Chisinau, Moldova – Concentric tracks follow the indoor track at the Manej Sport Arena in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. Athletes used to compete and train here. The track is now home to some 800 Roma who fled Ukraine after Russia’s Invasion.
Cristina, 41, is one of them. She lost everything she owned after Russia bombed her house in the city of Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.
“Now Kharkiv is like the palm of my hand. People’s homes and the city center were destroyed, there was absolutely nothing left,” she told Al Jazeera.
When bombs were destroying the only home she had ever had, all she could do was hug her children and leave. Now, she’s sitting in the middle of the run, with no documents or clues about her next steps.
“If a bomb hits your house and you hear a tank firing, what would you take first, your documents or your children,” she asked.
Cristina traveled from Kharkiv to Lviv, then to the Moldova border. But there, she said, she spent four days in the cold waiting to enter Moldova, without any food or water.
When they found shelter, she and other Roma were kicked out of their tents by Ukrainian border authorities.
Cristina is one of an estimated 400,000 Roma in Ukraine who, in addition to the trauma of war, face discrimination on the way out of Ukraine.
Many people remained undocumented at all times, others lost their documents during the war. They all have limited options for where they can go. But the most difficult thing was the breakup of their family, which Roma culture values more than anything.
Larisa was telling the story of how she was chased away with “big guns” by Ukrainian authorities while her niece was sitting next to her.
“We slept in the cold with our children. My son had a fever but luckily they gave him medicine,” said Larisa, adding that the experience came after four long nights of sleeping in the family’s dimly lit basement in Kharkiv on a plank above a puddle. country.
Upon arrival in Lviv, Larisa and her family were warmly received. But because there were so many people, they couldn’t have enough bread to feed her whole 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 started to join the army 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 are you living? What am I supposed to do? How can I live without children?”
But discrimination is not the norm for all Roma who stay in the arena.
For Izabela and her children, their evacuation from Kyiv was swift. She thinks having a Ukrainian passport might have helped. But despite that, she has run out of money and has no plans to go anywhere next.
Izabela said: “My mother decided where to go, but now we stay here. “We need everything for free, we don’t have money, we don’t have anything, I don’t even bring any clothes with me.”
Strong family relationship
At Manej hall, large families, some with up to 50 members, are waiting for their destiny to play out. Because of their size, most Roma families cannot find accommodation in Moldova.
Izabela came to Moldova with 4 children, her mother, sister and brother-in-law also have 3 children.
Deep family ties have prevented well-established Roma communities from leaving family members, which often means where they can sleep or travel depends on space.
Marcela, a volunteer at Manej, told Al Jazeera: “There are many families where volunteers find apartments, but the Roma families are so numerous that sometimes it is not possible.
The volunteers believe that in addition to linguistic, cultural and logistical considerations, Moldovan authorities have decided to separate Roma refugees from Ukrainians, in order to prevent tensions between the two ethnicities and better provide for their specific needs.
People brought in from Moldova’s border crossings with Ukraine are then taken to Moldexpo, an international exhibition hall that formerly became a COVID testing point before becoming a refugee reception center .
From Moldexpo – which is now Chisinau’s main reception center for refugees and where all food, clothing and other donations are sent – people were transported by bus to other centers such as Manej.
Al Jazeera also visited Moldexpo and only ethnic Ukrainian families live there. The conditions are similar to those in Manej, where only Ukrainians of Roman origin are staying.
Moldovan authorities were forced to draw up a resettlement plan for Roma refugees without requiring them to have documents.
Moldovan MP Dorian Istratii, who coordinates the Manej refugee center on Sunday, told Al Jazeera that the government is working on agreements with the Romanian government to accept Roma refugees without passports.
“We are providing buses to put them on the train so they can be transported to Romania,” he said. “In Romania, they will register them as refugees and give them asylum.”
Some people were excited when they heard a bus was taking them to Germany, volunteer Marcela said, but when they found out they needed biometric passports to get on the road, they had to go back to the gym and unpack their bags. .
Istratii said that while some Roma have documents with them, many have expired documents or are birth certificates that cannot be used to enter a country.
“If they let us work here, everything will be fine,” Cristina said. “I can bake pita cakes, I can sew, I can even make gift bags.”