Ukrainian women and children living in Moldova are facing a life in limbo more than a year after fleeing the invasion of their homeland, unsure whether they should integrate with local society or make plans to return.
Moldova, a small former Soviet state on the border with Ukraine that is deemed vulnerable to Russian destabilisation attempts, has so far succeeded in managing the arrival of about 100,000 refugees, showing strong solidarity with Ukraine.
Women and children make up more than 80 per cent of the total, yet fewer than 1,000 of the refugees are officially registered as working in Moldova. Fewer 2,000 children are enrolled in Moldovan schools.
The National recently met close to a dozen Ukrainian women, now living in the capital Chisinau, who shared their hopes and fears about what the future holds.
Their stories nearly always started with the traumatic day of departure from Ukraine and ended with questions about what lies ahead their children.
But for some, whose children are grown up, life can feel like it has hit pause.
Sitting in a common room in a state-run shelter in Chisinau, Tatiana Chirova, 54, says days feel endlessly long. Ms Chirova has a strong presence and a loud laugh. She wears a bracelet with Ukraine’s colours, yellow and blue.
Yet her face crumbles when she is asked how she feels. “I’m thankful to Moldova for taking care of us,” she says, her voice trailing off as she wells up. Her friend Ludmila, 60, steps in: “We are happy we don’t hear gunfire or the sound of war.” They nod silently when asked if they are waiting for a better day to return to Odesa.
When Ukrainian women were welcomed in Moldova, many chose to stay because of proximity, relatives, language cultural similarities or all three. The need to find work and support themselves quickly kicked in. “It became increasingly important for them to secure an income, become financially independent, and not rely only on cash assistance,” said Dominika Stojanoska, UN Women Moldova representative.
“In this context, UN Women started several initiatives such as business support programmes for women in entrepreneurship, cash for work support, women in online work training focusing on digital skills development, including paid internship.
“We'll see what the impact of all these initiatives will be in four to five months.”
Many of those who have successfully integrated and obtained official work registered with national authorities already had strong ties to Moldova.
Cristina Zmochu, a 22-year-old medical assistant who works at a state-run blood donation centre in Chisinau, comes from the Ukrainian town of Chernvisti, a little more than 50km from Moldova’s northern border. Many locals in Chernivsti also speak Romanian, Moldova’s official language, and Ms Zmochu had relatives in Chisinau, too.
Her employers are pleased with her because they struggle to find nurses, said her boss Silvia Rosca. The other two Ukrainian women that they hired last year left after six months to return to their families. Ms Rosca said she is aware Moldovan salaries are lower than in Ukraine. “We are a state institution and salaries are not as high as in the private sector,” she said.
But Ms Zmochu, who makes $500 a month, is single and is also studying psychology in Ion Creanga State Pedagogical University in Chisinau in addition to her 12-hour work shifts.
“Moldova is better than I expected, it’s easy to integrate,” she said. “I’ve found a lot of good people. I was just a kid when I arrived.”
Not all young Ukrainian women have found it as easy to integrate in the local workforce. Anna Syvorotka, a 31-year old mother of two who also cares for her niece, found a job cleaning dishes in a Georgian restaurant in Chisinau after fleeing Odesa in March last year.
Shortly after, she got into a fight with a female colleague who mocked her for crying as she watched videos of the war in Ukraine.
“She said: 'Why are you crying? The Russians came to save Ukrainians',” she remembers. “But I have a strong character. I’m not quiet. I got into a fight with that girl.” There were no more fights after that.
Efforts are intensifying at UN level and in the private sector to encourage Ukrainian women to work in higher numbers and hopefully boost the local economy that suffered from a brain drain in the years following Moldova’s independence in 1991.
In March, Moldova granted Ukrainians a temporary protection mechanism, which gives them more stability, including longer-term prospects for work. Ukrainian children can now obtain certificates at Moldovan schools. This mechanism took nearly a year to implement because the cash-strapped government had been struggling with an energy crisis caused by the war.
Last year, the UN gave more than $100 million in direct aid to the Moldovan government to support refugees, said Francesca Bonelli, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' country representative. The largest portion of that sum was cash for refugees, who obtain about $100 a month.
Their integration is a challenge for Moldova but also an opportunity for the country which has faced a depopulation trend, she argued, highlighting that 72 per cent of working-age refugees have university degrees. “There are private companies that were really asking for labour force,” said Ms Bonelli.
Carolina Bugaian, head of Moldovan telecoms company Moldcell, agrees that the influx provides a welcome opportunity for Moldova’s economy. She also presides over Moldova’s women in business association, which supports Ukrainian women through workshops and training. “At the beginning it was hard to find these ladies, they were reluctant,” she said. “But many have reassessed their lives.”
Yet many of the potential beneficiaries of such programmes remain hesitant.
Nina Babayeva, 31, from Mykolaiv, is torn between returning home to by the end of the summer or switching her son from online education with Ukrainian teachers to school in Moldova, signalling that they might stay for a longer period of time. Her husband, who is from Azerbaijan, visits often. As a non-Ukrainian citizen, he is unaffected by the ban on men of fighting age leaving the country.
Because her son does not speak Romanian, the easiest choice would be to put him in a Russian-speaking school, as the family used to speak the language at home.
But since the war started, Ms Babayeva does not want her child to be schooled in Russian. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.
These women are also often faced with difficult administrative challenges, said Kyrylo Prykhodko, who manages Robota, a project affiliated to an UN-supported NGO – the National Congress of Ukrainians of Moldova – which helps Ukrainian refugees to find work.
He believes the number of Ukrainian refugees working is higher than state figures show, because employers are not obliged to inform the government they hired a Ukrainian citizen.
The access of refugees to the temporary protection mechanism has also been slowed by difficulties in proving residency, said Mr Prykhodko.
“That is why the general feeling among refugees remains focused on the possibility of returning home safely after the war has ended,” he said.