Think Out Loud

Aid workers with Portland-based Mercy Corps in Ukraine

By Allison Frost (OPB)
March 9, 2022 6:32 p.m. Updated: March 14, 2022 10:01 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, March 9

Women, children and the elderly make up almost the entire wave of refugees entering into Romania. At the Siret border crossing, more than 80,000 refugees have arrived in the first 2 weeks of the crisis.

Women, children and the elderly make up almost the entire wave of refugees entering into Romania. At the Siret border crossing, more than 80,000 refugees have arrived in the first 2 weeks of the crisis.

Courtesy Cassandra Nelson for Mercy Corps / Cassandra Nelson


As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, 2 million refugees are fleeing the country. It’s the biggest European conflict since World War II. The Portland-based international aid agency Mercy Corps is in Ukraine and along some of the borders in neighboring countries. We hear from Cassandra Nelson, a Ukraine response advisor for Mercy Corps, about what she’s seeing along the busiest border crossing in Romania.

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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. As Russia continues its bombardment and invasion of Ukraine, two million Ukrainians have left their country, they’re fleeing the biggest European conflict since World War Two and are caught up in a growing humanitarian crisis. The Portland-based international aid organization Mercy Corps is now working in Ukraine and in neighboring countries that are taking in refugees Cassandra Nelson is a Ukraine response advisor for Mercy Corps. She joins us now from Romania; Cassandra Nelson, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Cassandra Nelson: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Miller: I want to start with the scale of this crisis right now. Can you put it in perspective, do you have a sense for how much of the country of Ukraine is displaced right now?

Nelson: It’s really an incredible amount of displacement. What we’re looking at in literally just about 12 days of the conflict is more than two million refugees, so over two million people that have fled the country and crossed over borders. Then inside the country we’re looking at potentially up to 12 million people that need assistance of which about four million are IDPs, or Internally Displaced People. So they’ve moved from town to town or shelter to shelter but they’re no longer in their homes. So it is a phenomenal number of people that have been displaced, and again, it’s less than two weeks.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the demographics –  who has been most likely to leave their homes?

Nelson: What we’re definitely seeing in terms of the refugees, the people that are coming out of the country, is that; I’ve been at the border almost every day this week. It is women and children coming across. If the men are of adult age, they’re staying. There are rules in place that they need to stay. There’s certain ways you can leave, if you have three children, the men can leave. But essentially, the women are coming out with the children to keep their families safe. So really at the border, what you see are just loads of women and children and it is a stark contrast to other displacement situations of which I’ve seen. Certainly with Ukraine, you’re gonna see a lot of variety. We know that a lot of the elderly are actually staying in the country, that they haven’t come out. Although there are elderly coming out, it really is the women and children that are coming out.

Miller: What is the stark contrast in terms of this outflow of refugees in Ukraine compared to other refugee situations you’ve seen all around the world?

Nelson: Well, certainly the fact that it is really just women and children is a radical change from so many other issues from the crises I’ve seen in this place. That it’s a gender issue is very stark, and the fact that they’re generally family aged- I’ve met so many women in their thirties that have two or three children. It really is people that you normally would see, to be honest, taking their carriage in the park. It’s a real contrast to what you’d imagine to see in these situations.

Miller: What have you been hearing in terms of why people are leaving or conversely why family members or friends of theirs have stayed?

Nelson: In the last few days, the sort of stories behind why people are leaving or starting to are evolving. Just a few days ago people were leaving because they felt that it was time to get out. They were getting a bit nervous. They’d heard about situations of bombardment in other towns and other villages and they decided it was time to go. I even met one woman that had come out earlier and she’s been kind of ferrying back and forth, she brought one child and then she set up there and found a place to leave the child in Romania and then went back to get other children. And then she was going back to get her parents. So she sort of had this whole plan, how she was going to move back and forth.

Miller: And just to be clear, that was completely logistically possible. The border was such that she could come and go and, as you said, ferry family family members back and forth with no problem?


Nelson: In some areas. The country certainly has some areas where it’s been safe to move and then other areas where it’s been near impossible to move and really people are just risking their lives to move. In the border coming into Romania, the sort of immediate border area that is, people have been able to move back and forth fairly freely. But when you get into other towns and cities like Kyiv and Sumy most recently, we saw a whole influx come in yesterday from Sumy because they opened these corridors and people started to come out then. Unfortunately there was a bombardment and the convoys that were supposed to come got canceled. So there’s areas where it’s very dangerous, and then there’s other areas where they’re able to move somewhat easily.

Miller: Now you were saying that in the last couple of days you’ve actually seen a change in the reasons people are giving for fleeing – what’s the change?

Nelson: The change seems to become much more about the violence in the cities and the bombardments, and the people I’ve spoken to in the last couple of days have told me point blank that their town became under attack and they went back to take their children and a bag and they literally had like three minutes in their house and ran. So you were really seeing the crisis just get so much more intense and violent than at least the refugees that I was speaking with that were coming into Romania a few days ago. So it does seem to be heating up.

Miller: How are people arriving these days?

Nelson: It’s a mix. There are basically people coming to the border area either by bus, a lot of people by train, and some people are being driven by a parent that’s maybe staying behind or a friend or a husband. So it’s a variety. But what I’m hearing is that it’s really a combination and most of the people I have spoken to were on a train and then they were on a bus and then they caught a shuttle van and then they had to walk across the border at the end. Most people have been saying that it’s been taking them two, three or four days to get across the border, depending on where they’re coming from, sort of step by step as they kind of go through different modes of transportation.

Miller: And then they arrived there and as you noted this is just one entry point among a number of countries that share a western border with Ukraine, but there, in Romania, what in general are they finding when they arrive?

Nelson: So in Romania what they’re finding is they’re finding what I would say is a very warm reception when they cross the border. I think that the Romanian officials have done everything they can to make entry pretty much seamless when they come across. I mean there’s a wait to get across, simply because of the sheer number of people. But then they are going through a proper process, you know, they do check their papers. So there is a process that they go through at the border checkpoint, but when they come through they’re greeted by a host of civil society actors, the police are there and they are basically, you know carrying their bags across for them, so the minute they get into that border zone there are people that are going forward then to carry the luggage to help them with their children. There’s people that are meeting them with telephones to see if there’s anyone that they need to call, to let them know that they have arrived. So there’s a real welcome when they come across that I think it’s one of the only heartwarming things I’ve seen in this crisis, but it is, you know, a true welcome that they’re receiving when they come across. When they come in, it’s interesting, some people, they do have friends or relatives that they’re trying to connect with, they might just be transiting on to another country. But then there’s a lot of people that are coming across and particularly again in the last two days, I think as people are coming across less prepared and more because of,  they suddenly realize they’ve got to go now. Now I’m seeing a lot of people come by who literally don’t have a plan, they don’t have any relatives and there is a tent that they can go into where there’s a whole kind of hosting situation set up where they have these reception centers, they can send them to where they can stay until they figure out where they want to go on to. So there’s a variety of different things, depending on what kinds of resources they have themselves available.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Cassandra Nelson, a Ukraine Response Advisor for Mercy Corps. She is in Romania which has taken in, I saw as of two days ago, according to one press report, more than 140,000 refugees since Russia began its attack. Cassandra, I haven’t heard about mass refugee camps being set up yet, along Ukraine’s border with other countries like Poland or Hungary or Slovakia or Romania. Is that happening right now?

Nelson: In Romania it’s definitely not happening yet. What we’re seeing is the towns and cities close to the border are overflowing with people. The Mercy Corps team, we’re staying an hour and a half away from the border because literally this is as close as we could get there just there’s not a single place to stay. But in the city, even the hotels have been opening up their ballrooms and kind of setting up these informal places where people can stay. Again, anything that’s been available now is fully packed out. Then there’s also, the government has set up government reception centers which have beds, they’re these huge halls with these loads of beds set up, those are being used, but they’re actually not being used as much as the things in town, so these are all set up outside of town, there are these big sort of stadiums and things in smaller areas, you know, and maybe 45 minutes out of the city. So they’re not full to capacity yet, which is a good thing. So we know that when more come that there is at least an interim place for people to sleep, at least several hundred more. But now the city and the whole border area is really kind of getting at a completely oversaturated point where there’s nowhere left for people to go and you know, if people don’t move on, then I think that there is going to have to be some other additional kind of accommodations or lodging situation set up for a longer term.

Miller: We’ve been focusing, for obvious reasons, on the people who have fled, at least two million Ukrainians fleeing West in just 11 days or so. But I’m curious what you’ve been hearing in terms of the humanitarian needs, the crisis within Ukraine where many more millions still are?

Nelson: The need there is greater than the need here, I think now. I think that because they’re moving into two countries that have infrastructures and things, at least things are available. You know, the concern really is inside Ukraine where they haven’t had access to their supply chains have been broken and the needs just continued to grow. Although a lot of people have left, obviously millions are still there and in this really vulnerable time they need things more than ever. We definitely know that medicine, medical supplies are incredibly needed and not just for emergency medical care for people who’ve been injured perhaps in a bombardment, but people who have diabetes and heart conditions and all of these chronic condition kinds of medicines are in tremendous need. Certainly food is a major need. And I’ve heard that they’re actually going to stop exporting wheat, which is a major export crop for Ukraine, because they’re afraid about food shortages coming up. And then on top of that, blankets and people that have been displaced needing things that they had to leave behind, because they fled their house and they couldn’t bring their things with them. They need to get new things along the way. So there’s tremendous need inside the country.

Miller: And how much will a group like Mercy Corps be able to operate and be able to operate safely inside Ukraine?

Nelson: That’s a great question, We actually are operating inside Ukraine now and the way that Mercy is going about it, our real strategy is to be working with local organizations and we are doing this not just in Ukraine. It’s something that we do everywhere. We really believe that working with local organizations and local staff is the best way to ensure that we’re really meeting the needs of the people and not coming in with preconceived notions about what they might need or how to do things. So we’ve already set up partnerships in Ukraine as well as in Poland and in Romania, where we are delivering food items. This week we’ve got a medical supply shipment going out from Romania into Ukraine. So there’s a variety of partnerships that we’ve been able to strike that are allowing us to get food into Ukraine. Some of our partners are actually in Ukraine, some are doing cross-border work with us and then our team has gone into the scoping missions, to set up the partnerships. But working with local teams is really the way that we’ve chosen to go forward and I think it’s much more sustainable and much more efficient.

Miller: Over the last couple of decades, you have worked in conflict zones or after natural disasters all over the world. This is an incomplete list: Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Haiti, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m curious what you see as the similarities in terms of what Ukrainian civilians are going through right now and what civilians all around the world go through after natural disasters or after war?

Nelson: I think that’s a great question because the similarities are just so powerful and for me it’s always the parents and their children. In this case, I’m interacting with the mothers because they’re the ones coming out, but no matter where you go, a parent’s love and priority is their child and no matter where I am, I see that. If it’s in Somalia and caring for the children first and always sacrificing for the child. You see this here as well, everything is about making sure my kids get out safely, setting my kids up, parents risking their lives just to ensure that their kids get out of harm’s way. And I think that that’s just something that you see, it’s universal – and we certainly are seeing it here.

Miller: So those are human parallels, but at the same time the level of civil, society infrastructure and of wealth in both Ukraine and its neighbors to the west, it is simply a lot higher than in those other countries I mentioned. How is that mathematical fact affecting the humanitarian response?

Nelson:  You know, it is very different in that way. I would say that because Romania and the neighboring countries are all very developed countries and they have a lot of things that I think that the level of, this sort of generosity… I’m trying to think of the best way to phrase this, but what I’m seeing when I’m in Romania on the border is that the Romanian people have come out to the border, which again, it’s like a 45 minute drive from town and it’s snowing and below zero weather and they’re standing out there all day long greeting the people that are coming in. On International Womens’ Day, yesterday there were kids there, they were handing flowers out to the women as they crossed in. They had these little like, kind of almost like olympic medals that they were putting over the kids, as the kids came in, like they just won a medal. This kind of thing I’ve never seen before in other places because I don’t think that they have the resources. The level of comfort that people experience here to be able to afford to give so much. So that is one thing that’s been really striking here. It’s just really how the people of this whole area have turned up to welcome them in. And it’s been something that’s been very, very beautiful and very striking.

Miller: Cassandra Nelson. Thanks very much for giving us some of your time, at night, in Romania. I appreciate it.

Nelson: Thank you. It’s really a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Miller: Cassandra Nelson is a Ukraine Response Adviser right now for Mercy Corps.