Sasha and Eugenia flew from Ukraine to Romania, carrying their 2-year-old son and heavy duffel bags through the boat checkpoint.
Father Sasha says they decided to leave their home country a week ago. It has been more than a month since the start of the Russian invasion, and the family has reached a breaking point.
“Our baby, he needs special care,” he says through a translator. “Then, all of a sudden, we realized we had no medicine; it was no longer available. That was the moment we were triggered. We decided we had to leave.”
More than 4.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the outbreak of war in late February. For the most part, about 2.6 million people have traveled to Poland. Romania has seen a second major arrival.
For many of the more than 690,000 Ukrainians who passed through Romania, the final stop on the arduous voyage was the port city of Issacia. For others like Sasha, Eugenia and their young son, this is a one-way station, seeking a long, unpredictable protection between many.
The couple, who refused to give their family names, came from a village near the boat departure point in the southern Ukrainian village of Orlivka. Eventually they hope to reach California, where they have family.
After a 20-minute boat ride across the Danube, they arrived in Romania with hundreds. A crowd of new visitors wheeled large suitcases, pushed strollers, and loaded pets into a bumpy metal arch. Auxiliary staff greeted them as they helped to get through the maze of relief tents and trucks loaded with supplies.
Daniel Petrov, the local first responder, is in charge of the extensive operation in ICC – including border officers, volunteers and doctors from three different agencies.
In the first weeks of the war, the boat carried 800 people on a single voyage for a few days, Petrov says. In those early days, he says, “it shocked the Ukrainians and us – the authorities – on this side.”
The reason is, “I will only use one word: empathy.”
The crisis is changing Romania’s attitude towards outsiders
Rod Ambrose, a professor of anthropology at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, says he was shocked by his country’s loving response to refugees from Ukraine.
“The image of us is that we are not generous in general, especially to foreigners,” he says. “We have the idea that only developed and rich countries are helping. But in this case, even a small and disadvantaged country like Romania has given a lot of support to these neighbors.”
During the last major humanitarian crisis in Europe, millions of migrants and refugees from across the Middle East and Africa sought refuge on the continent, including Romania.
“We had refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and it was a common experience that they were not welcomed,” he says.
Iona Moldovan for NPR
“To be honest on this point, it is clear that the empathy felt by the Romans towards the Ukrainian refugees came from a certain amount of shared cultural heritage,” he says. “The Ukrainians are very similar to the Romans in many ways. Of course, we share some post-communist history.” [which] Makes them very familiar. “
Ambres says the crisis has brought back echoes of Romania’s own troubled history with Russia – deep personal and deeply painful memories for many.
“Many have personal histories in which their ancestors were somehow wounded by Russian power, this kind of dictatorial state. So it helps to sympathize with them again.”
Of the more than 600,000 refugees who fled to Romania, about 80,000 have chosen to stay. What is unclear is how large that number will be when the war lasts a long time.
“As the Romanian economy has improved over the past few years, many Ukrainians are likely to stay in Romania longer,” says Ambrose. “Looking to the future, I think there is a good chance that Ukrainian immigrants will live in Romania for some time.”
Refugees wonder what will happen next
About 200 miles southwest of Ichasia, Romania’s largest railway station in the capital Bucharest, it has become another hub for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Used to help refugees in almost every corner of the Gara de Nord station. There are separate waiting areas for women and children, men and families, Refugees can rest, eat and breastfeed. Volunteers wearing yellow hats stand ready to raise questions. On the faade of an abandoned store are now food refrigerators made by World Central Kitchen – one of the 42 distribution sites of US-based NGOs serving hot meals to refugees in Romania.
Faisal Hawat, an EMT, treats 60 to 70 patients a day at a medical camp set up by the local fire department. Many of these, he says, struggle with insomnia and anxiety.
Dana, 5, who was traveling with her parents in a shelter for women and children, was in Sri Lanka when Russia invaded Ukraine. But his teenage sister is trapped in Kharkiv, one of Ukraine’s most affected cities.
Dana’s father, Dimitro Ishzuk, says he could not find a way to get her out of the city.
“They are hiding underground, waiting for the right moment,” he speaks through a translator. But he will never see such a moment in the future.
Sofia Kodliarova, an 11-year-old singer and actor from Kiev, is at the station with her mother and grandmother after her family volunteered for more than a month in the Ukrainian capital. But after their neighborhood was bombed, Sofia’s mother, Ira, says they decided it was time to leave.
It is the separation of Ira’s father, brother and husband who are still in Ukraine. Under Ukrainian martial law, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country if they have to fight.
Kotliarova’s family has friends in Israel who are willing to take them there if they can. They are not Jews and have no family in Israel, so they hope Sofia’s reputation will help their chances of entry. But they were already disappointed.
The 11-year-old reflects on how quickly her family’s life has changed. He says his close friends who were in Russia after the invasion are now ignoring his calls.
“We always thought Russia was our friend,” Sofia says. “We will never forgive them.”