A few hours after our Easter lunch at his mother’s home, I watched Budulai as he made balloon animals for the children of his center’s volunteers. It was another aspect of his personality and skill set that surprised me. Balloon animals: I could not help but laugh as he twisted and tied together dogs, flowers, and everything in between.
The Bălți Distribution Center is supported in large part by Ukrainian refugee volunteers who wanted to help despite their circumstances (and often in response to them). In turn, Budulai and his team work to show their gratitude in every way possible, paying volunteers when they can, and holding events on a weekly basis so that their refugee volunteers can have a sense of community amongst their displacement. The center offers everything from cultural trips to famous Moldova historic sites, to cooking classes on how to make signature Moldovan dishes, to holiday celebrations, such as this evening’s Easter dinner.
Budulai is in his element. But I can’t help but recall the conversation we had as we drove back to Bălți from Drochia, just a few hours earlier.
In January of 2022, Budulai and Bartosz were having a heart-to-heart in the dead of Moldova’s intense, dark winter.
“What is my purpose in life?” Budulai asked. Or maybe it was Bartosz that asked. Regardless, when he told me this story as we were driving, I looked over at him in amazement. That had been the exact question I had asked myself that month. And I told him as much.
“I understand how you feel.” In the winter of 2022, all three of us were asking the same question.
“You know,” he responded. “I would sit at the dinner table eating good food. I was comfortable and warm and with the family I loved, but I couldn’t stop wondering, what good is it for me to eat this food? What is my purpose?” Little did he know that an answer would come in less than a month.
Yet his feelings of purposelessness struck me as surprising. Long before the invasion, Budulai had started a non-profit called, Zdorovii Gorod. It was an organization aimed at improving community health in the most profound of ways. Zdorovii Gorod was, yet again, a way that Budulai had taken a hard past and turned it into a charitable future.
Budulai had started drinking and smoking weed when he was thirteen years old. It was a lifestyle that quickly led him into the world of organized crime in Eastern Europe. As we drove back to Bălți, what struck me when he explained this part of his life was that he switched his language to English as best he could, despite the fact that his English was less developed than his Romanian. I looked in the rearview mirror at his wife and mother-in-law in the back seat as Budulai talked. It made sense. This part of his life was not one that was pleasant to reflect on and they had both been there to see it play out. By speaking English, he was sparing his family the touch of memory—the only other time he switched to English during our conversation was when he took a moment to talk about how much he loved his wife.
It was the 90s and Budulai was fully engaged in the gangster lifestyle of the post-Soviet era in Eastern Europe: black BMWs, leather jackets, guns, and heroin. By Budulai’s description, it was not long until he found himself in the throes of an eight-year-long heroin addiction fed by his criminal activity. He was in and out of jail on a variety of charges. Amazingly, his wife (who he’d met in high school) and family never gave up on him, which I am sure, in part, led to his eventual recovery.
As Budulai explains it, he found a vision for his new life in prison as he prayed to God to change. Over and over again, Budulai prayed to kick his drug habit, as well as his involvement with crime, and do some good in his life. When he got out of jail for the last time, that is exactly what he did. After 14 years, he is still going strong.
That is how Zdorovii Gorod got started, Budulai wanted to provide a lifeline to young Moldovans at risk of making the same mistakes he did. At first, it started as simply as gathering at-risk youths around Balti to play soccer in the afternoons and it grew from there. Budulai has also been an outspoken helper to homeless Moldovans, as well as anyone else who finds themselves on the outs of Moldovan society. He has a kind of patience and understanding that can only be categorized as Christ-conscious-like, though, in my experience, he does not push his religious practice on anyone that is not inclined. The point is to do good, as much good as he can, every day, without fail, one day after the next.
This is why I was surprised at Budulai’s statement that he was not serving his purpose that late January night, but maybe it speaks to the fact that Budulai is always trying to do more and more and more. When the war hit, his first move was to travel down to Palanca—Moldova’s busiest border crossing—and drive refugees to Chisinau or Romania before the Moldovan government and international NGOs figured out how to respond by putting a shuttle system in place.
When Bartosz returned to Moldova to help Budalai with the refugee response, creating the Balti Distribution Center was their answer to their question of purposelessness the month prior. As I have seen time and time again, Budulai, and so many others like him, keep asking and answering their own question—What else?—long after the news cycle has seemingly moved on.
What else? What else? What else?
And there is no telling just how much good people like Budulai, Bartosz, David and Vlad, Vasili, Meredith, and so many others from our “Case Study in Caring” series have done—because the good does not stop with the people they have helped directly. Their help continues with the children of refugees that have been helped, the refugees they helped on their way to western Europe, the systems that have been created, the international attention that has been garnered, and the money that has been raised to offer peace in the face of a senseless war.
What is our purpose? Moldova has proved that the answer is so very simple: Love thy neighbor.
Ok, tears here at the ending. It seems that all of life everywhere is always evolving. And this points out to me that yes, mine is evolving as well. Who would have thought???!!!! Thanks for the share.