As the world prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 24, few Americans are better qualified to comment than Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served there.
These RPCVs lived and worked alongside Ukrainians. They learned the local language. They care deeply about what’s been happening, as do many of us who served in Moldova and other countries affected by the conflict. Some of us also visited Ukraine during our service.
This video of my presentation is excerpted from the larger program. If you’re interested in learning more about writing effective op-eds, check out my earlier post. A short YouTube video features Dylan encouraging RPCVs to become op-ed authors.
The Ukraine RPCV group and our Friends of Moldova organization both continue to assist Ukrainians affected by the conflict. Especially as Russia prepares to launch a new military offensive, please consider donating to their life-saving work.
Top photo: The Odessa Opera House, which we visited in 2018.
Civilians murdered. Soldiers killed. Buildings bombed. It’s all still happening in Ukraine, even as we Americans let our attention drift to newer problems.
Those millions of Ukrainians who fled their homes? More than 90,000 of them remain in neighboring Moldova.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from Moldova have been working hard to help them. Since the war began in February, the Friends of Moldova group has served 60,000 Ukrainians, supported 175 other relief efforts in Moldova and raised nearly $700,000. All of the RPCVs work as volunteers; several have returned to Moldova to provide direct assistance.
This past week, the Friends of Moldova, in concert with a Moldovan Rotary club, received a $25,000 Rotary Foundation Disaster Response Grant to buy food and other resources for refugees in northern Moldova.
Friends of Moldova President Bartosz Gawarecki and other RPCVs also worked on the grant, which Bartosz will now oversee in Bălți. He lived there as a volunteer, leading a recycling initiative and youth sports programs, and returned recently from his Michigan home to establish a refugee assistance center for the region. That’s him on the left in the photo below.
Rotarians in Oklahoma City have been pursuing a similar collaboration with Moldova, inspired by another RPCV, Kelsey Walters, who married and remained in Moldova but returned to Oklahoma with her children recently after hearing explosions across the border. The two districts joined in a conference call hosted by N.C. Sec. of State Elaine Marshall, who oversees the state’s long-standing formal partnership with Moldova. We discussed how to expand these efforts and encourage other Rotary districts around the country to pursue similar grants.
That’s where you come in, readers.
First and foremost: Please continue to donate online to the Friends of Moldova. Your support has enabled the organization to transport refugees from a freezing border, feed children and provide hope to families.
Now you can make an even bigger impact by working with a Rotary group in your area to pursue one of these grants. The Friends of Moldova cannot do this centrally; it needs supporters across the country to initiate grants locally. If you’re willing to help, please contact me directly and we’ll guide you through the process, which isn’t complicated. If you are a Rotarian or served with the Peace Corps in Moldova, that’s great, but it isn’t necessary. (I’m not a Rotarian myself.)
I wish I didn’t need to keep writing about this but, as you’ve seen on television, Russia’s aggression has been bloody and relentless. Ukrainians keep dying. Millions of innocent families remain dislocated, overwhelming their generous hosts across the border. As Americans, we can feel anger, outrage or despair about all of this, but I hope you will join the Friends of Moldova in providing something more useful: help.
[Top photo: RPCV Clary Estes, Ukraine Stories. Other photos: Friends of Moldova]
I spoke at the Rotary Club of Raleigh about our experience as older Peace Corps Volunteers and what’s been happening in Moldova since the war began in Ukraine. This video is also viewable on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LyaXTXJV1g.
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 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.
“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 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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
(Scroll to the end of this article to learn how you can help, too.)
Despite being one of Europe’s poorest countries, Moldova has stepped up in a big way, as you can see with some examples from places I know there:
Champa did her pre-service training in Costești, a village that has converted its tourist complex into this refugee center.
My training was in Bardar, which has opened a home for refugees.
We served together in Ialoveni, whose citizens are now working to help the refugees in various ways. This Facebook post offers them free dental services.
We lived near Stella’s Voice, a home for young women in danger of being trafficked. They just opened their doors to several young Ukrainian women.
Ialoveni’s officials are cutting through red tape to assist the refugees, such as by quickly notarizing their travel documents.
Many of my Moldovan friends have been posting images to show their support for Ukraine.
Peace Corps Moldova has been helping, too, both as an organization and through its staff, some of whom prepared these meals for distribution.
The Friends of Moldova, a group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and others, has launched a fundraiser to aid refugee support efforts, which are far more extensive than the few I’ve described here.
Ukraine RPCVs have been working on several fronts, from advocacy to fundraising, through the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine.
Amid my own outrage at Russia’s aggression, I have been inspired by the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people, and by the government and citizens of Moldova and other countries — including ours.
There are many ways you can help as well. A good one you may not have considered is by supporting this groundswell of activity in Moldova. David Smith, an RPCV who still lives there, publishes an excellent newsletter that just listed several ways you can do this. If you, too, are outraged by what you’ve been seeing, then donate today — and please feel free to add other comments or suggestions below.
Ukraine shares a long border with Moldova, where I served in the Peace Corps from 2016 to 2018. With Russian forces now threatening Ukraine, it’s a good time to share some things I learned about the neighborhood.
Moldova and Ukraine have separate identities and histories, and I don’t claim any expertise about Ukraine, but the following seven photos do tell interesting stories:
I’ll start with this photo of me with Vladimir, my “host father” during my pre-service training. He served in the Soviet military, preparing to fight their Cold War enemy — in other words, us. Now he was hosting an American. For so many Moldovans — and Ukrainians — the Russian military is not an abstraction. It’s something they know personally.
Americans endured great suffering during World War Two. My father was among those who saw friends die in combat. Yet the Soviet Union had more than 50 times as many deaths as we did, a toll that’s seared into their collective memory. Almost every Moldovan city and village has a memorial, including this one in the capital. Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukrainian sovereignty is unacceptable, and I’m glad to see our government pushing back so forcefully, but we shouldn’t be surprised when Russians obsess about the security of their borders.
This Soviet memorial and Orthodox church are in Comrat, a small city that is the capital of Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia, which we visited. Most Gagauz people speak Russian instead of Romanian. So do people in other parts of Moldova. Ukraine also has regions where most people speak Russian and have strong cultural and familial ties to Russia. Simultaneously, some of these same people now feel more loyal to Ukraine than to Russia. It’s complicated.
This statue is outside the school where Champa taught. Sanduța Petru served in the Soviet military and was killed in Afghanistan. His memorial reminds us that the Soviets suffered a military disaster there long before our own recent debacle. About 15,000 Soviet troops were killed during nine years of fighting with the Mujahideen, a force with less equipment and training than Ukraine has now. Putin surely remembers that conflict, although one wonders what conclusions he draws from it.
This statue in Moldova’s capital memorializes the devastating deportation of Moldovans to Siberia and other locations during Stalin’s rule. Many died during this Great Purge and Moldovans have never forgotten about it. I met several families whose relatives or friends were deported. Tens of thousands of Ukranians were banished as well and I assume their neighbors haven’t forgotten, either.
Champa and I toured Odessa, where my grandmother grew up. We visited the magnificent opera house and strolled past beautiful buildings, parks, shops and statues. Odessa was the third largest city in the Russian empire. As you can see in this photo, it’s a Ukrainian port along the Black Sea. If Putin attacks from here, as some analysts predict, his troops could march into the city via the famous Odessa Steps, which Sergei Eisenstein immortalized in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Stalin later banned that film over fears it might incite a riot against his regime. That’s interesting to contemplate now.
Finally, while President Biden and others are warning loudly about the Russian threat, Ukraine’s leader has acted calmer, as have many Ukranians (and Moldovans, for that matter). President Zelensky’s approach may be calculated but he also was a comedian before entering politics. He’s not alone among Ukranians in having a sense of humor, as you can see from this shop window in Odessa.
I emphasize again that I served in Moldova, not Ukraine, which is a bit like someone opining about the United States after living for two years in Canada. But I was in the region long enough to grasp the complexity of its history and culture. If you hear an American politician or pundit suggesting the current situation can be easily explained or resolved, I encourage you to be very skeptical.
Despite being sidelined by the pandemic for more than a year, my travels are still helping me make sense of the world.
When President Biden said a few days ago that the systematic murder of ethnic Armenians during World War One was indeed a genocide, I knew he was telling the truth despite Turkey’s ongoing denials. Champa and I visited Armenia in 2017 and saw its memorials with our own eyes. Our tour guide in Vagharshapat, above, was among several Armenians who told us what happened.
Similarly, as I’ve watched Vladimir Putin move Russian troops to the Ukranian border recently, stirring up conflict again, I’ve thought back to another trip. Champa and I visited Ukraine briefly, touring Odessa with two members of our Peace Corps host family, but we were there long enough to see how it is an independent country with its own flag, currency and history.
We learned from international travel even before joining the Peace Corps. During a 2013 trip to China, we saw more than Tiananmen Square and other tourist sites; we also sensed the rising economic power and national pride that would make China ever-more formidable on the world stage. In Tibet, we witnessed its determination to control ethnic minorities, as it has been doing recently with the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The military music blaring near our hotel in Lhasa was clearly meant to send a message to the local Tibetans, not us.
Traveling has provided insight into our own country as well. We learned about immigration while driving along the southern border, such as at this checkpost near El Paso, and about water shortages in the West, as at this dry lakebed in San Luis Obispo. The storefront we passed in a Montana town in 2015 was a harbinger of the anger that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House a year later.
People travel in many ways and for many reasons, from spa holidays to shopping, and Champa and I have had our share of trips just for fun, but we’ve most loved exploring the unknown. We know how fortunate we have been to have all of these opportunities.
As we look beyond the pandemic to future adventures, we yearn more than anything to learn again about other cultures. When we watch the news, we want to be able to say “I’ve been there” and maybe even “I know something about that place.”
The sidelines have been a welcome safe haven but there’s no substitute for getting onto the field and making contact.
There’s a new epilogue to the story of a girl from Odessa who fled with her family to America in the early 1900s to escape the pogroms that were killing and persecuting Jews in Ukraine and others parts of the Russian empire.
That girl was my grandmother, Sarah.
On Saturday, Champa and I visited Odessa to pay our respects to Grandma Sarah’s memory while touring this great Black Sea port city. I was the first of her children or grandchildren to return in the many years since Grandma Sarah’s family — my family — arrived with nothing at New York’s Ellis Island. She used to describe their journey as resembling this closing scene from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a film she loved:
Champa and I hired an excellent driver, Marcel, to make a long day trip there with our host sister, Alisa (wearing the blue Odessa souvenir hat), and her cousin Natalia.
We left Ialoveni early, crossing the Moldovan-Ukrainian border at Palanca since Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to travel through the disputed territory of Transnistria. We were lucky to arrive near Odessa’s opera house, shown behind us, just before a noon performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” was beginning. We bought the cheapest seats, less than 40 cents apiece, so we could glimpse the theater for a few minutes. It was magnificent.
We then walked to another local landmark, the Odessa Steps that figure prominently in the famous scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, shown in the following clip. On one side of the steps is a plaque honoring their cinematic significance; on the other is a funicular we rode to ascend after visiting the port below, a major freight and passenger transportation hub for Ukraine.
Throughout Odessa’s central area we saw beautiful buildings, parks, shops and statues commemorating figures such as Catherine the Great (below) and Duke de Richelieu, the French-born governor who helped Odessa grow to become the third largest city in the Russian empire. We thought of our two daughters-in-law when visiting the “Mother-in-Law Bridge” and ate a late lunch of traditional Ukrainain food at Kumanets.
We ended our trip with a visit to Odessa’s largest synagogue, where I left a donation in my grandmother’s honor. It had taken more than a century but one of her descendants had finally made it back to revive her memory in this fascinating city, which we really enjoyed visiting.