Hanna, a refugee from Ukraine settled in Cahul, Moldova, becomes a "friendship officer"

February 23, 2024

"When you are a refugee, you are forced to move temporarily to another country, to a new, unknown locality, where you know neither the language nor the people. Hanna is Ukrainian like me and she was a real lifesaver, she helped us a lot," says Olena from Donetsk. Arriving in Cahul, she was helped by Hanna, who gave her a first trip around the city, explained to her where she can find the institutions she needs and how she can adapt more easily to the new reality.

Hanna Chepil is one of the 14 Friendship Officers – a mechanism tested with the support of the European Union and the UNDP – that helps refugees settle more easily in the host communities in Moldova. Hanna is the only Ukrainian among the 14, the others being locals. The officers were employed through the “Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG)” initiative, as UN volunteers.

Hanna guides her peers on how to enroll their children in school or kindergarten, guides them where to go for medical assistance or other essential services.

In addition to all this, Hanna organizes various cultural or volunteer activities.

"I didn't want to put down roots somewhere far from home. That's why I chose Moldova..."

Hanna arrived in Cahul in March 2022, together with her son, now 16 years old. Her parents, relatives, and her husband, who joined the fight, remained in Ukraine.

When the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February 2022, Hanna couldn’t believe this was happening to her country: "I couldn't believe it was happening in reality. My birthday was coming in a few days. For the first time in my life, I spent it without relatives and friends, no one came to visit and no one remembered about it, except my mother. The sounds of bombing were constantly heard. It seemed unconceivable," recalls Hanna.

She decided to take refuge for the safety of her child. "We felt out of danger only when we crossed the border with the Republic of Moldova. We were all crying. I didn't want to go further, to another country, because at that time my father was ill and my husband joined the fight. I didn't want to put down roots somewhere far from home. I chose Moldova so that I could return to Ukraine as easily and quickly as possible, to be able to see my parents and relatives again, to be as close to them as possible," says Hanna.

For a year and a half, she lived in a temporary placement center for refugees, where she met hundreds of fellow citizens and made lifelong friends with many of them. It was there, at the Center, where Hanna understood how important mutual support and constant communication with other peers is.

This is how she became a liaison person for people who fled the war, getting to know their problems and life situations. Five months ago, when the opportunity arose to hire Friendship Officers, she applied without hesitation.

In her office in the Cahul town hall, her regular visitors are people who had to start their lives from scratch.

"We discuss the problems that arise and look for solutions, we see what we can do to help people. We keep track of how many refugees came to the city, how many left, how many children have to go to school or kindergarten, what they need to fit into the educational system. We see if they need an Internet connection, devices to be able to connect to online lessons, what kind of extracurricular activities they can attend," this is how Hanna describes a typical workday.

The community is also united in a messenger group, where they communicate daily and where Hanna learns first-hand about people's needs.

The new members of the group are mainly those who have recently arrived in the Republic of Moldova. The specialist gets in touch with them and gives them emergency support, including getting the essentials for the first period, help in finding a place to live, etc.

"When I talk to the people who recently arrived in the Republic of Moldova, I go through the tragedy of the war over and over again"

Hanna also deals with cases where refugees do not know where to go to apply for temporary protection, as refugees.

"My goal as a specialist employed in this field is to collaborate with local public authorities, to ensure a bridge between refugees from Ukraine and the people of Cahul.

People need factual information about the institutions from which they can get help. We help refugees to understand that the local authorities are transparent, open to help and support them", says Hanna.

The most difficult part of her work is interacting with newcomers, she says: 

“When I communicate with newly arrived refugees, I relive their trauma, suffering and emotions. I went through the same distress; this is so familiar to me. 

I realized that we need to talk more with people, especially with those who just arrived in Moldova, because some of them become very closed, and negative emotions are difficult to manage. Since I have been here for a relatively long time, it is easier for me and I try to help those who have just came in, to inspire them with more optimism."

"We will rebuild Ukraine and Moldova"

Hanna plans to return home as soon as the war is over and the gratitude she has for the people who hosted her in the Republic of Moldova will remain with her forever.

"We will rebuild Ukraine; we will revive it and you will be our guests. I think that the biggest wish of each of us is that in 2024 we can return home, to our country, which we miss badly. The war will end and we should all return home and put our shoulders to the reconstruction of the country".

"Like other refugees, I came for two weeks and two years have already passed," concludes Hanna.

As of January 2024, there are 398 registered refugees in Cahul.

Ukrainian Friendship Officers are based in the beneficiary communities of the initiative "Mayors for Economic Growth" (M4EG), in: Bălți, Cahul, Călărași, Cărpineni, Ceadîr-Lunga, Cimișlia, Copceac, Dondușeni, Drochia, Palanca, Selemet, Strășeni, Telenești and Ungheni.

The mechanism is being tested in partnership with the Congress of Local Authorities of Moldova (CALM), which will develop a set of recommendations for the local and central administration regarding the establishment of such a unit in other localities of the country.