Bartosz Gawarecki, 29, of the Lansing area, is the founder of The Friends of Moldova, a registered Michigan nonprofit that has recently restructured itself to assist with the over 330,000 (and growing) mostly women and children refugees from Ukraine. Gawarecki and his original board, mostly Return Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV), had initially formed the nonprofit to help Moldovans. Moldova, a very small country tucked between Ukraine and Romania, is actually the poorest in Europe – but as Moldovans believe, it is a small country with a lot of heart.
Gawarecki grew up in East Lansing, Haslett and Okemos, graduating from Okemos High School and continuing his education at Michigan State University before joining the Peace Corps. When interviewing him via Google Meet on Monday, March 14, he was in Berlin, Germany, preparing for a return trip to Moldova by car because he can’t currently fly in. His plan was to fill the vehicle with as many basic necessities as possible, knowing the desperate state of refugees that are crossing the border daily.
Over recent years, Gawarecki has gone from Lansing to the Peace Corps in Moldova and then back to Lansing. Now, he is again returning to Moldova to help with direct operations.
“Honestly, I’ve always really wanted to do something of service,” he shared, explaining what inspired him to join the Peace Corps. “I always wanted to experience a new culture. My background is Polish and I always wanted to live in Eastern Europe somewhere in my mind, so when I applied for the Peace Corps, there were six options and one happened to be in Moldova.”
Gawarecki stated he has been involved in community efforts since he was a teen as an Eagle Scout and volunteering at Sparrow.
Following 3.5 years in Moldova, he returned to Michigan and started a homecare company working with refugees in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. He started The Friends of Moldova as a “passion project.”
“There is such a strong connection in Moldova for me. I’m a godfather there to a little girl and there are several host families I’m really close with,” he stated.
Moldova has roughly 4 million people, though loosely only about 2.5 million are permanent. Following the influx of Ukrainian refugees, the small country has seen at least a 10 percent increase in population in a two-week period. The average Moldovan has a salary of $200 to $300 per month. That stated, the American dollar can go much further there than in the states, leading up to why monetary donations to assist are crucial.
Recognizing he is representing a nonprofit, Gawarecki was understandably careful about offering a political stance on Russia and the war, but he did share he just can’t imagine over 2.5 million women and children having to abruptly say goodbye to husbands, fathers, grandparents and even sons and leave for a “stampede to get to the border.” Men currently can’t leave Ukraine and many older people have stayed behind, too, since travel is difficult.
Gawarecki said that the average person arriving at the Moldovan border has to wait at least 24-hours in frigid cold temperatures – following the trauma of loosing their homes, hopes and dreams.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis. Imagine being stuck in Lansing or Detroit and you are surrounded and any attempt to evacuate is not possible. There is no safe way out. Civilians are being shot at or shelled. Children’s hospitals are being bombed. This is what people are trying to run away from,” he said.
The most effective ways to help – and help quickly – according to Gawarecki, are through donations, reading multiple independent news sources to stay informed and to immediately contact politicians.
“Just $1 donated today can be transferred to Moldova and used tomorrow,” he explained. All proceeds go toward helping Ukrainian refugees with basic necessities like food, water, hygiene products, clothes and essentials. As president, all of his work is voluntary. Everyone associated with Friends of Moldova are volunteers. The only overhead associated with the donations is from bank wiring fees.
“What’s really startling and sobering is that major organizations like UNHCR (a UN agency), Save the Children and the Red Cross have not appeared in Moldova with the exception of one UNHCR person on the ground,” he stated. “The big cavalry has not shown up yet.”
Regarding the Moldovan government, he explained that 1 in 8 children in Moldova is now a refugee. The government is trying to help, but there is nothing like FEMA in Moldova, so it is a grounds-up effort.
As Ukrainian women and children flood in, most of them are staying with Moldovan families or at churches or other small organizations. “It’s as grassroots as it can get,” Gawarecki said.
“It’s just crazy, you know. You see kids with just nothing. The heartbreak of saying goodbye to a father or brother or grandparents. All these communities, just gone and wiped out,” he offered.
As of Monday, March 14, The Friends of Moldova had brought in $160,000 in donations to help 36 shelters in the country with the Ukrainian impact. More is needed, shared Gawarecki.
“Just $20 can provide food for several days for one person,” he said.
To find out more about Friends of Moldova or help with donations, which are tax deductible, visit thefriendsofmoldova.com or https://thefriendsofmoldova.com/#ukrainerefugeerelief. Other information, which is regularly updated, is available on Facebook under The Friends of Moldova.