

SOFIA: (Singing in non-English language).

MARTIN: Donna and another young boy line up beside her. Two mothers pull out a Ukrainian flag and stand behind Sofia as she belts into her Bluetooth mic. Women in the back near the play area stand up and put their hands over their hearts.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

MARTIN: Two mothers behind us start to cry. Sofia is from Kyiv. She's here with her mother, Ira, and grandmother. After 40 days in Kyiv, volunteering, helping their own community, they decided it was time to evacuate.

BOLOCAN: Because of their little daughter - she's under big stress. She saw - so in their quarter in Kyiv, they had seven bombs that landed.

MARTIN: Ira tells us that for her daughter's sake, they needed to leave. But that meant leaving many loved ones behind.

IRA: Her father, her brother, her husband.

MARTIN: Ukraine is operating under martial law. It's illegal for men aged 18 to 60 to leave the country in case they are needed to fight. In fact, 95% of Ukrainians leaving the country are women and children. So now a grandmother, mother and daughter wait. They have friends in Israel who are willing to take them in if they can get there. But they aren't Jewish and don't have family in Israel, so they're hoping Sofia's fame could help their chances of getting in. But they've been disappointed before. In the last film Sofia shot, her on-screen parents were played by Russian actors. They got very close on set. Eleven-year-old Sofia has been trying to contact them since Russia invaded Ukraine, but they have been ignoring her calls.

SOFIA: (Speaking Russian).

MARTIN: We always thought that Russia was our friend, she says. We will never forgive them.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMILIANO BLANGERO'S "PENSIERI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.