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How Romanian leaders are adapting to welcome an influx of Ukrainian refugees

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking about the refugee crisis here. And maybe when we say that, what comes to mind are people crowded in makeshift tents or even fairly decent, organized impromptu villages. But either way, that's not what we've seen here. In fact, most people are housed in private homes, hotels and shelters like the one run by a man named Marian Ursan here in Bucharest.

MARIAN URSAN: This place was built five years ago, maybe six. And on the initial phase, it was designed to be a homeless shelter for the wintertime.

MARTIN: Marian is the executive director of Carusel, a Romanian nonprofit that provides social services. He's turned what was a secure seasonal shelter for homeless individuals into a comforting and inviting space for arriving Ukrainian families.

URSAN: Of course, it took us some time to redesign all these premises because in the past, as I said, we used the space for homeless people. But now we had to make some changes in order to provide people with more privacy.

MARTIN: The shelter is made up of attached shipping containers. Inside, there's one long, central communal area with a couple of couches where people can chat, a kitchen at the back and an area for kids with a tent, toys and an easel. Private rooms line each side of the building.

URSAN: We try to make the space as comfortable as possible, and I think even more because, you know, there are some needs which some people consider a bit top priorities or not. For example, we have volunteers which are coming in to do the nails for the ladies.

MARTIN: Right now, Marian guesses there are about 32 people staying at the shelter, but the space can accommodate up to 40.

URSAN: We have single persons or quite large families, so it depends. We have young and elderly. We have children, babies. It's very different. We have, for example, families, which means five or four people. And they are just asking us somehow to put extra beds because they want to stay in one room. Even the room is very small, but they just want to stay together.

MARTIN: Is there anything that worries you at this point?

URSAN: Yes. I have many worries.

MARTIN: What are they?

URSAN: That's my specialty - to worry a lot.

MARTIN: Yes.

URSAN: I'm worried about the fact that people get tired because I'm looking to my colleagues, and there is a huge effort done in the last, I don't know, six weeks. I'm worried because even organizations, big organizations are tired.

MARTIN: As we are speaking now, many of the kind of world leaders are saying this is going - this conflict is going to go on for some time. It just isn't clear how long. So has there - is there starting to be planning about what to do if people cannot go home? From the authorities here, starting to think about...

URSAN: I don't give a [expletive] about world leaders and their ideas and about their perspectives and ideas and all those stupid things. I know that I have to organize this place as much - as good as possible in order to be able to welcome people. I have to think about gluten and about yogurt without lactose. I need to arrange for little No. 12 to have an appointment for their glasses. So that's my priority. And I don't really have time to watch news and discussions which are, you know, meant to do what?

MARTIN: Marian isn't interested in the government's response to the refugee crisis because he is used to and actually prefers taking things into his own hands. Today that means figuring out whether the shelter will be able to provide all the electricity his guests need to power their devices.

URSAN: So I invite the world leaders to have a talk, and maybe they can solve the problem if we need another wire or two.

MARTIN: He's kidding, sort of. But in Tulcea County in southeastern Romania, the local government has worked hard with volunteers and NGOs to support the displaced Ukrainians arriving from across the river. County president Horia Teodorescu tells us that this region is the most diverse in Romania, which could smooth the way for Ukrainians arriving here.

HORIA TEODORESCU: (Through interpreter) Living together with the biggest communities of Russians and Ukrainians and other minorities that are here in this county is a perfect model.

MARTIN: Mirela Furtuna, who represents Tulcea in Romania's parliament, agrees.

MIRELA FURTUNA: (Through interpreter) We didn't react as the institution. It was not the parliament that sent me here to do something. I reacted because I'm a human being, mother and because I saw myself in their shoes.

MARTIN: And that attitude informed their emergency response.

CRISTINA POPESCU: What do we have here? All the hygiene products. Everything - we send pretty much everything we can.

MARTIN: Cristina Popescu also works for the county of Tulcea. Right now, that means she spends a lot of her time in this large warehouse. She walks us through cavernous rooms filled with pallets of goods - food, diapers, generators, bedding, tons of donated goods destined for the other side of the border.

Cristina, how did you know how to do all this?

POPESCU: We didn't. None of us did. None of us were prepared for this. We just did it. We learned by doing it. And I've got a friend that has a warehouse which isn't used. I've got a friend that has a car that can transport these donations to the border or to where it's needed. This is how it is. We're a small community, and we all know each other. So this thing, as horrible as it is, made us even more caring about the ones that don't have, and they need.

MARTIN: In another section of the warehouse, three women saran wrap huge pallets ready for transport. Volunteer Larisa Yefremenko explains that the three were colleagues back in Ukraine before coming to Romania.

LARISA YEFREMENKO: (Through interpreter) Originally, we are from Donbas region. In 2014, we moved deeper in the country. And so ever since, we've been living nearby Kyiv. And now we had to move one more time, so here we are.

MARTIN: They may be here in Tulcea, but Yefremenko says they each left family, their mothers and sons, behind in Ukraine.

Where are they?

YEFREMENKO: The Donbas. The Donbas. (Through interpreter) These days, the situation is really hard. The Ukrainian forces are pushing the Russian forces outside. So these days, it seems like the fighting will intensify there. This is one good reason for us to come here daily and work because this way, maybe we can put those thoughts aside for the moment, on one hand. And then on the other hand, we're trying to do the best we can to be good patriots and to help the ones that are back there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.