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Michigan aid worker, originally from Romania, returns to help Ukrainian refugees

Samaritas aid worker Mihaela Mitrofan is on a humanitarian mission in Dej, Romania, which is about 80 miles south of the Romanian-Ukrainian border. She says the city of roughly 38,000 has welcomed 60 Ukrainian refugees so far.
Mihaela Mitrofan
Samaritas aid worker Mihaela Mitrofan is on a humanitarian mission in Dej, Romania, which is about 80 miles south of the Romanian-Ukrainian border. She says the city of roughly 38,000 has welcomed 60 Ukrainian refugees so far.

As Russia's attacks on Ukraine rage on, Ukrainians continue to flee their country. According to the United Nations refugee agency, more than 5.7 million Ukrainians have left since the war began in February, and more than 850,000 of them have entered Romania.

Samaritas is a Christian aid organization based in Michigan. Mihaela Mitrofan is the director of the Samaritas refugee resettlement program in Southeast Michigan. In late April, Mitrofan traveled to Romania on a humanitarian mission. She joined Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou from the Romanian city of Dej.

Doug Tribou: Ukraine and Romania share a border that's a little under 400 miles long. Dej is about 80 miles from that border. What are you seeing there?

Mihaela Mitrofan: The city of Dej, which is relatively small, they welcomed approximately 60 individuals. I see a great community that are doing their part. They are volunteering, donating clothing [and] food. They help in any way they can.

DT: What have you been working on since you arrived in Romania?

MM: Monday I spent a full day meeting with dignitaries from the Romanian government and we had rich conversations about what the Romanian government has done and plans to continue to do to welcome Ukrainian refugees and assist them.

The second day was a day of travel, so I stopped first in the city of Cluj-Napoca, where I interviewed a Ukrainian woman. She escaped by a miracle. She was doing chemotherapy and she was placed in a house [in Romania] that hosts patients and their caregivers. They offer lodging, food and also the transportation assistance to the hospital that treats her. She was very grateful to be able to pick up her treatment very quickly.

DT: What else did she have to say about having to leave, setting aside the issue of her health, but just about leaving her country in such a difficult situation?

MM: She was completely devastated. I mean, between sobbing and tears, she was able to share with me that she was a professor at a highly ranked university. She pretty much realized that she had to just pack up what she was able to grab in a matter of minutes. And of course, her heart aches for her family, for her friends, and just leaving everything behind.

In this video update from her aid trip, Mihaela Mitrofan features a Romanian citizen working to help Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war in their country.

DT: What would you say the biggest needs are right now for the people who have come into Romania?

MM: Language is a barrier, so the community here expressed some challenges identifying interpreters. However, having some Ukrainians travel across the border to help their own people who are resettling here, it's just a wonderful thing that I'm seeing. Other needs include food, clothing, diapers, personal care items and of course, some guidance.

Long-term mental health needs are there. People are struggling with what they've witnessed, what they heard. Very, very heart-wrenching stories.

DT: Mihaela, I want to mention that this trip has a personal aspect for you. You're originally from Romania and left to come to the United States in the 1990s, during a time that was filled with upheaval and change in Romania. What is it like for you to be back there all these years later under these incredibly difficult circumstances?

MM: It's a realization that probably my 25 years of developing my career in refugee resettlement in the United States prepared me for a time like this, when I know I have the language, the culture. Preparing for this trip seems so natural and easy in a way. However, very sad. It was sad to return to my country for such a mission.

More than 850,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered Romania since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Mihaela Mitrofan
More than 850,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered Romania since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

DT: You and I last spoke at a Michigan Radio Issues and Ale panel discussion about the Afghan refugees who had started arriving here in Michigan last year. Samaritas was one of the organizations working to help them. What do you expect to see in Michigan and other parts of the U.S. as more Ukrainians continue to flee while their country's future is so uncertain?

MM: [The] United States is a country of welcome, and we do hope that continues to be there for Ukrainian refugees. We receive many inquiries, many offers for for help, for volunteering. So we are looking forward to engaging with them very closely and creating circles of welcome, which will help Ukrainians find some familiarity in in the receiving community.

DT: I know from our past conversations that the refugee process is often a long one — often taking several years for people to receive a full designation and to end up in their permanent new home.

Would you expect that there could be a more accelerated path for Ukrainians as there was for some Afghan refugees because of the situation in their country being so urgent and dire?

MM: The United States announced the plan to receive 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. However, we are a bit disappointed that that full number might not be through the refugee resettlement program, which we believe offers the more appropriate resources needed to support refugees.

DT: And just to be clear, the issue that you're getting at is that refugee status or maybe waiving some of the regular screening process, would give people the most firm footing as they arrive, rather than putting them through a different program to bring them into the country.

MM: Yeah, that's the big conversation. I mean, they need to be rescued quickly and the typical refugee resettlement program takes some time.

DT: I know that you have several more days left in your trip. What else do you have planned for your time in Romania?

MM: We are finalizing our purchasing of food donations, toiletries, personal care items, and medical supplies, and we will prepare for our trip to Ukraine — packing four vans. You know, big, utility-type of vans. We will pack those as full as we can. We'll be going to the city of Chernivtsi. However, from that point, the supplies will be distributed in the areas which are more impacted.

DT: Mihaela, thanks so much for your time and safe travels on the rest of your trip.

MM: Thank you for having me, Doug.

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

Copyright 2022 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in June 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.