The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Sebastian Tirtirau knew he had to help refugees crossing the country’s western borders into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
For Tirtirau, who worked at the Flight Center in Maple Ridge from 2015 to 2017 while living in Coquitlam, charity work is in his blood, so he returned to his native Romania to help. And the stories he has heard talking to refugees fleeing war are heartbreaking.
Romanians, he explained, have a great cultural connection with Ukrainians.
“We have a lot of Romanians living in southern Ukraine and they have Ukrainians living in northern Romania,” said the Toronto resident, who has worked in the humanitarian field since 1994. His parents’ home n t is only 70 km from the border with Ukraine. .
This war forced young mothers and children to leave at short notice with only a small bag of goods and no money, he said. They left their husbands behind to fight and suddenly find themselves in a strange place.
“And I’ve been to weird places in my life, so I know exactly how they feel,” Tirtirau said.
He who left home at 24 for South Africa. In 1996 he traveled to the Kalahari Desert where he spent time with the San Tribe of King Bushmen. He spent the next few years traveling the Amazon jungles of Guyana, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. He traveled to the Arctic and also toured the islands of Vanuatu, Congo, Chile, Bhutan, Japan and Siberia.
Tirtirau founded a non-profit charity organization called Pilgrim Relief Society In 2000.
He is now in Africa helping orphaned children – in Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Congo and Angola – by funding children’s school fees to access education, creating sustainable food production, building sports facilities and trade schools, and installing solar-powered water systems.
But on February 24, he found himself having to make the decision to return to Romania and he arrived at the border on March 4 with a team, including his brother who lives in Montreal.
The first thing they did as the only Canadian charity at this border crossing was to register with the border command center so the border guards knew who they were. Then they obtained badges to clearly identify themselves to the refugees and found interpreters.
Refugees, he explained, are first met at the border by local border police and firefighters who find out where they plan to go. Those who do not have a destination plan are referred to Tirtirau.
Sometimes the team had to travel inside Ukraine, as far as Chernivtsi, to pick up children traveling alone because their fathers had to stay behind and fight. They helped them with their papers, but once they cross the border, all the minors are transferred to specific agencies with refugee children. They are looking out for their safety, Tirtirau said, because there are still plenty of “sharks” involved in human trafficking.
By the end of April, Tirtirau and his team had helped more than 200 families flee Ukraine and reach safety in six Western European countries, in addition to Canada.
They helped them with visa applications, accommodation, transportation, food and medical care.
He described how a 33-year-old mother with two boys, one aged 5 and the other eight, completely collapsed when she crossed the border.
“Our hearts were completely broken by her expression,” he said.
So they told the fire brigade at the border that they would take care of her and found out that she was trying to get to Lisbon, Portugal, where her college friend was living. Tirtirau and his team put her up in a hotel and helped her pay for her plane ticket, and she flew out the next day.
But, Tirtirau said, the most heartbreaking was when he was driving another family through Romania and they saw smoke on the horizon. The kids dove on the floor of his car thinking it was a bomb.
“That’s how traumatized these kids were,” he said.
All of the families they have helped have stayed in contact with them to ensure that they have reached their final destination safely and are registering with the relevant government authorities to receive any assistance available.
And, he added, refugees crossing the border have absolutely nothing.
“You can imagine a mother grabbing a small bag and the two children at the last minute before their apartment is swept away, then sitting in a subway station for three days, then fleeing to the basement of a garden of “kids for three days. And then walk for a week in the cold,” because, he said, when they arrived at the border, the temperature was around minus 20°C.
Tirtirau returned mid-April to Africa to take care of his charity work there and returned to Romania again on May 2.
He noted that the flow of refugees was decreasing. At one point they were seeing 10,000 to 20,000 refugees a day and now they are seeing about 10,000 a week.
Tirtirau’s main objective is to save as many Ukrainians as possible with the resources he has. He said he had made 200 new friends who will either start a new life in a new place – or, once the war is over, will come back and rebuild their country.
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