The Importance of Dreams and Empathy:
Reflections on my trip to Romania
May 24, 2023// Written by Cecilia Tresoldi
At the beginning of May, I had the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, where I met our colleagues from FDP – Protagonisti in Educatie, as well as the Ukrainian refugees and local host families they serve. These encounters reminded me of Netflix’s biographical drama “The Swimmers,” the true story of Yusra and Sara Mardini, two Syrian swimmers who, in 2015, fled the war by swimming a rough Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece and then had a strenuous journey through Europe to seek asylum in Germany.
Migration, and especially asylum-seeking, is a complex social, political, and economic phenomenon, but explaining ideologies is not the focus of my piece. As I was exposed to these stories, I felt a heavy weight on my stomach, their challenges seem unbearable. As I processed my own experience, I found hope in two redeeming traits of human nature: the power of dreams and empathy.
In the movie, as their friends perish and bombs destroy everything, Yusra and Sara decide to leave their hometown to follow their dream: to continue to safely train and eventually compete in the Olympics. Yulia, Sveta, Snezhana, Anna, and all the women that I met in Romania left for one reason only: their children’s safety. At the beginning of the war, all of them wanted to stay home, hoping that the war would pass. The constant sirens and the endless days spent in the basements or even trenches as the shelling got closer and closer made leaving the only possible way forward. Alone, with one child in one arm and their phone in the other, these women heroically took a train to the next foreign country. The unknown, the loneliness, and the upcoming trials did not stop them, as their love for their children was stronger than any fear.
Journeys always come to an end. The Mardini sisters arrive in Berlin. Yusra looks for a trainer to help them prepare for the Olympics. She finds Sven, who sees her admirable perseverance, lets them join his swim team, and even finds them an alternative home to the crowded temporary shelters. For Yusra, life starts again, one step closer to her dream. As the Ukrainian women shared their stories with me, they were moved to tears when they told me about the generosity of the Romanian people. The moment they reached the border, teams of volunteers gave them food and hot tea. “I was in the supermarket talking to another Ukrainian lady. A man heard me and put some money in my bag. I told him I didn’t need it, but he insisted I should keep it,” Yulia told me. Romanians themselves are struggling, but they go above and beyond to provide all the support needed by refugees. From the towns at the border, these women moved to Bucharest, where they kept in touch with our colleagues, who helped them find a stable housing solution. To date, they continue to accompany them, promoting integration activities, and providing Romanian classes, and psychosocial support.
Dona Maria, the Ukrainian translator at FDP, who is a refugee herself, confided: “These women still need so much help. The other night, Nadia’s son was so sick that he needed urgent care. However, she cannot speak Romanian, at 2 AM, she called and asked me to fetch an ambulance.”
Spoiler alert: ultimately, Yusra made it to the Olympics. To date, Ukrainian moms, too, have found “peace” and a support network. Despite the nostalgia, their children feel increasingly more integrated into their new city, while mothers have acquired a newfound sense of confidence and empowerment. The attentive gaze of FDP’s social workers and their tireless availability to accompany them as they navigate a foreign system has proven to be lifesaving. Anna told me: “I went back to Ukraine for a funeral. As we were traveling, my son fainted, and nobody helped me. People are under so much pressure back home that they’ve lost their ability to show love. I have never felt this way in Romania, people have been nothing but caring.”
Feel compelled to also help? FDP is a Romanian non-profit that relies on the contributions of generous donors. Each donation helps social workers run activities, which are completely free for refugees. If you wish to learn more about their work and how to sustain it, explore the links below.