The War Next Door: A Romanian-American View Of The Ukrainian War

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Posted: Aug 19, 2022

Home » The War Next Door: A Romanian-American View Of The Ukrainian War

Roxana Tofan is the owner of Clear Integrity Group in San Antonio, Texas and the company’s principal broker in Texas, Ohio and South Carolina. Her main focus is multi- family commercial brokerage in San Antonio area and property management. She enjoys taking over nonperforming properties and turning them around. She is also a Contributing Editor of the network.. In addition to her company, her passion is giving back to the community as she volunteers for various support organizations such as Boy Scouts of America, Special Olympics, Alzheimer’s Association and supporting the military. She loves to travel with her teenage children and supporting their extra-curricular activities.

I grew up in Romania under the communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. Food was allocated and there were long lines for everything. My parents would wake up early in the morning to get in line for food. The regime would often cut electricity off from citizens without warning. For most part, back then our parents did not tell us about the Secret Police, re-education prisons, the work camps, or the everyday hardships they had to deal with to put food on the table. Periodically we were taken out of school to march in parades and recite poems to the “great leader.”

When I was 9 years old in 1989, people sick of living in oppression overturned Romania’s communist government. I remember lying on my stomach in our apartment with my sister and mom waiting for dad to take us out of town. Bullets were flying in our neighborhood between the police and a military base across the street. I remember days later watching Nicolae Ceausescu’s and his wife Elena’s execution on TV from my grandma’s village where our parents took us for safety. My family and I emigrated to the United States nine years after the revolution for the liberties and opportunities the U.S. offers.

I am proud to live in the U.S. today.  I will always honor having Romanian roots, and deeply appreciative my parents for bringing me to the best country in the world. The American pride, passion, freedoms, opportunities, and liberty to become all you can dream.  It is real. I love this country! Over the last two and a half decades, I remained current on news from Eastern Europe thanks to my dad. My dad used to watch local and world news from Romanian and American TV Stations. I listened to him talk about communism, Vladimir Putin, and the Russia’s untiring propaganda efforts.

When the war in Ukraine hit, it was notable to watch differences in news coverage between American TV stations and European TV stations. Romanian war news was raw and often critical of Russia. Romanian TV shared extra stories highlighting war’s devastation and human suffering.  American TV news coverage on the war was less graphic and specific.  A macro versus micro look. Romania shares a border with Ukraine—a total border of 381 miles, including 181 miles of rivers and 21 miles of the Black Sea.

Well over 12 million Ukrainians have fled their home since the Russian in February. Many went to neighboring Romania. Here, people arrive at the border crossing in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania. They have entered Romania through its four land border checkpoints with Ukraine and also through its checkpoints with Moldova.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 5,237 civilian deaths during Russia’s military attack on Ukraine as of July 24, 2022. Of them, 348 were children. Furthermore, 7,035 people were reported to have been injured. However, they acknowledged that the real numbers were probably higher. Several reports indicate that the Ukrainian government reported 10,000 Ukrainian forces killed, 30,000 wounded and 7,200 missing while US estimates 75,000 Russian and their allied forces killed and wounded.

Perhaps the Romanian perspective is different because this war is too close to home.  And too soon after its 1989 revolt against communism.  Romania has a long history of fighting against Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with Ukraine (January 2003) and Romania (July 2003).  The treaty specifically mapped lines for each state border and included other agreements on friendship and cooperation. Romania is most likely worried that Vladimir Putin will ignore his treaty. Just like he has now done with Ukraine. Romania, as well as neighboring Moldova, has been partially occupied by Russia 10 times since 1711. History matters.

The one saving factor for Romania is that it became a NATO member in 2004 along with Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In 2007, Romania also became a member of the European Union. Ukraine is not a NATO member. No doubt the Ukraine/Russia war has strengthened NATO’s purpose. It has also driven nations like Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership and protection.

I visited Romania this summer and was surprised to listen to the different perspectives that Romanians have on the war. Some were sympathetic and concerned about the war next door.  Some went so far as assisting Ukrainian refugees in Romania. Others downplayed the war suggesting the news coverage was overblown and too one-sided.

One night we sat for dinner with friends.  Three generations of family eating together, including in-laws. “No one ever believed that Putin would have the guts to invade Ukraine in 2022 right under everyone’s nose”, the 86-year-old grandpa and veteran told us.  He was upset and worried that Russia probably has its eyes on Romania next. Across the table, his son-in-law, disagreed: “We have NATO headquarters opening here soon. We will be protected; nothing is going to happen to us.” The veteran, shaking his head continued, “NATO moving headquarters here makes us more of a target, not less. There will be intelligence on the ground amongst us and we won’t even notice. We will go about our day and Russia will continue to find ways to infiltrate our city for intel.”

Perhaps having lived through the hardest of communist times, our veteran friend remembers all too well how bad life was under communism. The conversations continued, as did the contradictions. Romania’s communist history and relationships with Ukraine and Russia influence people’s perspectives on the war. Neither side of the dinner party convinced the other to change viewpoints on the war next door.

Another day, we were joined by a politician who spoke very critically of Ukrainians.  He mainly referenced the fact that Ukraine did not allow Romanians living abroad certain rights. Romanians form the third largest ethnic group in Ukraine, after native Ukrainians and Russians. Ukraine adopted legislation in 2017 blocking education in the Romanian language which damaged relations between Bucharest and Kyiv, the capitals of Romania and Ukraine. Nevertheless, despite decades of tension, Romania’s President has condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine. Romania has also sent weapons and supplies to Ukraine and the country is actively assisting Ukrainian war refugees.

We visited with Adriana and Casian Ciurbe of Sibiu, Romania. (pic 3) They thought back to February 24th of 2022 when news of Russia’s invasion first broke. “I never could have believed that in 2022 just 380 kilometers (240 miles) away from us, Russia would start a war killing kids and women. No one deserves this. We felt like we had to do something— anything! So, after making a bunch of calls to friends and different organizations, Casian and I got in the car and drove to Romania’s Siret border, near Suceava, 8 hours away,” Adriana said. “The place was overwhelming.” Casian continued, “There were many Romanian volunteers and an immense number of Ukrainian women and children that had nowhere to go. There were Romanian nuns that had cooked food and brought it at the border to feed those that were so hungry. There were many Romanian companies that had brought food and water. It was heartbreaking to watch the Ukrainian refugees looking down and overwhelmed and at the same time impressed with all the food, water, supplies they were given for free. They were even able to get food for their dogs and cats. These women brought nothing else with them—only their kids, pets and small bag packs.”

On their way to Suceava, Adriana and Casian received a call from one of their Romanian friends in Vienna who asked if they could pick up her sister-in-law and children at the border. This Vienna friend was worried that the sister-in-law did not want to leave by herself, exposed to propaganda stories that Romanians and Poles were not all good people. There were stories of kidnapping and rapes on Ukrainian children and women at the border. She was trying to arrange some help so her sister-in-law could get out of town and away from the sirens and missiles going off.

So, in addition to taking supplies to the border, they were suddenly picking up 4 families in two cars, and multiple children ages 1 to 13 years old. On the drive back to Sibiu, there were Romanian restaurants along the way offering free food to Ukrainians. When they got to Sibiu, the Ciurbes hosted these families at an extra family apartment. They supplied families with 11 days of food and took them to a local refugee center to help them with other supplies and food.  These refugees were so grateful for the kindness and support, and this temporary sanctuary gave time to collect documents and plan a train trip into Vienna, Austria to meet family for longer-term support.

Before they left, we gave each family $1,500 which was money that one of our cousins in United States raised from friends for Ukrainian refugees. They could not believe that strangers 6,000 miles away sent money to help them during the war. They lost everything back home and there was nothing they could do to rebuild now. Once these families left, we hosted 7 more people who came to Sibiu. They were brought to Sibiu by another local resident who had driven to the border to help other desperate war refugees. We teamed up with people we did not even know just to help,” shared Adriana.

This entire time, Adriana and her husband communicated with refugees via Google Translate. When we visited Sibiu in June, Adriana took us to the refugee center where she had not been in two months. She was shocked at how depleted the center was compared to February 2022.  Donations weren’t arriving as they were before. The economy was very different. Gas and everything else was more expensive. She said,“We witnessed several Ukrainian families still ‘shopping’ at the refugee center. Despite lower supplies levels, the shelter still had oil, flour, diapers, toiletries, food, clothes, strollers, blankets, sheets, vegetables, fruit, milk, car seats, toys, beans, pet food, and bread. Refugees were asked to record items they selected on a clipboard but were free to take anything they needed. As we walked to the car and drove away, we saw a young Ukrainian woman, probably in her late twenties or early thirties walking away from the center.  She had two large bags on her shoulder, weighted down with supplies and looking down at her cell phone, crying. No doubt it was more bad news from the home or the war.  It was emotional to watch her situation and pain.”

We heard about a young Romanian millionaire in Suceava, right at the border, who owned a hotel and opened it to over 7,000 Ukrainian refugees.  He offered free transportation, food, and housing. The Romanian government was encouraging companies to donate to refugee efforts by providing a 2% equivalent tax break in return. We heard several stories of Romanian volunteers that stayed in airports and train stations to help. Every day Romanians were and are still doing all they can do to help. The war is simply too close to home.

We spent a month in Romania, mostly in the Sibiu area; however, we did take trips to surrounding areas like Brasov and Bran Castle. Just over 200 miles away, Putin was continuing his war and relentless pursuit to bring Ukraine back under Russian control.  Looking close enough, we could see evidence that the war wasn’t too far away.  We saw tanks and military vehicles being transported, refugees and open refugee centers. There were many signs throughout Romania showing support to Ukraine. But even with a war next door, most Romanians continue life as normal. Going to work, school, festivals, and other activities as if nothing is out of the ordinary.  And nothing is different in life.  At least not yet.

As Americans live across the world more than 5,700 miles away, Ukrainians have bravely spent the last six months defending their country from the Russian invasion. This has caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 6.4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country. According to United Nations more than a third of the population is displaced. The invasion has resulted in devasting civilian casualties, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and global food shortages.

My view of the war is a blend of American and Romanian perspectives. I was born and raised in Romania for 18 years; but I’ve enjoyed the last 24 years in the United States enjoying the freedoms and opportunities that American citizenship provides. Consequences of this Ukrainian/Russian war have more significant and immediate impacts in European countries today. Location matters. But the longer this war continues, the more global the negative effects on the entire world’s stability and economies. There are several observations from my Romanian trip worth pointing out:

  • There are multiple views of war in Romania. Views differ based on history, religion, and personal backgrounds.
  • This war has more losers than winners.  Ukrainians are losing because of the ongoing deaths and violence. Russia and Ukraine are both losing thousands of lives. And the world is losing because the war is bringing an increasingly unstable economic and security environment.
  • Ukrainian refugees arrive with different needs. Some arrive with resources like money and vehicles; others arrive with just a few personal items.
  • After seven months of war, Ukrainian refugees are still fleeing to other countries for safety.

—Inflation and the current economic environment all around the world is negatively impacting refugee support efforts and donations.   

  • Helping the war’s most vulnerable victims (women, children, and the elderly), is morally right, provides life changing help for those in need, and is gratifying for those able to assist and provide support.  

I am thankful. We live in the best country in the world where safety, democracy and opportunities are at the core of our nation. Our freedoms aren’t earned but granted when we are born or when we become citizens. As Americans, the war in Ukraine is somewhat removed and out of view. Unlike Romania and other Eastern European countries, Americans don’t see refugees every day. We don’t have military equipment clogging our highways on the way to a war zone. And we don’t have neighbors who are driving to borders to assist refugees who have lost everything. It is hard to imagine how we might react as Americans in this same type of situation.   

Hard to believe in 2022, the world is mostly watching a new historic war in Europe. The Ukraine/Russia war’s ripple effects are already felt in neighboring countries. And those effects likely will go on for years to come. Only two countries are directly involved now, but it should worry everyone that no one knows how or when this war will end. Or if it will it expand. If this spreads into any NATO country, it could lead to World War III.  It has been heartbreaking to watch— from near or far. Women and children are being bombed out of their homes, killed or forced to leave their homes and country. It is my hope this war will stop soon, before more lives are lost and more people are displaced. Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine should be unacceptable to us all.

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