Canadians flee potential Russian invasion in Moldova, others arrive to help relief efforts

Click to play video: 'Moldovans open hearts and homes to Ukraine’s struggling refugees' Moldovans open hearts and homes to Ukraine’s struggling refugees
The people of Moldova are stepping up efforts to take care of Ukrainians crossing the border to escape war. Mercedes Stephenson reports on the generosity, and what Moldovans are willing to sacrifice just to help. – Mar 10, 2022

While waiting in Moldova for a Canadian visa, Pavel Barnaciuc moved to the Ukrainian border to help the influx of incoming refugees.

A week earlier, Barnaciuc’s Canadian wife, Becky, and their three children fled to Saskatchewan to stay with family. They feared that Moldova would be targeted next in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the proximity of fighting in the south.

The family lived in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, is which is less than 200 kilometres from Odesa, the Black Sea city and port that Russian troops are advancing towards. Now settled in Norquay, Sask., Barnaciuc’s wife is desperately emailing local MPs in the hopes of fast-tracking his visa application.

Read more: Why is Russia invading Ukraine? Amid ‘astounding’ resistance, here’s what you need to know

In the meantime, Barnaciuc works in a large tent on the Ukrainian side of the Moldovan border, helping to feed and warm weary refugees who arrive on foot.

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“It’s really hard. I see families with kids and you have to be very strong and keep serving the people, otherwise you’ll just collapse. We have to stay strong. I can’t imagine my kids going through such things like that. That’s one of the driving decisions motivating me to help people,” he tells Global News in Ukraine.

Barnaciuc is one of many with Canadian connections, or Canadians themselves, who are currently in Moldova aiding in relief efforts.

The small, land-locked country, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, is struggling with the influx of refugees.

Moldova warns of looming refugee crisis

As of March 10, some 300,000 Ukrainians have entered Moldova since Feb. 24. As one of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova does not have the resources to cope with the constant stream of new arrivals.

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In a Thursday press conference, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nicu Popescu warned of an impending crisis in the country due to the influx of Ukrainians.

He says four per cent of the Moldovan population are now refugees. Most are staying in private homes, with some in one of 98 refugee centres across the country – about 80 of which are in Chisinau.

“For now most of them are in reasonably comfortable accommodation but as this number increases, they will be staying in less comfortable accommodation,” Popescu warned.

“We really hope we don’t have to have tent cities.”

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Flood of Ukrainian refugees line up seeking safety in Moldova – Mar 9, 2022

UNHCR has also warned that if Odesa is bombed, about one million refugees could be headed for Moldova over the course of a couple of days.

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Concerns exist, too, over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will next set his sights on Moldova. In a video posted online from a national security council meeting early last week, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko reveals Putin’s battle plan — indicating troops will move onwards to Moldova.

These fears of not knowing what will happen next are what prompted Becky Barnaciuc to take her three young children out of the country, which she has lived in for 11 years, before anything happened – and she says other friends with children are now following her lead.

Pavel Barnaciuc’s Canadian wife Becky and three children fled to Saskatchewan a week ago and are awaiting his arrival.

“We decided to just act now instead of waiting and living with the question every day wondering whether it was time yet,” she tells Global News from Canada.

“A war zone is no place for babies. Our eldest understood what the ‘kabooms’ were and at school, the kids were talking about it.”

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The uncertainty was compounded by the fact the Moldovan airspace has been closed since the war began and that there is no Canadian embassy in the country (the Romanian embassy in Bucharest covers Moldova and Bulgaria).

The family is now holed up at her parents’ house in Norquay, Sask., waiting for Barnaciuc’s visitor visa to come through.

“We are just waiting. And missing him and worrying about him,” Becky says.

The waiting time for a visitor visa for applicants from Moldova is currently 79 days. Immigration Canada has not responded to questions on visa applications from Moldova and Ukraine.

Global Affairs Canada said there are currently 83 Canadians registered in Moldova with the Registrations of Canadians Abroad service, but as this service is voluntary, there is likely to be more.

Canadians arrive to help relief efforts

Inside a freezing tent on the Ukrainian side of the Palanca border crossing, Barnaciuc is biding his time by handing out food to refugees who are arriving from the besieged Black Sea coast, from cities such as Odesa, Mykolaiv and Kherson.

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It’s snowing outside and shell-shocked refugees are arriving on foot, wrapped in UNHCR blankets, before entering the tent in search of food and then moving onwards to join a line of hundreds of people waiting to cross into Moldova and leave their homes behind them. Nearby, about 60 cars wait in a line to cross.

The Palanca border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova. The tent Pavel Barnaciuc works in is pictured behind.

Barnaciuc tells us, briefly stepping away from his post handing out pastries to a middle-aged man, that he applied for his visa about a month ago, gave biometrics about two weeks ago, and has heard nothing since.

He isn’t stressing yet, though. He says he is not scared of a Russian invasion, primarily because if troops do enter, “we are just going to surrender,” because the country’s small army would not be able to mount a defence.

Read more: Former Latvian president and Montreal professor on Putin — ‘He’s a narcissist and a psychopath’

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Barnaciuc is working with Operation Mobilisation, a Christian missionary organization where he and his wife met. They erected the tent we’re now standing in, to keep Ukrainians out of the rain and snow.

“We made it nice for everyone that goes through the tent into the line,” he says.

He’s temporarily moved to Palanca from Chisinau and is now staying with friends.

Other Canadians, too, have uprooted their lives to help in the relief efforts.

Jordan Bannister arrived in Chisinau last week from Vancouver after deciding his vacation time would be best spent helping refugees.

Jordan Bannister, right, from Vancouver, delivering flowers to Moldovan volunteers on International Women’s Day.

Bannister, who works at risk and strategy firm Marsh and McLennan, visited Ukraine last year on a pilgrimage to honour his grandmother’s parents, who lived near Odesa. It became his favourite city in the world.

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When war broke out in Ukraine, he took leave from work, left his wife and four children at home and headed for Moldova, because he knew it had fewer resources to help fleeing Ukrainians.

“I just felt compelled to come and help,” he says.

The day after he arrived, he helped a family of refugees in a small rural village and took them to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. The next day, he rented a car and drove to the Palanca border crossing with Ukraine – intending to drive refugees back and forth to Chisinau.

“The next thing I knew, they put a vest on me and sent me to the food tent.”

He says he will stay and help for about two weeks.

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Kathleen Doherty, a retired sergeant from the Ontario Provincial Police, is part of a group of Canadians who have arrived with GlobalMedic, a humanitarian aid organization based in Toronto.

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Doherty says the group is helping get aid and donations into the hands of Ukrainians.

“We’re here to provide food, shelter, hygiene products — whatever we can for refugees,” she says.

When we visit them on Thursday morning, they’re at a Soviet-style hospital in Chisinau. The hospital was previously a COVID-19 hospital and has since been vacated and repopulated with refugees.

Read more: Canada sanctions Russian oligarch Abramovich, Trudeau departs Europe amid war

She admits there have been some logistical issues to overcome.

“The issue is getting (aid) distributed properly and getting it in the hands of people that need it.”

However, Doherty says she has been impressed with the willingness and compassion of Moldovans taking refugees into their own homes and donating goods.

“There is so much humanity and kindness that has been shown,” she says.

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