Tag Archives: Chris Flowers

What My Friends Are Seeing

What’s the latest in Moldova?

Many of you have been asking me that since Ukrainian refugees began flowing across the border in late February. More than 350,000 have entered Moldova and about 100,000 remain in this small country of less than 3 million people,. 

In my last post, I described how my former neighbors in Ialoveni, near Moldova’s capital, have welcomed the refugees generously. A New York Times video, PBS video and USA Today article tell similar stories about Moldovans nationwide.

In this post, I want to share some of what I’ve been hearing from American friends who are close to the situation, especially former Peace Corps Volunteers who (like me) retain a deep affection for Moldova.

Haley Bader, who served in my group and is now back in Comrat as a journalist, reported recently that “exhausted women, children, elderly men and people with medical issues or disabilities are bleeding across Moldova’s borders daily. From the north to the south, authorities are setting up tents and converting old boarding schools, exhibition centres and kindergartens to house those who are fleeing.”

Moldovans worry whether Putin may invade their country next, although that danger may have eased as Russian forces bog down in Ukraine. What is clear is that the refugees have come in large numbers, and the Moldovans have embraced them. My former host sister has gone to a train station in Bucharest, where she now lives, to invite young Ukrainian women to rest at her apartment.

We visited Chris Flowers at his post in Criuleni while we were all serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. That’s him in the middle.

“I’m seeing lots of cars with Ukrainian license plates on the streets of Chişinǎu,” says our friend Chris Flowers, another former PCV who now directs American Councils Moldova. “This is putting a strain on resources and infrastructure in the country. Despite how generous everyone is now, this level cannot be maintained and outside assistance will be needed.”

Former PCV David Smith agrees. “The Moldovan government has heroically responded with its limited resources and without any past experience dealing with a humanitarian crisis of this size,” he writes in his excellent newsletter. The response has been “amazing, inspiring and necessary” but is unsustainable. 

David Smith met with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who came to his restaurant to support its refugee assistance efforts.

David has converted his Chişinǎu restaurant (which I featured in this article) into a center offering free food, clothing and other resources. Local volunteers assist the effort, including Peace Corps staff coordinated by Hannah Gardi. Lines stretch out the door. (Here’s a video clip of the line this morning.) Their work is admirable but, as David concluded in his last post, “Where is the cavalry?” 

Carol Spahn, acting director of the Peace Corps, left, traveled to Moldova to support local staff. She prepared meals with my former Romanian language teacher, Diana Prodan.

A friend on the Peace Corps staff wrote me to say: ““It is insane what is happening. We just don’t know where to direct all these refugees for help. The rollout of international help is very slow and disjointed.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with President Sandu and other Moldovan leaders.

The American Embassy in Moldova recently announced plans to provide assistance, as have other governments and international organizations. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western leaders have visited to show support. Chişinǎu’s convention center, where Champa and I attended a Moldovan friend’s fashion show, is now filled with refugee families.

Israel Collier is the co-founder of A.C.O.P.E.R.I.

Former PCV Israel Collier heads a nonprofit organization that assists Romani families and immigrants in Moldova. “This war has underscored the need for our service” she wrote me. “We’ve assisted at least 100 Ukrainian families (including many Romani families often rejected at placement centres). They specifically reach out to us because of our mission. We are currently delivering nonperishable food items, clothing and toiletries, to centres in Chišinău, Drochia and this week Soroca.

Another friend, Alex Weisler, and his colleagues at JDC, a global Jewish humanitarian organization, have moved quickly to assist the refugees. As Alex describes in this recent video from Moldova, “they haven’t eaten, they’re scared, they’re confused. They come here and they receive a sense that they’re not alone.”

Other groups are also helping, from Christian evangelicals to North Carolina nurses, who trained Moldovans how to assist refugee populations. Another former PCV friend, Rebecca Lehman, now in England, is helping a group there. Vladimir Snurenco, who led an English language center in Chişinǎu where I taught some classes, wrote me about an art sale in Michigan that raised money for Ukraine.

I’ve been working most closely with Friends of Moldova, an organization of returned PCVs that has raised more than $200,000 and distributed funds to shelters, churches and others. The group’s president, Bartosz Gawarecki, described the effort in this television interview. He recently returned to Moldova to help open new refugee assistance centers.

The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, on whose steering committee I serve, has generously donated to Friends of Moldova and the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine. In a few weeks, I’ll be speaking at the Rotary Club of Raleigh about these and other initiatives.

There is a lot happening, in other words, and I could have included more examples. Yet as my friends keep telling us, the situation remains stressful. David Smith is right: They need the cavalry.

I wish I could have provided a cheerier update about what’s happening in Moldova, but this is the reality. If you share our concern, I encourage you to contact anyone you know who may have some influence over the situation. Donate to Friends of Moldova or another organization. Attend a rally. Write a letter. Please help.

Preparing Their Pitches

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The students you see in this post represent Moldova’s brightest hopes for the future.

They are optimistic in a country where many people are pessimistic. They want to start businesses and help others. They are overflowing with great ideas, and they are brave enough to present them on a stage in front of a group of judges — in English.

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They are the finalists in this year’s Diamond Challenge Moldova, a competition for high school students interested in becoming entrepreneurs. On Jan. 28, seven student teams will vie to be named the best “social venture,” and six others will compete for the best business idea. Both winning teams will receive $1,000 and a chance to compete in April at the international Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs competition in Delaware.img_8650

On Sunday, I led a workshop to help the teams sharpen their public speaking skills and pitches. Joining me were several other Peace Corps volunteers who have been mentoring teams, helping to select the finalists and organizing the competition as a whole. I have been mentoring one of the teams myself and will be cheering for them in the finals.

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Nearly 2,000 students from around the world have participated in Diamond Challenge since it launched in 2012. Moldovan students have done very well in the competition, with two teams making it to the finals last year. Do It For Bunica won the $10,000 grand prize in the social venture competition with its project to connect expatriate Moldovan workers with teenagers back home who can help care for their aging parents.

Another Moldovan team won the social impact prize a year earlier with its idea of producing clothing with reflective thread that can be seen by seen at night by cars driving along dangerous country roads.

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Peace Corps volunteer Chris Flowers, center, and Ana Mirza of A.O. INVENTO organized Sunday’s workshop and many of the other activities for Diamond Challenge Moldova.

Both of those earlier teams gave excellent pitches, which I showed on Sunday, helping the current students learn the best ways of persuading judges, investors or others. My other sources ranged from the television show “Shark Tank” to President Obama to Guy Kawasaki, the renown Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The students will be making their own final pitches before a new group of Moldovan and American judges at the Dreamups Innovation Campus, the local entrepreneurship center about which I’ve written previously.

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Peronally, if someone had asked me when I was in high school to speak publicly in a foreign language, I would have been terrified. That’s why I also showed this hilarious video with Steve Martin, to help the students relax. I’ll post again after the finals to tell you how their presentations turned out. Based on what I saw at the workshop, I expect them to be terrific.