Nina and Tatiana
‘It was frightening,’ Nina summarises, her breath visible in the bitterly cold Romanian air. She and her newfound friend Tatiana are reflecting on the circumstances that led them both to flee their homes in Ukraine. It’s before 8am. They’ve only just met, but are now sharing their experiences with each other in The Salvation Army’s tent at the border crossing in Siret. Listening attentively, Major Olga Iniutochkina, The Salvation Army’s divisional leader for nearby Moldova, bringing valuable assistance to the local team.
Twenty-something Nina describes her life as a florist in the Kyiv suburb of Pozdnyaki. ‘Mainly weddings,’ she says wistfully, as if she can no longer quite imagine such a thing happening. ‘I love the colours, the fragrance, the shape, the composition…’ Her voice, already soft, fades away.
A pause. A welcome sip of fragrant hot fruit chai. Tatiana takes the narrative, outlining her own emerging career in marketing based in the northern Ukraine city of Chernihiv. A pompierii (fire officer) who has been fixing the nearby gas heater silently takes a seat alongside the women to provide further reassurance. The fire and rescue team here are in overall control of the security and safety of the refugee operation here.
With renewed intensity, Nina speaks about the shelling of her neighbourhood. ‘Mercifully, I was out [when it happened], but when I got home, all the windows had blown in. It was awful.’ She corrects herself. ‘It IS awful. But it was not as bad as the neighbouring block. That was hit by a bomb, but sustained much greater damage. There was also a fire throughout the upper floors. I haven’t been able to make contact with some of my neighbours since.’
Another pause as Nina takes out her mobile phone. She becomes more assertive. ‘And not just my home, but my school.’ Shaking her head, she shows an image of a school building – it too with the glass blown clear out of the windows, into dangerous shards.
‘I’ve been careful what I share on social media,’ Nina adds. Tatiana nods in agreement. ‘Friends tell me that some photos were posted on Facebook of military transport vehicles parked underground at a shopping centre I use quite often. Within hours, that car park had been bombed… obliterated… completely destroyed. That’s a mall I went to frequently. It’s not a valid military target – there were no weapons there, just standard vehicles parked up.’
The young women take a moment. Major Olga is attuned to the ebb and flow of such dialogue. Conversations that few people expect ever to be having. Confirming the veracity of the morning’s shocking news reports: ‘I saw bodies,’ adds Nina. ‘On the street.’
Major Olga, mindful of the risks facing two attractive young women, offers a leaflet on remaining alert to the potential for human trafficking, with a 24-hour helpline number. There’s a break in conversation as they read through, and then as a volunteer transport coordinator asks the major to assist with some paperwork. This inter-agency cooperation is crucial to effective working here at the border, to ensure efficiency, safety and greater levels of care.
Completing the paperwork provides another angle of conversation. ‘Bellissimo!’ grins Tatiana as she explains that she will be moving to Venice, Italy, to be with her mother for a while. ‘But I am going to miss my husband,’ she adds. ‘He’s in the military.’ She, too, tails off.
Nina, meanwhile, outlines her hopes to pick up temporary work in Dortmund, Germany. Eyeing the freshly-cut tulips on an adjacent table, she muses briefly about what kind of flowers might be available in this city. ‘But really, I don’t mind anything. I just want to work, and to be back in Ukraine when I can.’
Sensitively, Major Olga asks if they would like to be prayed for. There is no hesitation at all. ‘Please,’ they say, almost in unison. And so the women pray together, along with the unsuspecting pompierii still sitting patiently alongside. Their practical needs are also attended to, with offers of hot food and drinks, water, Europe-wide SIM cards and warm clothes. The women graciously decline – it’s not needed on this occasion.
Soon, word comes that transport to the nearest airport – still a two-hour drive away – is ready. ‘There is no rush,’ explains the pompierii. ‘You must remain here until you are completely happy.’
For Major Olga, too, there is no time limit. She will remain with the women until they feel comfortable getting into a vehicle, which will have been fully vetted before getting anywhere near the site. Sensing that there is still reluctance to board an unknown minivan, the major asks what the women think they are going to find most difficult.
‘Forgiveness,’ says Nina, without missing a beat. ‘Forgiveness is so, so hard. But we have to try. Ukrainians are united. The world stands with us.’ Tatiana echoes this sentiment, simply by restating that one word. ‘Forgiveness.’
With that self-motivation, the women gain the courage to leave the now-warm cocoon of The Salvation Army’s tent. With Salvation Army volunteers carrying their luggage to the waiting vehicle, there’s an opportunity for some further conversation with Major Olga on the short walk to transport area. Both women’s eyes fill with tears as they learn that there is no charge. Not for the transport, not for the chai, not for the emotional support, not for the other help that has been provided.
The tears meld with warm embraces all round, and as the van departs for their onward flights, enthusiastic farewell waves that would normally be indicative of a relationship developed over rather more than an hour and a half.
It’s all in a day’s work here at Siret for Major Olga and her compassionate, hardworking team. While it’s unpredictable exactly how many people will cross the border any given day, what can be assured is a caring and professional response, and one which will draw in as many other complementary services as is necessary for each individual’s specific needs and context.
There will be many more Ninas and Tatianas in the days ahead, each with their own unique experiences. There will be many more tears shed. And Major Olga and team will be ready with the tissues, the right words and the hugs.
- Nina and Tatiana shared their story with David Giles, a volunteer with The Salvation Army’s Romania Division emergency response team.