Reportage. Since February 24, 85,566 have arrived through the Siret pass. Most of them stay only for a night and resume their journey to other parts of Romania and beyond. ‘We were not ready to face a war,’ one priest says.

In Romania, tents and churches to host thousands of refugees

Leaning against the railing at the train station in Suceava, capital of the region of the same name in northeastern Romania, Marina is smoking a cigarette, while her 6-year-old son Sergej drags a plastic bag with some clothes inside. They managed to grab just a few pieces of luggage before fleeing the bombing of Dinpro, Ukraine.

“The bombs were falling all the time. From one day to the next, we were forced to go underground,” the woman recalls. Together with Marina and Sergej, 10,953 people have crossed the Ukrainian-Romanian border in the last 24 hours [on Monday], according to the Romanian Border Police. It’s been 13 days since the Russian offensive started on Ukrainian territory, and since the beginning of the conflict, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 1.7 million people have left the country, mainly women and children. According to data from the border police, 260,000 Ukrainian citizens have entered Romania since February 24.

One of the most used points of entry is the Siret border crossing, 45 kilometers from Suceava. The 3 kilometer road that connects Siret, a village of just 7,000 inhabitants, to the border has been set up by volunteers and Christian associations to deal with the emergency. On one side of the road there are stalls offering basic necessities: hot tea, snacks, home-made muffins, water, but also woolen gloves for children, soft toys, toy cars and sanitary napkins. Behind the stalls, about 20 camp tents offer shelter from the cold to new arrivals.

“I had a wonderful life before the war,” says Tania as she sips from a cup of hot chai, the Romanian tea that volunteers are distributing to refugees. She arrived from Kharkiv after a three-day journey. “I am from Moldova, but I lived in Kharkiv for 11 years. I had a good job at a French IT company,” she continues. Since the outbreak of war, the 30-year-old’s life has been turned upside down: “The father of one of my colleagues was killed by a bomb. At that point, I decided to take my things and leave Kharkiv.”

Those ready to lend a hand to the fleeing people are not only from Romanian volunteer organizations, mostly supported by the Evangelical and Orthodox churches in the area, but also volunteers from all over Europe.

Mustafa Veyseloslu lives in Anatolia, and when he saw images of the Russian invasion on TV on February 24 at his home in Turkey, he decided to come to the Siret border to help. With the help of two friends, he loaded up a van with instant noodles, chocolate bars and water bottles and set off for Romania. Mustafa, retired after 30 years of service in the Turkish police, spends his days distributing basic necessities from his stall. He shelters himself from the snow under a large red umbrella from which the Turkish flag hangs.

In all, 85,566 refugees have arrived from Ukraine through the Siret border crossing since February 24, according to the border police. A real exodus that shows no sign of diminishing. On Monday morning, in view of the increase in arrivals at the border, the regional council of Suceava region presided by Gheorghe Flutur met to discuss the project of a new refugee camp at Stefan cel Mare International Airport.

The city of Suceava, together with all the small villages of the homonymous region, has organized itself to handle the arrival of thousands of people. In many hotels, gyms and schools, camps have been set up to accommodate refugees. Daniel Dumitriu has returned to live in Suceava after 18 years spent in Alba in the Piedmont, and since the beginning of the conflict he has decided to help as a volunteer for the #fightforfreedom association.

This is a secular NGO that before the outbreak of war in Ukraine worked to help homeless people; now, the priority is the humanitarian crisis. Every day, Daniel comes to the Mandachi Hotel in the city of Suceava. Ukrainian refugees are brought to the Mandachi from Siret by private buses or Romanian civil defense vehicles.

“In the last two days, about 400 people per hour have crossed the border. I have often crossed the border to give water and food to those standing in line to enter Romania,” Daniel says. Just a few days ago, a Ukrainian soldier begged Daniel to take his sister and two nephews and bring them to Romania: “I hosted them in my house, and the next day I accompanied them to the airport. They went to Bergamo to some relatives.” In fact, 60% of Ukrainian refugees leave Romania within one or two days. Those who remain, after a few nights of rest, move further towards the center of the country.

That’s what Marina decided to do. She is at Suceava station to catch a train to Bucharest. A volunteer she is in contact with has offered her hospitality in the capital. It took her and little Sergej three days to reach the border, and after just one night of rest they are on their way again. “A dear friend managed to take us to the border with his car, but they didn’t let him pass with us,” says Marina. From Suceava, every day, hundreds of refugees take the train to reach Bucharest.

At the station, since February 24, there are volunteers coordinated by the Orthodox Church of Suceava present round the clock. “We were not ready to face such a big emergency, we were not ready to face a war,” says volunteer priest Fr. Alexandru Flavian. “Compared to the beginning of the crisis, now we are more organized and we’re coordinating with all the volunteer associations.”

The church in Suceava has made available 2,800 beds to host those who are arriving from Ukraine, and together with other voluntary associations, both lay and ecclesiastical, they share information, means and personnel to help those who Fr. Alexandru calls “our Ukrainian brothers” in any way they can.

After finishing her cigarette, Marina smiles at Sergej and goes back into the station with him. The train for Bucharest is about to arrive.

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