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Romania hasn't always seen itself as a safe haven. War in Ukraine has changed that

Ukrainian refugees gather in the triage tents set up at the border in Isaccea, Romania, on Friday. It's where refugees wait until going to have their documents checked.
Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Ukrainian refugees gather in the triage tents set up at the border in Isaccea, Romania, on Friday. It's where refugees wait until going to have their documents checked.

Sasha and Eugenia had just crossed into Romania from Ukraine, carrying their 2-year old son and heavy duffle bags as they walked through a ferry checkpoint.

Sasha, the father, says they decided to leave their home country a week earlier. It had been more than a month since the start of the Russian invasion, and the family had reached a breaking point.

"Our child, he needs special care," he says through an interpreter. "And then, all of a sudden, we realized we don't have the medicine; it is not available anymore. And that is the moment we got triggered. We decided we had to leave."

More than 4.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the war erupted in late February. The vast majority, some 2.6 million, have traveled to Poland. Romania has seen the second-largest influx.

Eugenia and Sasha, with their 2-year-old son, crossed the Danube by ferry into Romania at Isaccea on Friday. Originally from Odesa, they have been living in a village near the border.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Eugenia and Sasha, with their 2-year-old son, crossed the Danube by ferry into Romania at Isaccea on Friday. Originally from Odesa, they have been living in a village near the border.

For many of the more than 690,000 Ukrainians who have passed through Romania, the port city of Isaccea is the final stop on a difficult journey. For others, like Sasha, Eugenia and their young son, it's a way station, one stop among many on a long, unpredictable search for safety.

The couple, who declined to give their last names, came from a village near the ferry departure point in the southern Ukrainian village of Orlivka. Eventually, they hope to reach California, where they have family.

They arrived in Romania alongside hundreds of others after a 20-minute ferry ride across the Danube River. The throng of new arrivals entered the country wheeling large suitcases, pushing strollers and carrying pets across a bumpy metal ramp. They were greeted by aid workers, who helped them navigate a maze of relief tents and trucks filled with supplies.

Daniel Petrov is the chief inspector at Tulcea County's Emergency Situations Inspectorate. He has been coordinating the emergency services response at the Isaccea, Romania, border crossing.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Daniel Petrov is the chief inspector at Tulcea County's Emergency Situations Inspectorate. He has been coordinating the emergency services response at the Isaccea, Romania, border crossing.

Daniel Petrov, a local first responder, is in charge of the extensive operation in Isaccea — one that includes border officials, volunteers and medics from three different agencies that all teamed up to respond to the flood of arriving Ukrainians.

In the first weeks of the war, the boat ferried some 800 people on a single trip some days, Petrov says. During those early days, he says, "It was, I must say, traumatizing for both Ukrainians and us — the authorities — on this side."

The reason, he explained, "I would use only one word: empathy."

The ferry ride carrying Ukrainian refugees crossing the Danube into Romania takes about 20 minutes.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
The ferry ride carrying Ukrainian refugees crossing the Danube into Romania takes about 20 minutes.

The crisis is changing Romania's approach toward outsiders

Radu Umbres, a professor of anthropology at the National School for Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, says he was taken aback by his country's warm response to the refugees from Ukraine.

"The image that we have of ourselves is that in general, we're not especially generous towards foreigners in particular," he says. "We have this idea that developed, rich countries are the ones that help. But in this case, even a rather small and not so affluent country as Romania has offered quite a lot of support for this, for these neighboring people."

Romania's embrace of refugees from Ukraine, Umbres concedes, stands in stark contrast to how the nation responded during Europe's last major humanitarian crisis, when millions of migrants and refugees from across the Middle East and Africa sought safety on the continent, including in Romania.

"We had refugees from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Syria, and the general experience was that they were not welcomed," he says.

"To be honest about the matter, it's clear that the empathy that Romanians felt for Ukrainian refugees comes from a certain amount of shared cultural heritage," he says. "Ukrainians are very similar to Romanians in many ways. Of course, we have also some shared post-communist history, [which] makes them in a way very familiar."

Umbres says the crisis has also brought back echoes of Romania's own troubled history with Russia — memories that remain deeply personal and deeply painful for many.

"So many people have personal histories in which their ancestors have been, in one way or another, hurt by the Russian power, by this kind of authoritarian state. So this, again, helps empathizing with them."

Of more than 600,000 refugees who have traveled to Romania, roughly 80,000 have chosen to stay. What's unclear is how large that number may ultimately grow the longer the war drags on.

"It's quite possible that many Ukrainians might end up staying in Romania for a long time, given the fact that the Romanian economy is doing rather well in the past few years," Umbres says. "I think that if I look towards the future, I think there's a good chance that we'll have a Ukrainian diaspora living in Romania for some time to come."

Zomi Frankcom, World Central Kitchen's operations manager and Romania country lead, together with colleagues and volunteers, stacks meals at Gara de Nord railway station in Bucharest on Wednesday.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Zomi Frankcom, World Central Kitchen's operations manager and Romania country lead, together with colleagues and volunteers, stacks meals at Gara de Nord railway station in Bucharest on Wednesday.

Refugees wonder what comes next

About 200 miles southwest of Isaccea, Romania's biggest train station, located in the capital of Bucharest, has transformed into another central hub for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Almost every corner of the Gara de Nord station is being used to assist refugees. There are separate waiting areas for women and children, men and families, where refugees can rest, eat and breastfeed. Yellow-vested volunteers stand ready to field questions. An abandoned storefront now houses refrigerators of food prepared by World Central Kitchen — one of the American-based NGO's 42 distribution sites in Romania providing hot meals to refugees.

At a medical tent set up by the local fire department, an EMT named Faisal Hawat has been treating somewhere between 60 and 70 patients a day. Many of these people, he says, are struggling with insomnia and anxiety.

Faisal Hawat in the medical tent set up at Gara de Nord railway station in Bucharest, Romania, where infrastructure has been put in place to welcome and assist refugees coming from Ukraine.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Faisal Hawat in the medical tent set up at Gara de Nord railway station in Bucharest, Romania, where infrastructure has been put in place to welcome and assist refugees coming from Ukraine.

In the area sheltering women and children, 5-year-old Dana, who's traveling with her parents, happened to be in Sri Lanka when Russia invaded Ukraine. But her teenage sister is stuck in Kharkiv, one of Ukraine's hardest-hit cities.

Dmytro Ishchuk, Dana's father, says they can't find a way to get her out of the city.

"They're just hiding in undergrounds, just waiting for a proper moment," he says, speaking through an interpreter. But he doesn't see such a moment in the near future.

Sofia Kotlyarova, an 11-year-old singer and actor from Kyiv, is at the station with her mother and grandmother after her family spent more than a month volunteering in the Ukrainian capital. But after their neighborhood was bombed, says Sofia's mother, Ira, they decided it was time to evacuate.

Ukrainian refugees Sofia Kotlyarova, 11, from Kyiv, and her grandmother, Lydia Melnik, sit in one of the waiting rooms at Gara de Nord railway station. After arriving in Romania, they became friends with another family of refugees, Dmytro Ishchuk and his 5-year-old daughter, Dana, from Kharkiv.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Ukrainian refugees Sofia Kotlyarova, 11, from Kyiv, and her grandmother, Lydia Melnik, sit in one of the waiting rooms at Gara de Nord railway station. After arriving in Romania, they became friends with another family of refugees, Dmytro Ishchuk and his 5-year-old daughter, Dana, from Kharkiv.

That meant separating from Ira's father, brother and husband, who are still in Ukraine. Under Ukraine's martial law, men between the ages of 18 and 60 aren't allowed to leave the country in case they are needed to fight.

Kotlyarova's family has friends in Israel who are willing to take them in if they can get there. They aren't Jewish and don't have family in Israel, so they're hoping Sofia's fame can help their chances of getting in. But they've been disappointed before.

Sofia Kotlyarova holds a microphone as she prepares to sing the Ukrainian national anthem in one of the waiting rooms at Gara de Nord railway station. She came to Romania with her mother, Ira, grandmother, Lydia Melnik and the family dog, Fenya.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Sofia Kotlyarova holds a microphone as she prepares to sing the Ukrainian national anthem in one of the waiting rooms at Gara de Nord railway station. She came to Romania with her mother, Ira, grandmother, Lydia Melnik and the family dog, Fenya.

The 11-year-old reflected on how quickly her family's lives have changed. Since the invasion, she says, her once-close friends in Russia are now ignoring her calls.

"We always thought that Russia was our friend," Sofia says. "We will never forgive them."

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