“Like all Ukrainian refugees, I hope to go home soon”

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Veronika Kovalchuk, 21, was a student of international economic relations and English translation at a university in Odesa. When the invasion happened, she was staying with her parents in the city center, “but after three days, I realized it was so stressful. I was so stressed that I got sick, I had a high temperature, and my father decided it would be better for me to go to Moldova for some time,” she says.

Veronika’s father has family in Moldova. Like hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians, Veronika crossed through the Palanca border crossing into Moldova and went to stay with her aunt and cousin in Chișinău. “I thought it would only be for a week or two. I was so stressed that I packed all the wrong things. My suitcase was full of swimwear and T-shirts. Lots of hair products, but no warm sweaters, and it was snowing.” Now, a year and a half later, Veronika still lives in Moldova, where she works with IsraAID as a Junior Programs Officer, helping other Ukrainian refugees.

Veronika’s brother Edvard fled to Moldova within hours of the invasion. “He’s 35. He has children. I think it’s different worrying about yourself and worrying about your children. He knew immediately that he had to leave to keep them safe,” she says. 

By chance, Veronika’s brother met an IsraAID team member during her first week and introduced them to each other. Veronika offered to volunteer, helping with translations. “I started as a volunteer, but then they offered me a full-time position as a translator, and as I took on more responsibilities, I became a Junior Programs Officer. It was my first job. IsraAID changed my life completely. I’m very grateful for this big experience helping me go so much farther in my life,” she says.

Settling into Moldova wasn’t always easy. Veronika says she encountered a lot of prejudice and misconceptions about Ukrainian refugees. “I guess it’s the biggest problem for Ukrainian refugees here. A lot of people thought of us more as tourists than as refugees,” she says. “I experienced some bad situations. Sometimes, on the road, people would see Ukrainian license plates and start yelling at me. I used to get really upset and try talking to them, but now I just let it go.”

“Yes, I’m safe in Moldova, but my family is still in Ukraine. Like all Ukrainians, I’m waiting for us to win the war so I can go home,” Veronika says. 

Veronika goes back to Ukraine every once in a while to visit her parents. “They stayed in Odesa. They’re still living in our same flat. It’s a little bit scary, but at least it’s in the city center, which is safer,” she says, “I need to go visit because they’re old, and they need my support.” She explains that her parents refused to leave, “My father says that Ukraine is home because Ukraine gave him everything he has – his home, his job, his kids.” 

Veronika hopes to change the perception of Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. “I want them to realize that we’re here due to the war in our country; we’re not tourists. It’s been almost a year and a half, and we’re still not in our houses, and it’s impossible to really understand what that’s like. I’m always thinking that I’ll be back home soon, and it’s almost finished, but who knows.” 

While staying in Moldova, Veronika is working to help other Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. “We need to create more spaces for Ukrainian children, and mothers, and refugees, where they can communicate with one another; spaces where they can believe they are not alone, and to support each other,” she says. She’s proud of the impact her work has had on the community. “Every community we meet, they always say thank you – for the emotional support, financial support, and these spaces to be together and learn from each other. Now there aren’t so many NGOs left in Moldova. But we’re still here, and that’s really needed.”

Before the war, Veronika dreamed of opening her own bakery that serves pastries from around the world. “I traveled abroad a little with my family before the war, and I always loved tasting new sweets. I want to bring all these different sweets to one place where it’s not expensive, so even people who can’t travel abroad can try a lot of different things.”

Now, as she is set to graduate from university this month, she wants to continue working in non-profits and supporting her community. “But maybe I can still open the bakery, too,” she laughs.