Ukraine’s Roma refugees recount discrimination en route to safety
Hundreds of Ukraine’s Roma people face an uncertain future in Moldova’s capital Chisinau as many are not documented.
Chisinau, Moldova – Concentric lines trace the indoor running track at the Manej Sport Arena in Moldova’s capital Chisinau. Athletes used to compete and train here. Now, the track is home to some 800 Roma people who fled from Ukraine after the Russian invasion.
Cristina, 41, is one of them. She lost everything she owned after Russia bombed her house in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv.
“Kharkiv is like my palm now. People’s houses and the city centre are destroyed, there’s absolutely nothing left,” she told Al Jazeera.
As bombs were destroying the only home she ever had, all she could do was grab her children and leave. Now, she sits in the middle of the running track, with no documents or clue about her next steps.
“If a bomb falls on your house and you hear a tank shooting, what will you grab first, documents or your children,” she asked.
Cristina travelled from Kharkiv to Lviv, then to the Moldovan border. But there, she said, she spent four days in the cold waiting to enter Moldova, without any food or water.
Once they found shelter, she and other Roma were chased out of their tents by the Ukrainian border authorities.
Cristina is one of an estimated 400,000 Ukraine’s Roma people who, besides the trauma of war, have to cope with discrimination along their evacuation route out of Ukraine.
Many have always been undocumented, others lost their papers during the war. All have limited options as to where they can go. But the hardest thing is the break-up of their families, which the Roma culture values more than anything.
Larisa was telling the story of how she was chased away with “big guns” by the Ukrainian authorities, as her granddaughter was sitting next to her.
“We slept in the cold together with our children. My son had a fever but luckily they gave him pills,” said Larisa, adding that the experience came after four long nights spent sleeping in the family’s unlit basement in Kharkiv on planks above puddles of water.
Upon reaching Lviv, Larisa and her family were received well. But because there were so many people, they could not get enough bread to feed all her family, she said.
At the train station, she lost her husband. “I never found him,” she said.
At the border, her son was stopped and was drafted to fight for the Ukrainian army.
“I understand that this is the law, but without a son and a husband, I cannot live,” Larisa said. “How do you live? What am I to do? How can I live on without my children?”
But discrimination was not the norm for all Roma staying in the sports hall.
For Izabela and her children, their evacuation from Kyiv went swiftly. She thinks having Ukrainian passports might have helped. But despite that, she is out of money and with no plans for where to go next.
“My mother decides where to go, but for now we stay here,” said Izabela. “We need everything for free, we have no money, we have nothing, I didn’t even take any clothes with me.”
Strong family ties
At the Manej hall, large families, some counting as many as 50 members, await their destiny to unfold. Because of their size, most Roma families have been unable to find accommodation in Moldova.
Izabela came to Moldova with four children, her mother, her sister and her brother-in-law who also have three children.
Deep family ties have prevented strong-knitted Roma communities from leaving family members behind, which often means that where they can sleep or travel depends on space.
“There are a lot of families that volunteers find apartments for, but the Roma families are so numerous that sometimes it is not possible,” Marcela, a volunteer at Manej, told Al Jazeera.
Out of linguistic, cultural and logistical considerations, Moldova’s authorities decided to separate Roma refugees from ethnic Ukrainians, in an attempt to prevent tensions between the two ethnicities and better provide for their specific needs, volunteers believe.
People are brought in from Moldova’s border crossings with Ukraine, then they are brought to Moldexpo, a former international exhibition hall turned COVID testing point before becoming a refugee reception centre.
From Moldexpo – which now is Chisinau’s main reception centre for refugees and where all food, clothes and other donations are deposited – people are taken by bus to other centres like Manej.
Al Jazeera also visited Moldexpo and there were only ethnic Ukrainian families housed there. The conditions were similar to the ones at Manej, where only Roma Ukrainians are staying.
Moldovan authorities are pressed to work out a resettlement plan for Roma refugees that does not require them to have documents.
Moldovan parliamentarian Dorian Istratii, who was coordinating the Manej refugee centre on Sunday, told Al Jazeera that the government was sorting out deals with the Romanian government to receive Roma refugees without passports.
“We are providing buses that will take them to a train so they can be transferred in Romania,” he said. “In Romania, they will register them as refugees and give them asylum.”
Some got excited when they heard there was a bus taking them to Germany, Marcela the volunteer said, but when they found out they needed biometric passports to embark, they had to return to the sports hall and unpack.
While some Roma had documents with them, Istratii said, many were expired or were birth certificates that could not be used to enter a country.
“If they give us work here, everything will be fine,” said Cristina. “I can bake pita, I can sew, maybe even make gift bags.”
Editor’s note: Daniela Calmîș contributed to this report by translating interviews.