Volunteers help thousands of Ukrainian refugees



SIRET, Romania (AP) — Sitting with her teenage daughter in the lobby of a hotel in northern Romania, Viktoriya Smishchkyk, 38, breaks down in tears as she recounts her departure from Ukraine.

“I could hear the noise of the fighting outside, it was very scary,” Smishchkyk, from Vinnitsya in central Ukraine, told The Associated Press from a hotel that offers free accommodation to refugees.

“We left all our belongings behind, but these are material things – less important than the lives of our children,” she said.

Smishchkyk and her daughter are among hundreds of thousands of people who have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its attack on Thursday. The UN refugee agency said on Sunday that around 368,000 people had fled the country, many to neighboring countries such as Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia.

Amid the horrors and chaos, volunteers everywhere are showing their support by helping those whose lives have been shattered by war.

At the Romanian Siret border crossing, where thousands of Ukrainians have entered, government workers rush to distribute donated basic equipment from across the country. Meanwhile, individuals and businesses are pooling their resources to provide refugees with everything they need.

Stefan Mandachi, a businessman who lives in Suceava, a town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the Siret border, has transformed a large ballroom in the hotel he owns into a business center. welcomes refugees and offers free private hotel rooms to displaced people.

Dozens of mattresses are laid out on the ballroom floor, donated clothes are piled high, and young children are running around.

“I feel the need to help, it’s my duty to help,” said Mandachi, who also offers free food to Ukrainian refugees from his fast food chain. “I have residents who speak Ukrainian – we are united to help them.”

For Vasiliu Radu, a 34-year-old first aider at the Siret border, the outpouring of support from volunteers makes him proud of his fellow citizens. “It is more important these days, in these situations of war and instability, that people help each other,” Radu said.

But not everyone trying to flee Ukraine gets the help they need.

Some Indian citizens seeking to flee to Poland were stranded at the border on Sunday and unable to cross, according to Ruchir Kataria, an Indian volunteer in Poland trying to help them.

Kataria, who was in contact by mobile phone with Indians stuck at the Medyka border crossing, and a small group at the Polish border in Krakowiec, told the AP that Indians trying to cross at Medyka were told in approximate English: “Go to Romania. ”

But the group had already made long walks to the border, without eating for three days, and had no way of reaching the border with Romania which is hundreds of kilometers away.

In the town of Przemysl in southeastern Poland, just a few kilometers from a border crossing with Ukraine, hundreds of people waited in a parking lot to help refugees who were being transported by bus from the border by the authorities.

“I am very happy to have come and I want to thank all the people who are organizing this,” said a young Ukrainian girl, who had just arrived. “It’s really nice that people are waiting for us in your country.”

Moldova, which shares a long border with Ukraine, is also experiencing a massive influx of refugees. Authorities said that since Thursday, 70,080 Ukrainian citizens have entered the tiny nation of about 3.5 million people.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who visited a northern border post on Sunday, urged people to remain calm and vigilant and thanked the volunteers for their work.

“In these difficult days, I am proud of the citizens of our country, who showed solidarity and humanity and offered a helping hand to our neighbors in times of need,” Sandu said.

Jacob Sontea, a Nigerian student based in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, arrived at the Hungarian border by train with his family on Sunday. Border officials escorted them to the European Union country, which has until now been known to strongly oppose any type of immigration from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

“It was getting chaotic in the city of Kharkiv… It was dangerous, so we had to leave because it was the only choice we had,” he said.

Back at the hotel in Suceava, Smishchkyk tries to catch his breath as he stares at the ceiling in tears. “They’re still there,” she said. “Our parents, brothers, sisters, cousins. It’s just very difficult to deal with.


Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland; Rafal Niedzielski from Przemysl, Poland contributed to this report.

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