'Running for their lives, without even a toothbrush' - a community nurse at a refugee centre in Romania shares her experiences

In the newly established refugee centre – a converted gymnasium in Darabani, Romania – Maria Răpciugă greets refugees as they arrive from Ukraine. These are people who have lost their homes and livelihoods and face an uncertain future and numerous risks to their health. Maria has put on hold her usual role as a community nurse to provide new arrivals from Ukraine with health checks, food and drink and basic supplies.

Most of those that Maria has seen in Darabani are families with children, though there are also many older people.

“When we have people with health problems, we call a local family doctor who offered to help us,” says Maria. “For example, a 73 year-old woman arrived here and, after measuring her blood pressure, I noticed it was very high, so I immediately called the doctor. He prescribed medication, and I went to the pharmacy to buy it, using local authority funds. We’ve also received donations of medicines from local pharmacies.”

The refugee centre is providing hot drinks and breakfast to the arrivals, and the local community quickly mobilized itself to offer food and support with accommodation, blankets, diapers, towels and toiletries.

“I noticed that many of the refugees don’t even have toothbrushes and toothpaste, but I imagine that when you have to flee from home and run for your life, a toothbrush and socks is the last thing you’re thinking about,” says Maria. “Some people also arrive with their pets – cats and dogs – so we provide pet food. I can totally understand why they’d want to bring their pets with them.”

Unfortunately, the language barrier is a problem for many of the staff at the refugee centre. With only one interpreter, refugees are forced to mime their needs. Staff often rely on Google Translate. Maria says they urgently need Ukrainian translators and printed materials in Ukrainian containing basic information about refugees’ rights and health information.

“Some of them cry and tell us about how they heard explosions in Kyiv, what a shock it was for them. We comfort them as much as we can – holding their hands, giving them a hug,” says Maria. “They need some sort of psychological counselling, to support them, in their language.”

Maria is determined to work at the centre for as long as is needed but already the work is taking its toll on her.

“I find it difficult to believe that this situation is actually happening. I feel very tired – physically and emotionally. Yesterday I was pleased that the refugees had food, but when I arrived home, I realized I hadn’t gone shopping to give my own children something to eat. I have to take care of my family too.”

The emergency in Ukraine is having a massive impact in the surrounding countries. Romania’s Defence Minister, Vasile Dîncu, has said that Romania is prepared to receive more than 500 000 refugees. WHO is working hand-in-hand with Romanian authorities to ensure the health system is able to cope with the influx of refugees and ensure people on the move have access to health services as needed.