In Moldova, a Ukrainian refugee works 70 hours a week and dreams of returning to Odessa

  • Nearly 100,000 Ukrainians have settled in neighboring Moldova since the war began.

  • Moldova had a labor shortage before the war, with companies there eager to hire refugees.

  • One Ukrainian told Insider about her life in the country and why she's working so hard to go home.

CHISINAU, Moldova — Polina fled Odessa the same day that Russia started bombing Ukraine.

Taking refuge in the capital of Moldova, she now lives in a tiny two-bedroom apartment with her father, her sister, and her sister's husband and child. She said she likes this country that she never visited prior to the war — most people here also speak Russian — but she's eager to go back home. Like most Ukrainian refugees, she's planning on it.

"It's a little expensive, but if you came here of your own free will it would be a good country to live in," she said of her adopted nation, where nearly 100,000 people like her now live, during a break at the coffee shop where she works 12 hours a day, four days a week. When she's not making espresso, Polina, 18, is usually working at an upscale flower shop down the street.

"Overall it's okay," she said. Most people are welcoming, even if she doesn't speak Romanian, the official language in this bilingual nation.

There have been uncomfortable moments, though. Early on she went to a center that was distributing food for refugees. "You have an expensive phone," she said one person working there told her. "Why don't you just sell it and buy food?"

If Polina has any other complaint, it's about her own country and how the media there, in her view, is airing too much "hate speech," too often failing to distinguish between the Russian people and their government.

"I work with a few Russians here," she said, "and I don't hate them."

line at coffee shop
People wait to order at Poetry Coffeeshop in Chisinau, Moldova.Charles Davis/Insider

Working 70 hours a week at service jobs in a foreign country is not what she had planned for her life three months ago.

Back in the port city where she was born, Polina was in college, studying biology. Still, it beats hanging out in the apartment and worrying about her grandparents and mother who are still in Odessa, unwilling to abandon their home (they couldn't come, anyway: "There would be no place for them to sleep.")

"I wanted to go back for Easter," Polina said, but she had to work. "I cannot take too many days off," she explained. Besides, "It's still risky."

The day after speaking to Insider, a Russian attack on a residential building in Odessa, just an hour's drive from the Moldova border, killed eight people.

Still, that's where she wants to be. That she might not be able to go back is not a thought she is entertaining. It's why she's working, finding a job two weeks after her arrival, waiting half a day in line at the immigration office for the identification number she needs to do so legally. She started working at the cafe a day after her interview.

It's all to prepare for a future life that isn't in Moldova — and is far from guaranteed.

"When I get back, I will need money to live for a while, because I don't have a job lined up in Odessa," she said.

Andrei Ruso provided translation services.

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