The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Sebastian Tirtirau knew he had to help the refugees flooding over borders to the west of the country, into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.
For Tirtirau, who worked at The Flight Centre in Maple Ridge from 2015 to 2017 while living in Coquitlam, charitable work is in his blood, and so he returned to his birth country of Romania to help. And the stories he has heard from talking with refugees fleeing the war are heartbreaking.
Romanians, he explained, have a great connection culturally 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 been working in the humanitarian field since 1994. His parents house is only 70 km away from the border with Ukraine.
This war has forced young mothers and children to leave on a moment’s notice with only a little bag of belongings and no money, he said. They have left their husbands behind to fight and suddenly find themselves in a strange place.
“And I’ve been in strange places in my life, so I know exactly how they feel,” said Tirtirau, wholeft home at the age of 24 for South Africa. In 1996, he made his way to the Kalahari Desert where he spent time with the San tribe from the King Bushmen. He spent the following years travelling to the Amazon jungles of Guyana, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela. He has been to the Arctic and also travelled the islands of Vanuatu, the Congo, Chile, Bhutan, Japan, and Siberia.
Tirtirau founded a non-profit charitable organization called Pilgrim Relief Society in 2000.
Now he is in Africa helping orphaned children – in Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Congo, and Angola – funding tuition costs for children to access education, creating sustainable food production, building sports facilities and trades 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 charitable organization at that border crossing was to register with the border command centre so border guards knew who they were. Then they secured badges to clearly identify themselves to refugees and found interpreters.
Refugees, he explained, are first met at the border by border police and local firefighters who find out where they are planning to go. Those with no destination plans are referred to Tirtirau.
Sometimes the team has had to travel inside Ukraine, as far as Chernivtsi, to pick up children travelling alone because their fathers have had to stay back and fight. They have helped them with their paperwork, but once over the border any minors are transferred over to specific agencies with child refugees. They make sure they are safe, said Tirtirau, because there are still lots of “sharks” who deal 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 countries across Western Europe, in addition to Canada.
They helped them with Visa applications, accommodation, transportation, food, and medical attention.
He described how a young mother, 33-years-old with two boys, one 5-years-old and the other eight, completely broke down when she passed over the border.
“Our hearts were completely broken by her expression,” he said.
So they told firefighters at the border that they would take care of her and found out that she was trying to make her way to Lisbon, Portugal, where her friend from university was living. Tirtirau and his team put her up in a hotel and helped her with airfare, and she flew out the following day.
But, Tirtirau said, the most heartbreaking was when he was driving another family through Romania and they saw some smoke on the horizon. The children dove to the floor of his car thinking it was a bomb.
“That’s how traumatized those kids were,” he said.
All of the families they have helped they have stayed in contact with to make sure they reached their final destination safely, and register with the proper government authorities to receive whatever supports are available.
And, he added, the refugees coming over the border have absolutely nothing.
“You can imagine a mother grabbing a little bag and the two kids in the last minute before their apartment is blown away and then sitting in a subway station for three days and then running away to the basement of a kindergarten for three days. And then walking for a week in the cold,” because, he said, when they first arrived at the border the temperature was about minus 20 C.
Tirtirau returned mid-April to Africa to tend to his charitable work there and returned again to Romania on May 2.
He noted the flood of refugees is diminishing. 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 purpose is to save as many Ukrainians as possible with the resources he has. He said he has made 200 new friends who will either start a new life in a new place – or when the war is over return and rebuild their country.
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