From refugee to returnee: I came back to help Ukrainians in Moldova

14 July, 2022

Ira Polak

In all of IsraAID’s missions, emergency or long-term, finding staff and volunteers that understand the local community and context is key to establishing effective and appropriate programs. Among IsraAID Moldova’s staff is someone with a personal connection to Moldova, Ukraine, and refugees.

Ira Polak Veronneau is an art therapist and social worker from Canada. A Moldovan refugee from the Transnistria war in 1992, Ira escaped from the city of Tiraspol to Odesa, and later immigrate to Israel with her family. 30 years later, Ira found herself in Moldova again, this time helping refugees from neighboring Ukraine.

This is the story of Ira’s return to her homeland and how she is using her professional toolbox to help Ukrainian children and mothers in Moldova.

IsraAID HQ reached out to me at the beginning of March. We’ve worked together on many occasions since 2006: in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, in Haiti after the earthquake, and in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak.

I currently work as an art therapist with children and their families and facilitate group art therapy sessions with women in emergency shelters. When I learned about the war and the terrifying news coming in every day, I felt a deep obligation and connection to this mission. As a trauma specialist and Russian-speaking refugee, there was a call deep inside of me that said I can and should help the Ukrainian refugees.

It’s been 30 years since I left Moldova. It was a very emotional return and I was in awe of seeing Moldova again. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel any different – it was familiar. Moldovans are very hospitable and that’s exactly what I felt when I returned. It felt very much like home.

From my experience in the humanitarian field and working with clients dealing with trauma, I have seen firsthand that Creative Arts therapies have great potential to provide the tools and space for healing among war victims. Since my first mission in Sri Lanka with tsunami survivors in 2006, I witnessed the benefits of art therapy-based intervention with individuals and communities.

Art and creativity allow them to express and process their emotions before they can put them into words. I work with mothers who fled Ukraine with their young and elderly family members. After sharing their emotions in group sessions, they reported feeling more empowered, supported, and connected. Creativity not only distracts their minds from terrifying news but also helps them channel their feelings and talk about them.

I have conducted several Psychological First Aid training sessions with our partner organizations. Aid workers received basic information about trauma-related care, stress management, and resilience, ensuring they have the tools to support affected families. When I work with clients who have experienced trauma, my goal is to help reinforce the resources that are available to them in the moment, be it among family or established community facilities. We focus on the present, here and now.

In stressful situations, people often act automatically, avoiding their emotions because it helps them work faster and more efficiently. At this stage, people are not ready yet to face their grief or sadness but are just trying to survive. When people begin to settle into their new situation, that’s when difficult emotions start to appear.

Unfortunately, I know from personal experiences what it’s like to be forced to leave your home. You organize yourself as fast as possible, cope in any way you can, and do what needs to be done. In later stages, when you start processing, grief begins to surface, and those new emotions can overwhelm you.

At the beginning of art therapy, people question themselves. Later, they realize through making art how powerful and strong their understanding of stress and coping mechanisms really is. Processing trauma is a whole-body experience, and through facilitating these sessions with Ukrainian refugees I continue to learn from the participants and their lived experiences.

Since writing, IsraAID has begun working in Ukraine, where Ira is running self-care workshops with social workers and NGO staff in Odesa. 

IsraAID is committed to remaining in Moldova for years to come, supporting refugee and host communities as they deal with immediate and longer-term impacts of the fighting in Ukraine.


Photographers: Maxim Chumash & Yuval Cohen Harounoff

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