Letter to The Chisinau Refugee in Her Bathrobe

Credit: Lola Simon, from the series I've Spent My Whole Life Trying to Escape (Monotype Frames 2022)

I remember you sitting outside on a bench, smoking that chilly March morning in your bathrobe and your house slippers. Stress made a scar of your face. You were younger than me but fatigue gave you an aged aspect. Somewhere inside the building behind you—your home, for now—your children, if you had any, slept or had perhaps awoken to play with the other displaced kids. Few men had come with you all. They were needed in Ukraine. If your bathrobe was too light to keep warm against the raw morning, your blank eyes suggested you did not have it in you to care. It was the fourth week of the war.

I was in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, as a short-term volunteer in response to the refugee flows out of Ukraine and away from Russia’s “special military operation,” the Russian euphemism for invasion. My hope was to participate in the assistance economy—those giving, those receiving—which had sprung up there, as it had along the crescent of Ukraine’s western borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. I heard Moldova’s need was especially great: the country had more refugees as a proportion of the national population than any other migrant-taking country at Ukraine’s edge. Most of the refugees in Chisinau had come from nearby regions of Ukraine: the south and west, and larger towns like Mykolaiv and Odessa.

I was working remotely at the time, you see. My plan was to volunteer in the mornings, then sign on in the afternoons to work. I did not want to stay home. Since graduate school in 2014, I had studied Russia—its language, its politics, and its concept of Russki Mir, a phrase with a dual meaning of “Russian Peace” and “Russian World.” You and I know that 2014 was the first year of Russia’s still-ongoing campaign against Ukraine. We also know that the full-scale invasion of 2022 did not begin a war; it expanded a pre-existing one. The war entered its ninth year while you and I were in Moldova. Ukraine’s younger children have never known peace.

To me, you typified the Ukrainian exodus in those early days. I don’t know if you had a man or children then, but I knew that men aged eighteen to sixty were legally barred from exiting the country. They had to fight or serve another way. I knew that families separated at Ukraine’s borders. Women had to continue without their husbands or boyfriends, or their male relatives or friends. In this war on Ukraine, flight is female.

I saw you in your bathrobe a lot, those mornings I volunteered. You brought to mind my own mother, and the bathrobe she used to wear around the house when my siblings and I were small. To me her robe meant Sunday mornings, special breakfasts, family time. To see her flee a war would shred my heart.

Moldovan authorities housed you and three hundred others in Chisinau’s main convention center—“MoldExpo,” the maladroit abbreviation of Moldova and Exposition. I remember those rooms! The ten-foot-by-ten-foot booths, good for an exhibition but not for housing, with sheet-plastic walls and a scissored flap of tarp for a door. The booths lay in a row of other booths occupied by other families, while machines—heaters and industrial fans, operating simultaneously—droned overhead at all hours. Your privacy was zero. The aid groups, always fundraising, plowed through with cameras and phones, documenting their do-gooding for the donors at home. In their inattention, cameras stuck to their faces, they knocked over the strollers parked in the walkways between the rows of booths. The diaspora foundations—for Jews, for Greeks, for Jehovah’s Witnesses—mostly helped their own. Do you recall that one group, “Vegans Are Heroes”? They took photos of themselves as they passed out pamphlets arguing why you should change your diets as long as you’re changing your lives. You fled a physical battle for a mental one: of values, allegiances, ideas.

At the food and drinks station you asked me for coffee; I did my best to help even as the station, like MoldExpo, was gridlocked with stressed-out refugees and clueless volunteers. You stepped over a tangle of cords and power strips where it floated in a slick of spilled coffee, as if waiting patiently to short-circuit. You shushed a woman in line behind you, when she yelled up to the volunteers at the counter, “We need coffee! We’re Ukrainians, we drink coffee!”

Another time, you passed by as I helped a woman volunteer fit a heavy snub-nosed jug into a water cooler. The woman thanked me and said, “We need men here.”

You resembled another woman, who called out to me as I arrived at the MoldExpo entrance one morning. She looked like she needed to talk. Just like you, she was smoking. An elderly neighbor who had stayed behind in Mykolaiv sent her a photo of the younger woman’s house there—the house she had left, along with everything else. The front of the house was in pieces. The remaining façade was pocked from exploding debris. You—anyone—could see into her child’s upstairs bedroom from the street, crayon drawings still taped to the wallpaper. “Here’s your Russki Mir!” she erupted, cursing the Russians and the world they endeavored to create. Then she burst into tears.

I assume you read the paper advertisements, the service offerings that proliferated on MoldExpo’s bulletin boards and public spaces: the ads for long-haul buses as far as Portugal; the discounted airfare to Canada or Australia or Brazil. More assistance economics. You also read the ads, as I did, from the seekers: the geriatric Ukrainian handyman, too old to fight but not too old for hunger; the manicurist who once owned her own salon in Odessa. They were willing to work for nearly nothing. Were you, as well?

Once, I saw you in line—those interminable lines—that snaked around the huge parking lot, where volunteers delivered free food, free SIM cards, cash handouts. Each of these deliveries must have been a humiliation, but a humiliation you could not avoid.

The year since coming home has passed quickly for me. I think of you often. It is you I seem to see each time I remember the faces of the women I passed each morning, those reluctant inhabitants of MoldExpo, smoking or staring into the space of a country not their own, dispossessed of your men and your homes and your old lives.

I hope you have found a modicum of stability, and the courage to manage your radically disrupted future.

I also hope you have reunited with the men in your life—all the male friends and family you had in peacetime. I hope they are still alive. I wish safety for your children, those you have or will have.

I was a young volunteer when I saw you. You are younger than me. I will, probably always, think of you as a young woman.

This war has aged all of us some. You—you Ukrainians—immeasurably more so. And the war continues.

William Fleeson is a writer and journalist. A native and resident of Washington, DC, his byline has appeared in BBC Travel, National Geographic, Newsweek, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and elsewhere. His work has been nominated, most recently, for The Best American Essays anthology. His website is www.willfleeson.com.

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