‘It’s Our Duty to Help.’ Eastern Europe Opens Its Doors and Hearts to People Fleeing Ukraine
The lucky arrive by car; the unfortunate are on foot. They’re covered in blankets to protect against the cold and clutch their belongings.
The exodus to neighboring countries in eastern Europe continued on Sunday, with a majority of women taking care of their infants and children while pushing strollers. Some had even adopted pets.
The men left behind are aged 18 to 60 and have been called to defend the nation’s sovereign state of 44 million citizens. Ukraine was invaded by Russian forces on Thursday on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who on Sunday, reportedly put his nuclear deterrent on “special alert.”
At least 368,000 Ukrainian refugees have already arrived in neighboring countries, the U.N.’s refugee agency posted on Twitter Sunday, more than double the agency’s estimate from the previous day.
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“I arrived at the border at four o’clock in the morning and the queue was three or four kilometers long,” Xenia Luchina, 43, from the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi tells TIME at the Romanian frontier town of Siret. “There wasn’t fighting when I left but it was getting closer and you just don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
A quarter of all Ukrainian refugees have reached Poland from Ukraine, and tens to thousands more have made the journey to Hungary, Moldova, Romania, U.N. High Commissar for Refugees Filippo Grani reports. tweeted Saturday. U.N. agencies warn that 5 million could leave Ukraine as supplies of fuel, money and medicine in Ukraine shrink. The U.N. and other agencies have said it’s difficult to confirm numbers because it’s impossible to move around safely in many parts of the country.
Siret is a quiet border crossing, flanked with fields of potatoes and wheat. However, many arriving people were not Ukrainian nationals but foreigners bewildered by the crisis. TIME was able to meet scores of Indians, Hungarians, and Africans desperately trying to escape danger.
Trevor was 23 years old and from Zimbabwe. He had studied pharmacy in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, for four-years when his life turned around. “We were scared that the Russians would move in so we fled,” he says, sitting on a sleeping bag by the side of the road. “Ukraine is my second home. It’s really sad to see what’s happening.”
The authorities of Suceava in Romania quickly established mobile camping areas with electricity, tents and beds. Local monasteries are caring for mothers with small children. The vast majority of the help provided has been from ordinary Romanians, who are shocked at the rapid unfolding crisis across the border.
At the Siret border crossing, volunteers in hi-vis vests held up signs: “Offer transport four persons,” “Free legal counselling for asylum procedures;” and simply “help on offer here.” Food trucks handed out steaming cups of coffee and soup. To all those who travelled, thick cheese and ham sandwiches were wrapped in foil and groceries bags handed out. On Facebook, people offer to host strangers or provide shelter for the homeless.
Antonina Venzhynovych is a 25-year-old copywriter hailing from Kyiv. “A lot of people don’t know what to do and are just hoping to return home soon,” she says. “We need help because our people are dying.”
When I headed back to meet my taxi driver, he revealed that he’d spent the interim hours transporting three refugees back to his own home, where his wife had provided a hot meal and shelter. “It’s the least we can do,” he says. “They plan to travel to Italy tomorrow.”
Matei Vrabie (24-year-old political science student from ClujNapoca), drove five hours to Siret in order to assist a group medical students. After that, he offered to drive them for six additional hours until they reached Bucharest. “It’s our duty to help,” he says. “It’s in our DNA.”
Despite Romania’s warm welcome, most refugees TIME encountered were preparing leave Romania for third countries in the West—their priority to earn money to support their families and the fight against Russian invaders.
“I’m going to find work in Germany so I can send money back to my family in Ukraine,” says Illia Vladiian, 30, a plasterer and interior decorator who had been excused from military service for health reasons. “NATO needs to send more armaments to Ukraine because right now Russia is too strong.”
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Vrabie stated that he is relieved to see Romania as a member of the E.U. NATO. “If not for that, I think Russia could be here in any moment.” On Sunday, Germany also pledged a massive hike in defence spending to meet the NATO spending target of 2% of GDP.
Romanian Defense Minister Vasile Dîncu told local media Thursday that the nation was “in a state of vigilance,” adding that there may be an increase in NATO forces on Romanian territory depending on how the situation changes. “We must make these preparations for any situation.”
How many more refugees will come is anyone’s guess. On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian officials would meet with Russian counterparts on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River, for talks “without preconditions.”