A strong woman
Written by: Bartosz Gawarecki. Edited by: Sharmishtha Rawat. Photos by: Clary Estes
The responsibility of a young child and a beloved pet, a 17-hour-long wait at the Ukraine-Moldova border, a suitcase left abandoned in an unknown field, and the desperate search for a roof to put over her and her family’s head. These are just small pieces of the long journey Ira was forced to undertake as she made her way towards safety, ultimately finding herself working as a volunteer at the Bălți Distribution Center in the end. Here is her story:
On March 8, Ira said goodbye to her parents as she departed for the Republic of Moldova with her thirteen-year-old son and the family dog. Though the distance from Odessa to Moldova is just 60 kilometers, her journey was anything but short and sweet. When she arrived at the border, she had to wait for ten long hours in the freezing cold temperatures of early March before she could finally cross the border on foot. The refugee camp was moved five kilometers away from the border for security reasons, so when she stepped into Moldova for the first time, she was unsure where to go. Carrying and dragging all she had in her hands, without a waypoint to speak of, she walked straight ahead along the road. One foot in front of the other.
Ira had no acquaintances in Moldova. She had no idea where she and her family could stay nor how to find a place. After trekking the five kilometers on foot to the refugee camp, she waited for another 7 hours to find transport to Chișinău, Moldova’s capital. Out of desperation, she managed to find a taxi, but not all her luggage fit. She had to leave a suitcase behind. “That suitcase is probably still somewhere in a field in the middle of nowhere in Moldova”, she says.
However, finding transport to Chișinău was far from the end of her journey. She had reserved a room in a house, but by the time she arrived in Chișinău at around 10 pm, that room had already been filled with other refugees just like her. The taxi driver had also left. Feeling helpless, she just stood there, in the middle of the night, in a foreign country, having just fled a war, and began to cry. She is a strong woman, but this was too much to bear.
Suddenly, a Moldovan woman approached her and asked Ira why she was crying. Ira briefly explained her situation, and the Moldovan woman told her, “Don’t worry! You can come to my apartment, there are 25 other people like you staying with me.”
25 other people like me? What exactly does this woman mean? Ira wondered. However, as she had no other options, she followed the lady to her apartment, imagining a large place or a center perhaps. When the lady opened the door to her place, Ira saw a one-room apartment packed full of people (not unlike a Moldovan mini-bus at 9 am on a workday). She squeezed through the barely open door and was physically unable to go any further. That’s how packed the apartment was.
Yet, her night had only just begun. Ira started to relentlessly scroll through different websites in a desperate attempt to book an apartment. She looked for hours with no luck. Everything was booked or price-gouged. Finally, her husband messaged her after midnight, saying he had found an apartment for her and their son in Bălți. Ira’s husband was unable to be with them physically as men between 18-60 years of age are not allowed to leave Ukraine, in case they are needed for the war effort. He was helping them from afar as best he could.
What is Bălți? She thought. It was a city she had never heard of, but she knew she needed to get there immediately. At four in the morning, she began asking around for help with transport, and someone offered to help her saying that they: “know a guy that can take you.”
Hmm, I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to go with a person that “knows a guy”, decided Ira. She politely turned down the offer and began looking for taxis. She managed to find one, although at a hefty price. When they reached the outskirts of Bălți, a city in northern Moldova, the taxi driver didn’t know where to go, and neither did Ira. She called the host of the apartment her husband had booked.
“Where are you?” the host asked.
“I’m next to a field,” Ira responded, knowing that her answer did not help in any way.
“What do you see near you?”
“Oh, I see a gas station up ahead.”
“Wait one minute, I will find you, stay where you are.”
By the grace of Moldovan magic, the host found Ira on the side of the highway and took her to the apartment. Though the apartment did not have a boiler, a heater, or any essential equipment for that matter, the host promised Ira it would be done within three hours. Ira had her doubts, but was happy to have a roof over her, her son’s, and her little dog’s head.
Three hours later, lo and behold, her Moldovan host delivered on her promise. Ira wanted to poke her to make sure she was real and not a figment of her imagination.
Though now she had an apartment, Ira was soon confronted by the reality that she didn’t know a single person in Bălți. So, she began to walk around to see if perhaps someone else from Odessa had stumbled upon this previously anonymous city. As she walked around, she began to hear people speaking in Ukrainian, and immediately asked them what they were doing, and where she could receive help. They soon directed her to a variety of refugee resource centers where she could get food, hygiene products, and access to additional support.
Yet, with her basic needs met, she grew anxious again. “I’m an active woman. I need movement, things to do, people to see, and here, I had nothing. I called my parents back in Odessa, and they suggested that I volunteer somewhere.”
Through tears, she began scrolling through her Facebook feed and was shocked to see an announcement asking for volunteers. “I had to do a double-take, I couldn’t believe it. Volunteers needed?! I couldn’t dial the number fast enough!” It was an announcement from the Bălți Distribution Center.
After a couple of rings, Budulai, the director of the center, picked up the phone.
“Hello, do you still need volunteers? I’d like to help!”
Budulai answered nonchalantly, “Perhaps yes, we might need some help.”
Ira was not satisfied with his answer, and told him “Let me correct you, you DO need volunteers! Urgently! I’m coming to help tomorrow morning.”
Budulai laughed and said, “You are more than welcome, see you tomorrow.”
Since coming to help, Ira has been volunteering every Monday–Friday at the center. With experience managing a supermarket, her expertise has proven to help the center immensely. For now, Ira is making herself a home away from home and helping her fellow refugees in the process.
Update and editor’s note:
Bartosz, the writer of this article, helped develop the Bălți Distribution Center along with Budulai and Friends of Moldova. They send out a heartfelt personal note to Ira, “We don’t know what we’d do without her. Thank you, Ira!”
P.S. A few weeks after staying in Bălți, with the help of Friends of Moldova funds and Zdorovii Gorod’s (a local non-profit that has been transporting people across the border at Palanca since the beginning of the invasion), Ira’s parents and extra mattresses were personally transported to Bălți so that Ira’s family could reunite. We caught the moment on video. They are now living in Bălți together for the time being.