I doubt if we ever come back home,” says Helen, who until recently taught English to second- and third-graders in Mykolaiv, a southern Ukrainian city of several hundred thousand. “Putin wants Mykolaiv,” Helen says. A large majority of Mykolaiv residents speak Russian at home. The city’s proximity to Putin-friendly lands makes it a natural part of any recomposed Russkiy mir.
Mykolaiv is well represented today in Palanca, a hamlet of little peacetime consequence in Moldova’s southeastern corner, about sixty kilometers west of Odesa. Beginning shortly after the Russian invasion on February 24, Palanca, along with other towns abutting southern and western Ukraine, saw hundreds and sometimes thousands of refugees each day. Those with enough cash, smarts, nerve, and physical ability come to Palanca from all over southern and central Ukraine, stay for a night at most, and then travel on, typically to the Moldovan capital of Chișinău, or to Romania.
For three weeks I’ve been in Chișinău helping to run a kitchen and manage the volunteers serving hundreds of mostly Jewish refugees. Chișinău is a plain and sane city. Friendly cops testify to low crime. I wear my yarmulke and fringes out while I’m here, and more than in any other European city I’ve visited, I’ve encountered genuine philosemitism. The city has partnered with Rabbi Pinchas Zaltzman (whom I work for) and other rabbis to meet the needs of Jewish refugees. Strangers often greet me with a hospitable “shalom,” an improvement over the sarcastic renditions ubiquitous on American subways.
Chișinău is the capital of one of the poorest nations in Europe. According to OEC data, Moldova’s third-largest export is wine, and if you’ll swear to having heard of a single local vintage before reading this article, come find me and I’ll buy you a bottle (though given what I hear from the vinoscenti, I won’t help you drink it). I hadn’t left the city yet, so when I got a free day to visit the border, I was hoping for a quiet drive through lush if second-rate wine country.
The trip was plenty quiet, but instead of Provence on the Dniester I got muddy plains, cleared lumber yards, and shabby villages. The houses are almost all one story, made of concrete or metal or wood. The roofs are dirty red ceramic, a brighter and grander version of which topped the Greek Orthodox church in Bethesda, Maryland where I spent a year of pre-K. Houses are nestled together on quarter-acre plots and surrounded by tall fences. Dwellings, even poor ones, are usually announced by seriously spiked metal gates of the sort you see in front of ambassadorial residences. Many villages are commanded by two- or three-story Orthodox churches colored like summer lemons and limes. Large crucifixes flank the highway and greet entrants to the towns.
In a several-acre clearing that looks like fallow farmland, Palanca hosts a grid of hundreds of blue tents guarded by the local police. This town isn’t bursting with Marriotts, so folks who come over the border at night will sometimes rest here before going onward. The cops politely refuse my request to go knocking on tent flaps and direct me to what I hereby dub The Welcome Center, a collection of caravans, minibuses, makeshift kitchens, and more tents where refugees come during daylight hours.
Doctors and Christians are the two most common kinds of volunteers at the Palanca border. Medical personnel from Europe have come to check up on malnourished and often sick refugees. Alessandro Verona heads the group from INTERSOS, a kind of Italian version of Doctors Without Borders. He invites me inside his mobile medical unit and clears off a bench while a colleague examines a patient inside a small office separated from us by a door.
In addition to housing refugees for a night, the tent village allows doctors some time to test them for infectious diseases. COVID is still a problem. So is food. In a center near Chișinău, Verona learned of “cases of acute gastrointestinal conditions related to the quality of food brought from Ukraine,” which, besides being meager, rots after days of travel without proper storage. When the missiles start falling people start running, often forgetting medications at home. Verona has seen diabetics without sufficient insulin, thyroid deficiencies, and other maladies that are treatable enough in a first-world heath system. But Ukraine is at war and Moldova itself, Verona testifies, is not capable of providing its own citizens with much of the care necessary for the Ukrainians. (In mid-sentence Verona is asked for a coffee cup and offers the stack to his colleague: “Take one, not the first one, obviously.”)
Then there’s mental health. “Everyone’s got to be trained in PFA,” Verona says of his staff, using the initialism for Psychological First Aid. “Every single [woman] who comes here, who has a partner, it’s split love.” It’s not just spouses who have been divided. Olga, twenty-one, is a delicate-looking prison psychologist who left father, mother, sister, and brother in Chernihiv. Both men now serve in the Ukrainian army, and men of military age are generally prohibited from leaving Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of the children of these men have come with their mothers to places like Palanca. “We saw several children who were not willing to speak anymore.” Verona sees patients in their first hours outside Ukraine, but for what it’s worth, perhaps the thing that has most surprised me is the resilience of Ukrainian youngsters. About 95 percent of the refugees I’ve met are elderly, young mothers, or kids under fourteen, and of the three groups, the last have been by far the most cheerful and well-adjusted. I had been in the country for thirty-six hours and had seen more than a hundred children before I saw one older than infancy cry. The boy’s father had been drafted into the Ukrainian military as he and his mother escaped to Moldova.
Besides the kasha and the absence of overbearing American parents, a possible explanation for the mood of the youngest Ukrainians is all the dogs and cats. One of the hotels my group in Chișinău runs has specially designated and well-populated canine and feline rooms. I survey the fifty-strong refugee cohort in Palanca and count two pugs, several mutts, some rodent-looking things that are dogs only technically, and a somber Basset Hound named Ella (there are many cats, but I don’t know breeds). Ella and her owners are from Odesa, and like every refugee dog owner whom I ask, they explain that they took their pet because dogs are “members of the family.” Also like most refugees I’ve spoken with, they are basically hopeful. I ask why they didn’t leave earlier. They say they thought things wouldn’t go so badly, but an answer to a different question reveals more. I ask Ella’s papa, a kind carpenter named Vasily, what he thinks about the war’s course. He says Odesa, at least, will fight to the death.
Indeed, love of country and faith in one’s countrymen are the ubiquitous traits of the men and women and children I meet. Even Helen the English teacher, who’s something of a pessimist, adores the homeland she’s not sure she’ll ever see again. “We just want to live in Ukraine. It’s a free country. We actually love Ukraine.” And its leaders? “Zelensky, I think he’s brave. He hasn’t left us.”
Ukrainian patriotism extends to its immigrants, one of whom, Sergey, answers with a cheerful “Yes!” when I loudly ask whether anyone speaks English. “We are fighting for freedom, of course. For independence. . . . Actually we are brother nations,” he says of Ukraine and Russia, though he sees less and less in common now.
This is Sergey’s second stint as a refugee. (There’s a lot of that going around—I’ve already met several Holocaust survivors and Donetsk exiles now running from Putin’s bombs.) Armenian by heritage and Orthodox by baptism, Sergey tells me he was raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, but he and his family fled to Ukraine during the early 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war between his ancestral and native countries. At twenty Sergey became a Protestant and studied English and Spanish philology at university. In Kyiv he ran ministries, including as a Christian radio host broadcasting to Ukrainian Protestants, and acted in some low-budget Ukrainian dramas. He also has a bizarre ecumenical streak, serving as a Spanish language translator for some Ukrainian messianic Jews. (He’s sad when I tell him I don’t count any Jews for Jesus among my acquaintance.)
Sergey and his wife and their cat left Kyiv for Lviv soon after the war started. After the twenty-hour drive, they spent the night on the balcony of his sister’s minuscule apartment. Then a week in the Carpathian Mountains, where refugees pooled their resources for an ad hoc soup kitchen. He and his wife joined fellow Protestants in Uzhhorod near the Slovakian border, where they welcomed refugees and supplied Ukrainian soldiers with meds, flak jackets, and helmets. All the while Sergey has continued his ministries virtually with congregants in Kyiv.
Sergey’s wife stayed in Uzhhorod, but he wanted to get out of Ukraine. “I don’t see with my right eye,” he says, which together with stomach problems disables him from military service. “I knew that God would help me.” Figuring that the mafiosi offering to smuggle him into Moldova for $8,000 were not emissaries of the Lord, Sergey drove to the Palanca checkpoint and was refused egress by a Ukrainian soldier. But the Ukrainian guard didn’t tell him to leave. “I just make, let’s say, a step by faith,” he says, and drove across to the Moldovan side, where local authorities admitted him.
Sergey is the only professing Protestant refugee I’ve met, but his co-religionists are the most numerous of the nonmedical volunteers on the border. Larisa is a member of Speranța (“Hope” in Romanian), an evangelical church with several hundred members in Chișinău. She and her comrades have fish on their vests and refugees sleeping in their building back in the capital. Larisa has partnered with a Christian youth organization to recruit girls of all religions to volunteer with refugees. Back in Chișinău I visit the church recreation room and speak to Ina, who manages lodging and food for the fourteen refugees there now. (Dozens more have come and gone on.) “This is what God is calling us to do,” she tells me after receiving a spontaneous hug from one of the young girls her church is housing and feeding.
A few miles away from Speranța stands an evangelical Baptist church of about four hundred families. Their volunteers were also with me on the border, and Pastor Vitaly Fedora was kind enough to give me a tour of a church converted into a haven for several dozen Ukrainians. “We felt a strong call from the Lord just to open our arms,” which they did in the form of Sunday school classrooms transformed into dormitories. The men’s restroom sports a new shower installed in just a day. Children play at one end of a repurposed social hall, as women sit on couches along the walls. Some workers outside put up a stage for tonight’s communal prayer and singing.
“We felt strongly,” Pastor Vitaly says, “that we need to bring that message of hope from the Lord,” in addition to physical supplies. It seems to be working. At first, “most of them wanted to go as soon as possible, most of them to Poland.” Now more want to stay in Moldova and even return to Ukraine. “They are more aware of what they left there. Their husband. Their sons. . . . They start to be believe in an end to the war.” And indeed the Palanca border now sees cars every day returning north with men and women to join the front or to look after loved ones still in the warzone.
The checkpoint itself sits at the end of a long, bare road. A white stone crucifix is the last non-official structure before the actual crossing. Some anxious Ukrainians step into Moldovan territory, where minibuses will take them to The Welcome Center. I get out of my car and ask the border guard if I can go inside the checkpoint to the duty-free shop. He gestures in the negative while ululating in irate Romanian. I notice that the small passport office building is unmanned with door ajar, so I walk through and for thirty euros (not much business recently, I guess) gain ownership of a three-liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.
Back in Chișinău I donate the Scotch to the synagogue’s Kiddush Club stock (I’ll tell you another time) and visit the local Catholic diocese’s main refugee center, inside a large church complex. It looks like a small college dorm, very clean and spacious. It’s nighttime, and the staff ask me not to disturb the refugees as they’re trying to rest. I was directed here by Father Gabriel, priest at the cathedral, who served as translator during a very congenial conversation with his lordship of Chișinău. At the refugee center I meet Father Vasile, himself a quarter Ukrainian and the sort of alert, bespectacled fellow I’d want running an important CIA desk were he not busy elsewhere.
“My father,” Father Vasile says with a smile when I mention I’ve met the bishop. He took orders after growing up in a small, mostly Catholic town in Moldova with a very volunteerist clergy. The main thing is to help those who need it, he says through an interpreter, and these people happen to need it now. I have observed the refugees to be generally hopeful about returning home, but Father Vasile sees gradations. The first set of refugees is the most moneyed, and they care less which country hosts them. The second set—whom Americans would call middle-class—just want stability. Last are the poor, who have little interest in living anywhere outside Ukraine.
I ask Father Vasile about the obligations of Catholics who aren’t in Moldova, and he’s quick to express gratitude. Moldova’s Catholic population is around 20,000, and the country is poor. Most of the money for the facility, the priest says, was donated by foreigners. They may need much more of that sort of thing. Odesa’s population may be south of a million now, but Moldova’s is just above 2.5 million. If Putin decides to flatten Ukraine’s third-largest city, Moldova’s churches will probably be packed within thirty-six hours. I hope Father Vasile likes coffee.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Hebrew University and Yeshivat Har Etzion.
Image by Msv.gov.ua via Creative Commons. Image cropped.