Since the beginning of the emergency you have been at the forefront of the Ukrainian emergency on the border between Romania and Moldova. Can you explain to Italian donors who you are and who AAS is, the social reality you work for?
My name is Alex Gulei and I am social worker and the executive director of Alternative Sociale Association. My field of expertise is migration and child friendly justice.
Alternative Sociale is a human rights NGO that for the past 25 years focused on several areas of work – justice, migration, education, social economy. More specifically we work for and with
– children and adults involved in penal, civil and administrative procedures (children victims of crimes, child offenders, children witnesses or children of prisoners, children of divorce etc.). for them we do direct services, capacity building of professionals through specialized training, creation of child friendly infrastructure (child friendly hearing rooms in police stations, prosecutor’s offices, courts or child protection departments). More recently Alternative Sociale was in charge of producing the child friendly justice and violence against children components of the Romanian National Child Protection Strategy for the period 2021-2027.
– children and adults affected by migration – Romanian children separated from their parents working abroad, children who migrate and then return to the country of origin, victims of gender based violence (including, among others trafficking in persons), elders left unattended by their children, now adults, who work abroad, third country nationals who come to Romania as asylum seekers and more recently – with refugees from Ukraine. – other vulnerable children – for whom we do a variety of projects, from small groups (students in technical highschools who develop their volunteering skills, design and implement projects for their peers on school violence, discrimination etc.) to tens of thousands of beneficiaries (students from secondary school who benefit from activities aimed at improving their abilities to plan their educational, professional and personal future during career guidance classes).
2. How was the relationship between AAS and the Tree of Life Foundation born?
AAS and FADV have a lot in common – starting with the date in which our organizations were created – both in May 1997. Our relationship started in 2008, when we had our first collaboration developing projects for children affected by labour migration. We worked for several years in schools in the city of Iasi and even in smaller communities – doing projects to strengthen AAS efforts to prevent the negative effects of separation on children left behind and their families, and on child labour. In one of the schools we worked in we even created its first school medical facility where the community doctor came and volunteered.
In 2008 Alternative Sociale and UNICEF produced a first study on the impact of separation on children left behind in Romania which was the main support argument for a Resolution of the European Parliament, our collaboration focused on the situation of children who migrate with their parents. FADV coordinated a EU funded project focusing on the situation of children in Italy and Spain, in which partner universities and research institutes researched the protective factors which help Romanian children adapt abroad, while Alternative Sociale produced the first study in the world on the impact of remigration on children who go back to their country of origin.
More recently, FADV was the first and by far the quickest organization to support us respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Only days after February 24 we were able to prepare and deliver, with the help of staff and volunteers, emergency packages containing food, hygiene products, clothes, toys and coloring books to mothers and children coming to Iasi.
3. What has been fielded until today on the Iasi City border to help Ukrainian refugees?
Iasi has a strong NGO community, with a lot of experience in working with different categories of children and adults at risk. However, only a handful of us had experience working with migrants, and none had worked before with refugees who had just escaped war. We had no experience and no resources. We learned a lot and we helped a lot.
The public sector provided some more or less appropriate accommodation and transportation. Everything else was supported by the civil society sector – from individual persons who volunteered and donated goods or received refugees in their homes, to companies who donated money, or food and hotel rooms, to NGOs who left everything else and went to the border in the reception centers and to institutions to organize an appropriate, coordinated response and to provide professional social (information on rights, institutions, formalities available to Ukrainian refugees) and psychological support (to children and mothers who had survived unimaginable situations). It was an immense effort.
We at AAS learned that this is just the beginning and that the uncertainties of war in Ukraine need to be met with short term (emergency) support services but also with preparation for medium- and long-term support. Mothers and children still need material aid, but now they started realising that their return to Ukraine may not happen very soon (as they expected) and they need help to adjust to Romania. That means they have to connect with institutions (family doctors, schools and kindergardens), they need psychological support to deal with the trauma of war but also with the hardships of being a single mother and worrying every day about the life and wellbeing of male family members fighting a war. Children themselves miss their home, families, are frustrated with all the barriers that come from not knowing the Romanian language, having to adapt to new rules and school demands that they are not used to.
4. The latest news said that the commitment in Iasi will be relaunched with the project “We welcome the future to Ukraine” LET’S WELCOME THE FUTURE. What does this action add to previous projects?
If in the first weeks the response was strong, most of those involved returned to their regular life, jobs, projects and only a few organizations remained to focus on helping mothers and children. AAS provides direct assistance to children and mothers, coordinates the creation of a working methodology for the psycho-social assistance of refugees and soon will start, with the support of FADV, the activities on the SUNSHINE Center for the prevention of trafficking and exploitation, created within the project „LET’S WELCOME THE FUTURE”.#
Also we are providing assistance to the Ukrainian community in Iasi to facilitate the access to education – for instance we are the interface between the community and the Iasi School Inspectorate. We facilitate things such as the accreditation of Ukrainian teachers and children into the Romanian school system.
5. From what the women and children who arrive at the border should be protected? (possibly making examples of true stories).
War means danger for all involved, not just the combatants. Refugees left with just a few precious objects, some clothes and pets. Many times they don’t know where they are going, who to trust. Preparing for emergency situations means preparing for the unexpected. For helping the persons arriving in a car riddled with bullet holes, for the lady who bursts in tears when you hand her emergency goods and starts speaking of the horrors she has seen, for the persons who tell you they don’t need any help but then they start trusting you and open up about serious medical conditions, or preparing to comfort someone who just learned about the death of a loved one, hundreds of kilometres away.
It also means not judging, allowing the time for the mother and children to make their own decisions. Our work is about helping people become self-sustainable. We want them to be safe, to have access to services, to earn their own money as quickly as possible. To be able to access education and health services, as they would in their home country.
6. How do you protect these women and children from the risk of trafficking and exploitation?
Unfortunately Romania and the region of Moldova is one of the areas that many of the survivors of trafficking rescued in the EU originate from. Refugees of war in general are already at risk of exploitation because of the fact that their resources are depleting quickly. Many women and children are desperate to get to safety and accept proposals from traffickers on both sides of the border. We’ve had situations where somebody came to one of the reception centers that we worked in and, despite of police presence, asked specifically for 10 preganant women to go with him to a location where he would host them. He had already contacted women in the center through social media and they had accepted his proposal.
Our role is to „intercept” such exchanges and proposals and to make women aware of the risks that are out there, all while aiming not to add to the stress they already experienced from the war. The trauma of being a refugee is a major obstacle, because a few months ago they were ordinary people living the same lives as the rest of us. Before they accept our support, they have to accept that they are vulnerable and that is a major self-esteem related shift. It is a very difficult task and takes trained professionals to achieve positive results in terms of effective prevention.
7. Where are these people on the run going? Where to try to repair?
There are several different reactions of Ukrainian refugees. There are some who want to go as far as possible from war and the place where they experience the worst thing in their life. Others want to stay close to home, to be able to personally check on their loved ones still in Ukraine and on their property. They don’t want to commit to living in the host country
because hope that the conflict will end soon is so strong. This is why it is a very delicate process – to help them accept a plan that involves planting roots in Romania, like getting a job or putting their children through school here. They are very sensitive to such conversations with our social workers.
8. If you were to explain to donors the importance of this Ukrainian border action, what would you say?
There are so many things to say. First of all – the war is not over. This is the specific of this type of situation – you need to be ready for the worst. The initial emotional response of ordinary citizens and companies went away. Without the support of donors none of us would be able to work with the thousands of parents and children that desperately look for protection.
The resources of Ukrainian refugees are almost gone. The Ukrainian government needs to prioritize budgets in order to be able to continue the defence of their homeland, so many people don’t receive their salaries.
9. How long will this activity go on?
The activity will go on for as long as the war lasts and after that – for the duration of rebuilding Ukraine. Many of these people don’t have a house or even a city to go to. Or a job. Or a school. This is a long term effort that will undoubtedly last for years.
10. How important is it to relaunch humanitarian actions today? (underline how in the long term the attention of the media decreases and the fact that there is where these people risk to be abandoned)
Unfortunately governments are not very quick to act. They need our support to adjust to the needs of refugees. I can say, with all the responsibility, that without the work of civil society organizations, without the financial and material support of donors most of the urgent and medium term needs of Ukrainian citizens would not be met. Think, for instance, that today governments still haven’t agreed on how school will start in just a few weeks, for Ukrainian children. Public services cannot provide the psychological support children and adults survivors of war need – because of sheer numbers, because they are understaffed.
As I said before – as we speak, the situation of Ukrainian refugees in the fall and the winter does not look very encouraging. The attention of the media, as well as that of regular citizens, even institutions is reducing its intensity. Everybody becomes more concerned with the price of energy, with the higher cost of living. The Romanian families who host Ukrainian mothers and children are beginning to think about how will they cover the additional costs. It’s going to be a very difficult period. Ukrainians need us now, and will need us in the winter, and will also need us in the years to come.
Just as we did in the first days of the conflict – organizations like FADV and AAS need to be able to react when things are burning and also after the dust settles and people suffering need care. We are like firefighters, acting now, but we are also carers and doctors, helping tomorrow as well. This is why the contribution of donors is so important. Without them we would not be able to fulfil these difficult and important roles.