IAŞI, Romania — Aleksandra Lukashova is sitting still, quietly waiting to be told when she can get up with her family and make their way to Bucharest. They have already spent twenty hours getting here to Iași, a major city in eastern Romania, from Odesa, which citizens fear will be hit as hard as Mariupol has been. But she has no plans to stay here. She is 21 and, like her brother, a ballet dancer; teaching jobs and a flat are waiting for them in Vienna, offered by a dance school.
Lukashova’s time in Iași – a story of transit, rather than stay – is what has been most common for Ukrainian refugees pouring through Moldova and Romania. But that is all about to change.
A new wave of refugees, expected to be poorer, more exhausted and with firsthand experience of war, will arrive soon in their thousands. And rather than moving elsewhere in Europe, they will be staying as close to Ukraine’s borders as they can, hoping to return quickly.
PHOTO: Lutcanu Iuliana/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images
Romania technically has the second-largest influx of refugees after Poland – 518,000 compared to Poland’s 2 million – but the main difference is that few Ukrainians have stayed in Romania. Iași has direct bus and train routes from Chișinău, the Moldovan capital, which is why many refugees have already passed through here to Iași airport or to Bucharest before fanning out across Europe, from Portugal to Poland, Georgia to Germany.
The first wave of refugees had the most resources: cars, foreign contacts, money. But the refugees who are expected to arrive soon in places like Iași will have been living underground already for weeks. Many will likely have walked for miles before they can finally reach shelter and transport. Many will have lost loved ones.
That is why Iași is currently a city of ghost shelters, empty buildings repurposed with hundreds of beds to accommodate the expected influx. Used to putting up people for just a few hours or nights, the city is transforming for longer stays. A supermarket office building now has around 450 beds, set to be the biggest refugee centre in the city, but only 30 or so people are currently staying there. In the past three weeks, over 3,000 refugees have passed through it, making their way to other parts of Europe. The floors are eerily quiet, occasionally punctuated by the scream or laugh of a lone child.
Cristi Hristea, who spent 10 years managing the building before pivoting to managing its volunteer efforts, has no idea what the next few weeks will look like – but he expects many more will arrive, and he’s worried about the gas bill. Apart from the war, the spiralling cost of energy is the biggest news story in Romania right now. He shows VICE World News a video of a gas metre rising up and up like a slot machine that his team took the day before, and he looks out of the window at Iași’s winter sun. “It says the weather will get warmer. I hope the sun smiles on our city,” he says.
At another repurposed office block in Nicolina, empty and ready with 200 beds, local psychotherapists are being trained by War Child because they’ve never had to support refugees before, and volunteers have already signed up for the day and night shifts where they’ll be around to help refugees with any requests they have.
“I have a lot of concerns, big and small,” says Mihaela Munteanu, who is helping to run the shelter and is the director of the Social Emergency Center at FONSS, a federation of social services in Romania. “Government bureaucracy makes processes slow. I am worried about the elderly, who can only write in Cyrillic. And they will all have so much trauma.”
PHOTO: SOPHIA SMITH GALER
Over the past weekend, the city has started filling up. A children’s daycare centre has made space for over 40 children from a Kyiv orphanage. At a children’s disability centre, three generations of a Ukrainian family from Odesa say they are planning on staying there indefinitely because they want to go back home as quickly as they can when the war ends. Picking up her grandson’s toy soldier, the grandmother weeps as she talks about her son, his father, defending a city they cannot name for fear of his safety.
The enormous volunteering effort from locals comes with private anxieties. Worried that Russia might invade Moldova and that even more refugees will come to Romania, Romanians are hoping that they too can find safety somewhere and use their connections in countries like the UK. In Iași and practically every other city, there are no appointments for passport services until June because they are completely overwhelmed with requests.
But in the Nicolina centre at least, spirits are high; people are laughing in the office and, despite being told explicitly not to redecorate any of the walls by City Hall, a children’s playroom is being painted with fantasy characters and Olaf the Snowman. “They told us not to do anything and we said, ‘OK!’” says Munteanu. She says she has already seen Ukrainian children sitting wordlessly at other centres and stops, unable to play from fear. “They will play here,” she assures herself.
And at the train station, as Lukashova gets ready to board her train with her brother and mother, she is optimistic, too, as she likely leaves Iași forever.
“My dream is to open a dance school in Ukraine,” she says. “And it will be free to study there, for everyone.”
Additional reporting by Teodora Munteanu