A welcome at Casa Marioarei usually includes a hug from a kind, smiling woman named Veronika. It is a gesture of inclusion and safety for women and children whose lives have been shaken by violence.
For more than 20 years, Casa Marioarei – a women-led organization in Chisinau, Moldova – has sheltered and protected survivors of gender-based violence (GBV). It has provided health care, legal advice and psychosocial support to hundreds of people.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Moldova’s neighbouring country to the east – in February 2022, the organization began welcoming women and children arriving in the country as refugees while continuing to serve local families.
“Moldova has a big heart,” explained Veronika Cernat, 38, who manages the shelter. “When the war happened, we decided to allocate some rooms from our shelter to the women that are suffering from this.”
So far, Veronika and her colleagues at Casa Marioarei have given 40 per cent of the shelter’s dormitories to refugees from Ukraine. Two current residents both from the southern port city of Odesa, Natalya and Vita, arrived in early March as the invasion spread across their country.
“After I found out about the events in Bucha, in Irpin and saw the situation in Mariupol, I realized that the same thing could happen in Odesa, so I decided to take my child to a safe place. At the time I left [Ukraine], I saw statistics that more than 220 children had already been killed and, of course, I didn't want this to happen to my child, God forbid,” Vita, 28, said.
“We were lucky that on the very first day we arrived, we were brought here to this centre, and we were immediately shown where we can live, that it would be safe and comfortable here, and we would be able to stay in peace and quiet for a while.”
The majority of the 5.6 million refugees from Ukraine are women and children. Here in Moldova – which currently hosts more than 86,000 refugees – UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is providing multipurpose cash assistance, counselling, dedicated information hotlines and other support.
UNHCR has also partnered with Casa Marioarei to help monitor GBV risks and provide psychosocial and legal services to refugee women in cities and towns across Moldova through the organization’s network of trained volunteer mentors. The partnership will help caring staff like Veronika to meet the most urgent needs of families who are dealing with uncertainty and trauma.
That means the world to Natalya, 35, who is also staying at the shelter with her teenage daughter.
“We didn't have any firm plan. We were just going to a safe place,” she said of their escape from Ukraine. “We were very surprised that people we met are very sympathetic and kind to us, always ready to help. They really understand what we're going through, in general, and it's obvious to us that all this is being done from the heart.”
“Here we were immediately met by a smiling Veronika, who spent time showing us around, explaining everything, and told us that for any questions or issues that arise, she would be available for anything,” Vita added. “Without this positive attitude and this laughter, it would be more difficult.”
Since the war began, Casa Marioarei has strived to create a sense of community between Moldovan women and refugees from Ukraine. They cook, paint and tend the garden together. Their children share time in the classroom and on the playground.
Here, togetherness is the key to healing the past and navigating what comes next.
“When they arrive, all the team is here. We just give them a hug,” Veronika said, smiling. “They’re part of the family from the beginning.”