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Millions of Ukrainians have fled the war and sought refuge in nations to the west, including Moldova, the most-impoverished nation in Europe. More than 300,000 refugees have arrived in the former Soviet republic, which has a population of 2.9 million people. While many have moved on, the strain remains. Special correspondent Villem Mark reports.
Millions of Ukrainians have fled the war and sought refuge in nations to the West. One of those countries is tiny Moldova, the most impoverished nation in Europe.
More than 300,000 refugees have arrived in this former Soviet republic, which has a population of just 2.9 million people. Many refugees have by now moved on, but the strain remains.
Special correspondent Willem Marx reports on a nation without many means, whose people are rising to the moment.
For Ukrainian refugee Yelena Mostrz, making beds may be a first step to rebuilding her life. She's just started volunteering at Fidez, a refugee placement center in Moldova, Ukraine's smallest neighbor.
Yelena Mostrz, Ukrainian refugee: Everybody do something possible to help in this situation. So I try to help here people from Ukraine, try to help people from Fidez, because they do a very good job.
Just days ago, this center in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, welcomed her, alongside other Ukrainian women suddenly forced from their former lives.
A lot of people, I see cry. It's very, very hard to see.
Many tears here are shed for Ukraine's southern coastal region, close to Moldova and, for 40 years, Yelena's home. Now, it's this small room, shared with Tania, the mother of her ex-husband, who stayed in Ukraine, and her 5-year-old daughter, Sonia.
Helping Yelena settle in is Elena Balatel, a Moldovan tourism-professor-turned-mother hen for many here at this Catholic charity. She too is a volunteer.
Elena Balatel, Fidez Center Volunteer:
You feel everything they feel, everything. It goes through you. You try to help as much as you can, and at some point you feel like, OK, I do as much as I can, and it still, like, is not enough, you know?
One Ukrainian woman asked us to talk with her husband in the heavily bombarded city of Mykolaiv.
Are you happy your wife is here in Moldova?
Yes, I'm very happy. So, I made this move for myself. I can protect my family, my wife, my children.
Are you grateful to countries like Moldova taking so many people in and looking after them?
Yes, I'm very thankful to Moldova. I'm very thankful to other countries who is taking our people.
This complex houses around 100 refugees, honored guests, as some Moldovans call them. It's one of dozens across this tiny country of just under three million people now filled with those fleeing war, transforming table tennis halls into temporary dormitories, classrooms into canteen kitchens, with more Ukrainians arriving each day by the busload.
What started as a flood of families is today just a steady trickle of traffic, but authorities here in Moldova have concerns, if the city of Odessa, just half-an-hour down this road, comes under sustained attack, it could lead to a fresh torrent of people.
More than 330,000 have already entered Moldova. Most move on elsewhere, lining up for visas outside the capital Chisinau's embassies. But around 100,000, enough to create the country's second largest city, have chosen to stay, and the crisis is now close to overwhelming Europe's most impoverished nation's limited resources.
But into that breach, an army of volunteers carpenters, credit managers, urban planners, actresses, finding ways to help.
Marianna Turcan is the Moldovan prime minister's education adviser, turned principal problem-solver at this pop-up call center.
Marianna Turcan, Adviser to Moldovan Prime Minister: The government has learned in a very quick way, because there was no manual hidden somewhere in the drawers to pull out and say, this is what you do if. You know, there was no such thing.
While Moldova awaits more international support, Turcan's team connects Ukrainians with pharmacies, schools and citizens willing to house them.
One of these calls helped Natalia Shvareva, her son Daniel and daughter Mira. They fled Odessa, and after walking freezing miles to cross the border, ended up here, in the warm home of a Moldovan marketing executive, Olesea Buzu.
Natalia Shvareva, Ukrainian Refugee (through translator):
They created such an atmosphere for us in the apartment, in the home, that we simply trusted them and that's it. Everything is simply wonderful.
Why did you decide, you and your fiance, to host people in your home?
Olesea Buzu, Moldovan Host:
We decided to have somebody at our place because we thought that it is — it is just a normal. We can. We can.
And we want — hey.
We can and we want.
It's that simple? You can and you want?
What does it say?
Yes. It's written there: "I want back home in Ukraine."
And there is their flag, and then, nearby, it's Odessa.
Can I hear your poem?
"Ukraine native land," she says, "field, river, forest. You and I belong here."
The Moldovan generosity to guests extends from the capital, Chisinau, to country villages like this one, where a family of toymakers is focused on Ukrainian children.
Igor Hincu is an overgrown kid who loves nothing more than creating and playing games. He may be small of stature, but he's big of heart.
Igor Hincu, Toymaker:
Inside his workshop, lasers and fingers craft free toys with encouraging messages in this difficult time.
Ukraine cannot be broken, cannot be destroyed…
… cannot be separated.
So, you will see how we assemble them back.
While Moldova waits for more international aid, some foreign support has been here all along.
David Smith, Founder, Moldova Small Enterprise Alliance:
These are about to head out to a warehouse we share with another organization.
David Smith first came to Moldova with the Peace Corps. He stayed to open a bar. And, more recently, he reopened a barbecue restaurant closed by COVID as a refugee supply center, staffed by several fellow Americans.
This is a country, a very small country. It's doing absolutely its best, but it's really hard-hit. The population here is not enough to support this massive inflow.
And Moldova needs help, so we're all doing what we can. But, like, we're looking forward to the big help coming in too.
This week, the World Food Program will begin supplying Moldova's placement centers and offering cash to Moldovan hosts.
Women and children in strangers' houses, welcomed, for sure, but with no idea when or if they can return to their own.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Willem Marx in Chisinau, Moldova.
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