A surprisingly intoxicating electronic song blares in the basement of a large, yellow house that has recently been renovated as a community center. A ring of young children, along with their dark-haired Ukrainian instructor, all hold the handles of a brightly colored, large round textile that I recognize to be a parachute. Memories of my elementary school years come flooding back and I find myself almost involuntarily moving to grab a free handle and dancing along in the circle.
I balance my camera in my right hand as my left flaps the parachute up and down and my bare feet skip to the beat of music over a soft yellow and blue mat floor. When the music stops, the teacher yells “Mauve!” in Russian, and everyone whose hand is holding a handle of the mauve colored slice of the parachute lets go and runs through the middle of the parachute to the opposite side, switching places just before the music resumes. This time, it is my turn and I run under the parachute with my camera near my eye, photographing indiscriminately and hoping that I got a somewhat decent shot.
Later that day, Meredith texts me an image and video of me dancing around with the kids. Below is a comment that says “Participatory journalism!” I could say something similar about her. She is a participatory volunteer, which is why a place like the Sunflower Center exists at all.
Partners in caring
“They were one of the first NGOs I bought food for,” recalls Meredith, a volunteer I’d met while working with the Smokehouse Distribution Center upon my arrival in Moldova. “Andrei, the head of the Federaţia Familiilor pentru Unificare și Pace în Lume din Moldova (Family Federation of Moldova, FFM), called us and said that they had a bus full of refugees coming to their center and they had a place for them to sleep, but no food. Vlad (Smokehouse’s co-operator) and I went to Kauflands and bought about $1000 worth of food. Ever since then, Andrei and I have continued to stay in touch. Smokehouse, in the early days when it was still running, helped support the donation center here and made sure that they were restocked when they ran out of things.”
If places like the Smokehouse were the first responders to the Ukrainian refugee crisis in Moldova, then the newly created Sunflower Center is poised to be the ground force for the long-term response as the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on.
Andrei, Meredith’s partner in caring, has been working with Moldovan families for years on a variety of fronts. FFM’s programs range from developing support for families that have children with disabilities, to marriage counseling, to parent-child relationship workshops.
“We want families to be happy and have good and healthy relationships,” Andrei explains to me succinctly.
“FFM originally worked in the country through offering courses in things like parenting; educating women on domestic violence, child abuse, rape; and basically trying to break down all the stigmas that had historically been in place,” explains Meredith. “Like every other NGO in the country, the FFM pivoted to respond to the refugee crisis. They were helping with transportation, housing refugees, helping people find shelter, and they had a donation center.”
“When the war started in Ukraine,” Andrei continues, “Of course, we were shocked and stressed. From the first day, we saw so many people fleeing from Ukraine, especially mothers with small children. We wanted very much to help them. Refugee shelters were being developed and filling up, and we even took in a few in those first days, but as our work developed, we realized that there was a broader emotional need that was not being met. We started thinking about how we could meet that need in the short and the long term, especially since the war does not seem to be ending anytime soon.”
In fact, the meeting between Andrei and Meredith could not have been more seemingly divinely dictated. “I'm an integrative health coach,” Meredith tells me. “So I tend to think beyond short-term needs to the more systemic needs of people. I just felt like there needed to be a place where, for example, a kid could go and be happy, and a mom can go receive psychosocial support.”
Between Andrei’s resources inside of Moldova, and Meredith’s ability to activate fundraising from international sources, coupled with their combined backgrounds in family wellbeing and support, they were able to identify an unmet need, develop resources to meet that need, and build a brand new center within the course of a month. It was enough to make one’s head spin.
“Andrei took me to MoldExpo, the largest refugee center in Chișinău, because he wanted me to see the kind of services that were actually being provided there,” Meredith recalls. “What I saw was that you have some very large organizations with a lot of money running that facility and when it comes to refugee family services, there's literally a square patch on the concrete floor with a blanket and some toys. It's just sad. I just thought, ‘this is not how it should be. There needs to be a place where people can go to get real support for themselves and their families.’ So Andrei and I figured we would create that place ourselves. That is how the Sunflower Center was born.”
Home away from home
If Ukraine is known for its rolling hills of grain against a blue sky, Moldova is similarly known for its fields of sunflowers tracing the path of the sun throughout the summer months. Yet, in reality, fields of sunflowers are a shared landscape between the two countries and serve as an unabashed symbol of hope for a region that has seen some of the most difficult histories in recent memory.
Andrei concedes that the name was Meredith’s idea. I cannot think of a more fitting name for a place that is helping Moldova feel a little more like home to Ukrainians who want nothing more than to return to the lives they had built, no matter how shattered.
“One component of our new programming is to offer activities for children such as arts and crafts and various other services that help them relax, as well as feel safe here,” says Andrei. “But the other part of our programming is aimed at helping parents. So we have worked with our partner, IsrAAID to develop counseling and support services for mothers. We’ve also developed a mom’s club where mothers can share and discuss their feelings and experiences in a more formal way. That way they can support each other as well.”
The same day I find myself playing in the basement with the kids, Anderson Cooper’s team is visiting as well to cover the center’s activities. In traditional broadcast fashion, they work rapidly and set up one too many shots for my more traditional photojournalism sensibilities — but that is not really the point. The point is that the center’s work is getting a lot of attention as an innovative, heartfelt, and undeniable need in the context of a refugee crisis. The Sunflower Center has answered a question that has been little asked in past refugee crises: how do we effectively integrate and support a large influx of a traumatized population?
Meredith, Andrei, and the rest of the center are doubtlessly thankful for the news coverage. More coverage means more support and a wider community to discuss the question around long-term refugee psychosocial resource development. It is not that the center wants to get back to normal, rather, they want an opportunity to find out what normal actually is. Media coverage, including my own, no matter how well-intentioned, is an undeniable intrusion into the center’s daily activities. The kids and the staff have gotten good at ignoring the cameras, but I can’t help but think that the fishbowl element of a consistent media eye might be getting in the way of the center’s goals. But, there will be a day when the media stops coming and the center’s work will continue.
For now, however, the cameras move through an arts and crafts class, and I stand on the sidelines watching. The kids are folding colorful flowers and gluing them in the margins of construction paper foldable cards. When you open the cards, a bouquet of paper flowers blooms out before you. The children write loving statements to their mothers and draw images of happy homes and hearts. Mother’s day is the following weekend.
The arts and crafts activity is indicative of the kind of early-education programming that the center is offering children and their mothers. The teachers that instruct the course are mostly Ukrainian as well; there is also notably one Moldovan woman with a special needs education background. Prior to the center’s opening, she had been frustrated by the constrictive Moldovan education system that rarely, if at all, allowed her to experiment with creative education. The center has given her as much of a home for her skills as it has given Ukrainian refugees a spiritual home-away-from-home during the time of their displacement.
Later, I make my way downstairs to the playroom, where I ultimately end up dancing in a circle with the kids. I look through a low window onto the scene, and the Moldovan receptionist next to me says, “She is a professional.” Really emphasizing the skills of the teacher below. She too is Ukrainian and the center has given her an opportunity to work, make money, and help her community. The center empowers refugees to help each other. It is an observation of the fact that “refugee” is a temporary form of identification and speaks little to the universe of identity and experience that every “refugee” holds within them. The sooner they can get back to just being human, the better. This can best be seen in the mom’s club at the center. It is a club that is unequivocally off-limits to cameras and reporters. It is a safe space where mothers can lean on each other, with the help of mental health professionals, to process the trauma of leaving their home, and their husbands, fathers, and sons. It is a place where they can breathe and just be women for a moment, rather than survivors, refugees, and mothers. Being a mother is difficult on the best of days (I hear), but being a mother in a refugee situation, for me, is beyond imagination.
“A lot of these services just give moms a chance to have a few hours to themselves,” Meredith tells me. “They can participate in the mom’s club if they want, or they can go take care of errands or just relax if they need. Many of them have not had a moment to themselves since the war started.”
Now, sitting on the other side of the planet as I write this story, I wonder about how the center is doing. It is tempting to forget about the Ukrainian invasion, especially now knowing just how much of a Russian failure it has become. But I stop myself and keep an eye on the news and in touch with everyone still working in Moldova. The fact of the matter is that this center will be around for a while since no one can know just how long this conflict will last. But thank goodness it is there.
It is far too easy from a place of comfort to fall into the complacent thought pattern that, just because a refugee has escaped a dangerous situation, the work is done. Yet, in reality, the work has only just started. Dealing with trauma coupled with integrating into a new society is an unimaginable weight on refugee populations. It is the job of welcoming societies to not just meet logistical needs but mental, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs as well. The Sunflower Center understood this early on and rapidly worked to fill the void like rain falling into fields of sunflower seeds. Only time will see how the center, its work, and its beneficiaries will grow, bloom, and thrive despite the destruction they have seen.