War in Ukraine - "Allowing children to be children again"
UNICEF is on the ground in Ukraine, working to reach children in need. Gregor von Medeazza, who serves as the Emergency Coordinator in the Republic of Moldova, shares his experience
Gregor von Medeazza served as Emergency Coordinator for the Ukraine Refugee Response in the Republic of Moldova. He has been with UNICEF for 13 years, and the last 3 and a half, he is the Deputy Representative (Programme) in UNICEF's Namibia Country Office.
Here, he talks about his work - and the poignant moments when children are safe again after a traumatic and stressful escape.
On the second day of the war, our UNICEF Moldova Team drove directly to the border to distribute the first emergency supplies, assess the situation and determine what the refugees needed most, while setting up Moldova’s very first "Blue Dots", a place where children can be safe after a traumatic and stressful escape.
Usually, I work in Namibia as UNICEF Deputy Representative. Right now, however, I'm deployed as part of the international emergency response team in Moldova with the task of coordinating our emergency response and supporting the WASH (Water, sanitation, and hygiene) efforts for Ukrainian refugees. This is one of UNICEF's great strengths: that in such an acute humanitarian situation we can - as an Organization - very quickly deploy experts from all over the world to support our country offices and children who need us most.
UNICEF’s immediate response
I would divide our work and the refugee situation in Moldova into two phases. In the first days of the war, the number of refugees was very high, peaking at 30,000 people entering the country every day. The first priority was to immediately dispatch emergency supplies and provide initial humanitarian assistance to refugee children and families, while setting up the required systems and service structures very quickly. On the second day of the war, our UNICEF Moldova team drove directly to the border to distribute the first emergency supplies, assess the situation and determine what the refugees needed most.
Also, we set up Moldova’s very first "Blue Dots". Jointly established by UNICEF and UNHCR together with local authorities and partners, ‘Blue Dots’ are safe spaces that provide children and families with critical information and services, and they are the first thing a Ukrainian family coming across the border see.
We are currently in the second phase of the response, both scaling up the preparedness in view of possible further escalation in Ukraine, while expanding the scope and strengthening the depth of our assistance to the refugees across Moldova. This means that we actually always have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Tens of thousands of refugees could arrive here within a few hours. The city of Mariupol, where the humanitarian situation is catastrophic, is also not far away.
Safe at last: allowing children to be children again
In my own experience, the Blue Dot is a place where children can be safe for the first time after sometimes traumatic experiences and often an extremely stressful escape. For children, Blue Dots provide a safe, warm, welcoming space to rest and play, at a time when their world has been abruptly turned upside down in fear and panic, and they are facing the trauma of leaving family, friends and all that is familiar.
Now spring is slowly starting to arrive, but in the mornings and evenings the temperatures in Palanca, for example, still drop to zero degrees. For me as a father with young children, it is heart-warming and at the same time impressive to experience how these children can be children again. In one "Blue Dot" I met two Ukrainian girls. They had just met, were from different cities and different socio-economic and ethnic background and had promptly become friends that day. You could tell they had been through a lot, but here they had a space to relax and play. For me as a dad, this is worth all the effort that emergency relief work for UNICEF often entails. It's those precious moments of relief for a child who has been through so much, and the opportunity to be a child again amidst all the chaos, loss and grief.
We have also deployed child protection experts at the border crossings. They work with the border police and are on high alert look out not only for potential child trafficking, but also for unaccompanied and separated children, checking identification documents to review if children are crossing the border alone or without parents.
Leaving no one behind
In the largest Refugee Accommodation Center in Moldova, MoldEXPO, I met a Roma family with five children under the age of twelve. Ezmeralda, the mother, told us that their family was struggling with a legal issue. They didn't have the proper paperwork needed to cross the border into the EU. They had walked and hitchhiked hundreds of miles to get to Moldova from the devastated city of Mariupol. Now they were stuck in this limbo and didn't know what their options were.
This showed me again how paramount it is for us to provide a whole range of services in a holistic way: from child protection, nutrition, social protection, education, water, sanitation and hygiene, to referral for assistance with legal issues. Some of the refugees, about nine percent, are not Ukrainian but belong to other nationalities. While providing acute emergency supplies, access to information and essential services, UNICEF’s objective is to ensure that no one is left behind, and that the most vulnerable children benefit from the same entitlements and are guaranteed the same rights.
For me as a father with young children, it is heart-warming and at the same time impressive to experience how these children can be children again. This is worth all the effort that emergency relief work for UNICEF often entails. It's those precious moments of relief for a child who has been through so much, and the opportunity to be a child again amidst all the chaos, loss and grief.
A small country, enormous solidarity
The war in Ukraine is an unbearable tragedy, and a child protection disaster. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and now has the highest per capita rate of refugees. Despite the dire situation, it is uplifting to see the solidarity and compassion with which Moldova, its people and the thousands of volunteers involved have been welcoming the refugees here: it is genuine boost to our Humanity. I feel truly inspired by the courage and dignity of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. As UNICEF, we are now working on integrating the refugee families and children here in Moldova, enabling them to attend school, to access the national health services and social system, and supporting them with financial aid.
I hope from the bottom of my heart, with every day that passes, witnessing the atrocities of the war for hundreds of thousands of children and families, that peace will finally come to Ukraine. We owe it to every child.
At the time this story was being published, Gregor informed us that he had completed his surge deployment in Moldova and safely returned to his Duty Station.
Considering the urgent need to scale up our emergency response in Ukraine and neighboring countries, we are urgently looking for dedicated staff to bolster our response in all areas of our work.
While UNICEF is scaling up efforts to support children and their families fleeing the war in Ukraine, we remain present in humanitarian emergencies around the world, committed to continue the delivery of critical life-saving support to children and young people.