IFSW European President, Ana Radulescu invited the Federation’s Secretary-General, Rory Truell, to visit the social work response at the Ukrainian / Romanian border. These are his reflections:
The young mother sat to the side while a social worker cradled her newborn baby in his arms. It is an image that can’t be shown in a photo. Photos of people in their most vulnerable state are not encouraged by the social workers. What would that be like for the mother or her family to have a digital record permanently etched on the internet that reveals a moment after a long walk with the pain of childbirth into the unknown, to a place she only hoped would give safety.
Her journey has just begun, although she has lived through six weeks of torment. Heavily pregnant since the bombs began to shatter her country, never knowing when they would reach her. Her husband drafted to fight, some family had already left, but where?
Her closest border was in Siret in Romania, baby in one arm, a shoulder bag with a passport on the other. Along with 200’000 others, she passed through this stretch of border.
At the border, the faces of the constant stream of refugees reveal different emotions. A group of women in their early 20s beam with happiness that they have finally arrived at safety. Most continue their solitary walk after the border check, burdened by a heavy suitcase and the experiences of the last month, their gaze fixed on the road beneath their feet.
The challenge at the border is what to do next. The social workers stationed there explained to me that many of the refugees have no plan or had any time to think beyond this moment. Some take the advice that there is a refugee camp near the border with beds, showers, food and where information can be obtained. Others wait for the next free bus to get as far away as possible.
My visit was facilitated by Ana Radulescu who is coordinating the social work response across the whole of Romania. She picked me up at the airport in Bucharest and was almost unrecognizable from the photos of her 50th birthday, posted on social media ago a few weeks ago. She too carried the lines of war-related fatigue across her face. “Welcome to Romania”, she said, “but be warned we have a lot of driving”. I was soon to learn this was a major challenge. Moving around the country by car is dangerous and at the end of one set of meetings, a ten-hour drive to the next is common. “In these situations, social workers only need about four hours sleep” she says. A firefighter, staffing one of the refugee camps, echoed the same. Dressed in his winter uniform he said, “At the end of our 12-hour shift we swap our jackets to civilian coats and come back for another six hours. We all have to work together to make this work”. This is the reality of the workers and volunteers at the border of a war.
Ana first took me to a makeshift refugee centre in Bucharest run by engineering students. They converted an abandoned building into a temporary home for over 400 people. Amongst the food and clothing supplies, social workers have set up an assessment service offering support and advising people on their legal rights so that they can access medical services, jobs and other entitlements. The refugees who also volunteer in the centre are encouraged to support each other, “just like a normal community” one of the social workers said. “Many things they can do, and some things are a struggle, mainly knowing where to go next and how”. On each floor runs a central hallway with curtainless rooms lined on each side containing a few beds for families. As we walked along, we were asked, “What is best, Italy or Germany, what do you advise, or maybe Spain?”. The questions were in Ukrainian, and the volunteers used their mobile phone translate functions to interact.
“Do you know someone in Italy or Germany, do you know a little of one of the languages?”
“No, we don’t know one outside of Ukraine.”
A moment later a woman talks through her translator app, “My husband has a Georgian passport and mine is Ukrainian, the Irish embassy says he can’t come to Ireland”. The social worker replied that she would call the Embassy to find out what is possible. Then the door behind the woman opens with her husband and children standing with all their belongings, a single plastic bag with six passports and their marriage certificate.
Through international social work coordination, 200 tons of clothes, food and medicines have so far been sent to the various points of the refugees’ journey. Funding from social work associations in Japan, UK and many other places, as well goods from Volkshilfe, an Austrian NGO, was coordinated and delivered directly into the hands of refugees. Social workers have also sent trucks laden with goods into Moldova and Ukraine itself. But this is only one part of their action.
Ana explained “Getting essential supplies to people now is the beginning but the international social work community will stand alongside the refugees until they are ready to return home. Then we will provide support with international brigades to work alongside Ukrainian social workers and communities to rebuild their social systems so that they are better than before the invasion”.
Within the waves of refugees, busloads of institutionalized children are rushed over the borders to safety. This relates to a system inherited from the former Soviet era involving locking disabled children or those deemed to be ‘delinquent’ into state facilities, resulting in closed, miserable lives away from real-world relationships. In many countries, this practice has been replaced by social work initiated systems of supporting families to provide love and caring environments for their children and working with broader societies to destigmatize difference. Such opportunities can be created in a future Ukraine by building new social systems that nurture family and community systems of care, responsibility, and trust for all members of society, leaving no child or no person behind.
Back at the border, the woman with the newborn baby has moved on. No one knows where, but she will find volunteers at the major railway stations here in Romania and across many European countries who will offer support. Another woman, perhaps in her mid-70s is walking but this time back across the border towards Ukraine. The social workers ask her why she is returning. “I want to go back to my house” she says. ‘What town are you from?’ they ask.
“Do you think it is possible, safe?”.
“I don’t know anything for three weeks, but I don’t care. I have to go home, no one is stopping me”.
The social workers spoke with each other briefly in Romanian which she couldn’t understand. They then talked again to her through her their mobile app, “We are sorry, but can you sit down for a few minutes, we have to show you a video of what has happened to your city”. They stayed with her on the side of the road for 30 minutes while she wailed between gasps of air, “Where do I go now?” she said.
The social work response never involves telling people what to do. They provide information and encourage refugees, as well as the asylum communities they find themselves in, to care and provide support for one another. Mindful of the many international examples where refugees get trapped in disempowering camps, the social workers advocate or facilitate the state and NGO services to coordinate together. This supports that the dignity of refugees is respected at every point and that the refugees themselves are regarded as the main decision-makers in their own futures.
Social workers in each of the European countries receiving refugees are also mindful of the attitudes of local populations. There are risks of conservative political parties who attempt to gain an advantage by spreading propaganda to local vulnerable populations that refugees are getting all their benefits, thereby setting-up contexts of anger and victimhood. In each of these countries, social workers also invite the local vulnerable populations to also come to the refugee centres for a meal and to choose the clothes they need. The profession knows that such balances must be maintained.
The next steps involve the coordination of mobile teams into Ukraine to start the journey of building community relationships where people can support each under the conditions of war. Information is being shared from social workers in Yemen, Palestine, Israel and a number of African countries where war has been a longer-term feature.
As we drive back from the border to Bucharest airport, we reflect on all the refugees’ stories and the people we have met. The stories mentioned here are typical, people facing challenges with absolute bravery. Members of the Romanian public are stepping in to support refugees and our social work profession is acting on its ethical values, well beyond humanitarian aid. Ana tells me, “Rory, the answer to all of this; preventing wars, people’s recovery from trauma and poverty is in investing in people, investing in communities until we reach a point where everyone is confident enough to understand their own and other’s strengths, and to the point where they enjoy and value the fact that we have different languages and cultures”. I fully agree. She then drops me at the terminal and then sets off on the long drive to her next meeting.