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In Romania, Action contre la Faim helps the most vulnerable refugees in reception centers in Iasi and Bucharest through two local associations, Parentis and 4Change. Faced with an exceptional influx of refugees in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, they have been forced to change the way they operate.
Since the beginning of the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, Romania has served as both transit country and destination for displaced Ukrainians. Despite the difficulties of integrating into their host country, almost 100,000 of the approximately 3 million Ukrainians who have crossed the border intend to stay in Romania because of the continuing insecurity in Ukraine.
The language barrier, particularly in Romania, bureaucratic obstacles, lack of knowledge of their rights, precariousness, lack of opportunities on the job market, as well as the certainty of returning to Ukraine continue to weigh on the integration of Ukrainian refugees. Because Ukraine has banned men of conscription age from leaving the country in February 2022, around 85% of Ukrainian refugees are women and children, whose priorities are food, housing, healthcare and education. Many refugees are also over-65s, disabled or suffering from chronic illnesses, dependent on aid to meet their basic needs.
In the immediate aftermath of the war in Ukraine, Action contre la Faim supported several Romanian associations, including Parentis and 4Change, in implementing an emergency humanitarian response, ensuring the provision of essential goods and supporting the implementation of mental health and psychosocial support programs, as the prevalence of mental disorders increases during periods of conflict.
To ensure food security and livelihoods for the most vulnerable, Action contre la Faim has implemented financial aid programs through local partners established in the country’s main border areas. Since April 2022, around 2,200 Ukrainian refugees have received the equivalent of 150 euros a month for 3 months to access food, medicine, transport, housing and education.
“The specificity of our intervention in Romania is that it is also aimed at local partners. We help local structures to develop their capacity to intervene in the field of financial assistance, which previously did not really exist in Romania. We are also helping to strengthen their organizational capacities so that they can extend their services to the population, access international funding and cope with other crises,” explains Dorota Jezyk, head of food security and livelihoods and financial assistance programs in Suceava.
At the Lacul Tei center in Bucharest, one of the largest refugee reception centers in Romania, Action contre la Faim supports the 4Change association, one of the center’s administrators. Located in premises previously reserved for students of the technical construction faculty, the center houses around a hundred people in extremely vulnerable situations. Since the end of municipal subsidies on September 1, Action contre la Faim has been the only organization providing food for the center’s residents.
Valentina, a pensioner from Mykolaiv in the south of Ukraine, saw her block of flats partly destroyed by a rocket attack. When her neighbor decided to move to Romania, she asked him to take her with her. Both now live at the center, which gives them access to essential services, including healthcare.
“Valentina’s state of health was very worrying when she arrived at the center. We even had to call her son to inform him of the situation, as we didn’t think she would recover. She is now under medical care and her health has improved,” confides Maksym, one of the students from the Technical Faculty of Construction who volunteered at the center at the start of the conflict.
Like Sergey, a pensioner from Donetsk oblast, the center’s latest residents are unable to find work or housing. Sergey arrived at the center with his wife at the start of the war, forced to flee by violent clashes. His retirement pension is too low to cover all their needs. “We don’t lack anything at the center, but I still want to return to the calm of my home,” admits Sergey.
“Learning Romanian and finding a job is impossible for some Ukrainians. But overcoming the trauma of war remains the greatest challenge for them, points out Aurelia Pasare, president of the 4Change association. They have been separated from their families, and some have relatives who were killed during the war. Some of the women at the center have husbands who have died in combat or whose lives are at stake at the front right now. »
Based on the outskirts of Iasi, in north-eastern Romania, the Nicolina center is a refuge for hundreds of Ukrainians forced to leave their country. It is run by four local NGOs, including the Parentis association, a partner of Action contre la Faim since the early days of the war in Ukraine. The center offers accommodation, hot meals, a social store and activities for both children and adults.
Psychological and psychosocial support sessions supervised by Action contre la Faim help refugees to overcome the trauma of war and facilitate adaptation to their new environment. These weekly sessions enable them to open up, share their emotions and talk about the difficulties they encounter on a daily basis.
“With Action contre la Faim, we set up an emergency humanitarian response, followed by mental health projects based on group and individual therapy sessions, care practices and family planning advice, explains Lioredana Ciofu, vice-president of Parentis. Even if these people are on the road to integration into the host society, mental health remains a primordial need in their reconstruction process,” she adds.
Like many Ukrainians who take part in therapy sessions through artistic expression, Anatoli fled Kherson, occupied by Russian forces, to protect his 7-year-old daughter. His apartment was partially destroyed by rocket fire, and he cannot envisage returning to Ukraine given the insecurity.
“Talking allows us to get away for a while from the problems we face at home and our situation when we were in Ukraine. The therapy sessions with Alina (editor’s note: the center’s psychologist) helped me enormously. I was broken and Alina helped me to get out of that bad situation. I still have problems, but I know I’ll solve them little by little,” says Anatoli.
Larysa and her son Kirill attend weekly group therapy sessions at the Nicolina center, which is one of the few to have accepted Kirill, who suffers from autism, into its care. “I didn’t miss any of the sessions, and now I’m studying to become a social worker at the University of Iasi. I’ve made lots of friends here. I’m really sad to have left my home in Ukraine, but on the other hand, I’m relieved to no longer hear the incessant noise of the bombings,” says Kirill with emotion.
Patients attending the mental health and psychosocial support sessions suffer from mental disorders ranging from anxiety disorders to severe depression, as well as post-traumatic stress and disorders requiring psychiatric treatment. Alina Raveica, one of the center’s psychologists, helps them to regain control and find meaning in their lives. Even so, she admits that some cases prove difficult to deal with emotionally.
“Secondary trauma is a risk for psychologists and psychosocial workers. Recently, one of our psychologists was deeply affected by the story of an elderly woman whose only son was killed in the war. During our supervision sessions, we support psychologists and psychosocial workers in the performance of their duties, ” says Catalina Balaniscu, clinical psychologist and head of mental health and psychosocial support programs for Action contre la Faim in Iasi.
While many Ukrainians speak of their desire to return to their country of origin, the vast majority have no choice but to remain in their host country due to the ongoing hostilities. It is therefore essential to foster social cohesion between displaced persons and host communities over the medium and long term.
“Many people have been in Romania for a while now, and we’re now helping them to become active and engage in academic and professional projects. It’s important for them to be able to project themselves and lead a normal life in spite of everything,” explains Catalina.
The spontaneous efforts of host communities have played a vital role in supporting those who have fled Ukraine. However, 20 months after the start of the conflict, both public and private sources of funding are dwindling. This is a cause for concern, all the more so as the approach of winter heralds a possible intensification of attacks on energy infrastructures.
As in the previous year, the associations that run the Nicolina and Lacul Tei centers fear that a massive number of Ukrainians will move to neighboring countries. This situation is particularly alarming given that some refugees depend entirely on aid from international NGOs, as well as from the 50-20 program launched by the Romanian government in response to the refugee crisis.
“Some people will not be able to become self-sufficient after the end of the 50-20 program, announced for December. It is therefore essential that we continue to advocate care for Ukrainian refugees beyond this deadline,” insists Aurelia Pasare, President of the 4Change association.
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