Arriving in Moldova
I’ve arrived in Moldova, where over 460,000 people from Ukraine have also arrived - but their reasons could not be further from mine. It's hard to fully comprehend just how many people this is. For Moldova, it's the equivalent of almost 1 in 5 people being a Ukrainian refugee. Many of those seeking refuge are doing so to protect their children – indeed it’s reported that half of those who have arrived are children.
As an immediate response to the war in Ukraine, Lumos launched an emergency fundraising appeal at the end of February. Since then, we’ve raised over £1 million to help some of the most vulnerable children and families in the region. We’ve supported emergency foster families who have taken in children, and helped the government to relocate at-risk children to safer areas. We’ve assessed the urgent needs of children and families and provided essential aid in the form of food, medicine and hygiene supplies, as well as psychological counselling.
Working both in Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova, we’ve had to pivot from our work promoting alternative care and demonstrating how children can be moved out of institutions to live at home with families, instead responding urgently to where the need is the greatest. Keeping families together remains our driving force – unfortunately war is one of the leading causes of family separation, so our work is more critical than ever. My visit comes as we move from our more immediate response to planning our longer-term work in relation to the war. I am here to review how we can work with other partners and best support the governments of both Ukraine and Moldova to ensure that children, especially refugees and those trapped in institutions, do not become the invisible victims of this crisis.
Perhaps one of the extraordinary things to come out of this crisis is the speed at which individuals and organisations have come to work together. I met with the Lumos team in Moldova, who’ve been working tirelessly to respond to the ever-increasing numbers of refugees crossing the border from Ukraine. At the time of writing, 468,998 refugees have entered the country - an estimated half of them are children. Some of them left their homes with only the clothes on their backs, and their immediate needs are for food, clothes and somewhere to sleep. Some are passing through, on their way to other countries, but many are staying in Moldova, and as they begin to adjust to their new lives in a new country, they need longer-term support. Access to child protection, health and education services – services that so many of us take for granted – are not guaranteed. Any country would struggle with such a huge increase in its population – for the poorest country in Europe, urgent assistance is required.
We’ve been working with the government, local authorities and other NGOs to support Moldova. During my visit I was pleased to meet with representatives from Hope and Homes for Children and UNICEF (pictured) to share information about our work and to discuss how we can continue to work together, particularly in the context of the inter-agency Education Working Group. How can we ensure these unprecedented numbers of children in the country have access to appropriate education? What kind of education services can and should be delivered within this context? How can we ensure that children have access to inclusive education services that cater to specific needs?
The war does not mean that we can stop our ongoing work in Moldova developing inclusive education or supporting the transformation of the residential childcare system. Lumos has been working in the country since 2008, when there were almost 12,000 children living in institutions. Since then we’ve worked with national and local authorities and other partners to support many of these children to return home to their families, and we’ve been able to prevent almost 10,000 more from entering orphanages and other institutions. I fear that the war will mean that more children will be placed in institutions as a default solution. We must not let this happen. Decades of research have shown the huge and irreversible psychological harms experienced by children who are confined to residential care even for short periods of time.
Alongside war and poverty, a key driver of the institutionalisation of children is disability. Sadly, many families have not always had the resources or the support to take care of their children at home, and so have felt placing their child in an orphanage or other institution is the only option. One of our core areas of focus as we work in Moldova to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families has been to develop Inclusive Education Units – models of education services that respond to the specific needs of children with disabilities or developmental issues. These have, and will continue to have, a significant role to play in preventing family separation and in ensuring that children have access to the right services they need to thrive.
While I was in Moldova, I visited two such units that we have helped to develop in Ialoveni: an inclusive kindergarten and an inclusive unit in a high school. We began working with the kindergarten in 2013, providing training, logistical and financial support, and I was delighted not only to see the equipment that helps make learning accessible here and to meet the staff, therapists and psychologists, but to also meet the children who are thriving, thanks to the right support. It is no overstatement to say that I was simply amazed by the hard work that goes on here. The biggest compliment I could give the staff is that I wish I had this kind of support when I was a child.
“We welcome all children here,” the head of the kindergarten told me. The school’s inclusive practices are now being implemented by other pre-schools in the district, and they’ve been sharing their model across the country and even abroad. What they need now, she says, is more support for parents, to help them develop their parenting skills. As more and more children arrive in the country, the need has never been greater.
It’s a similar talking-point when I visit the high school, whose Inclusive Education Unit we helped to build from scratch. It opened in 2016 and accommodates children between the ages of 6 and 16 with severe disabilities, providing individual assistance whether through psychological assistance, or through speech therapy, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy aqua and sensorial therapy. Some of the children come to the school after they graduate the kindergarten; the two services work closely together to ensure continuity and familiarity, which we know are so crucial to young people. Children from the unit attend classes with classmates from the mainstream part of the school, working together on their homework and playing. It’s truly heart-warming to see so clearly that the best advocates of inclusion are the children themselves.
In 2021 the Ministry of Education, Research and Culture recommended that this inclusive education model be implemented at the national level across Moldova. As the Deputy Principal tells me, the need for these kinds of services is great. “Our Unit can provide services for only 25 children with severe disabilities, but there are more of them out there.”
The final stop of my visit is a meeting with Dan Perciun, Head of the Parliament Committee for Social Protection and Health. We spoke about our work together to transform the country’s childcare system, and particularly Moldova’s investment in inclusive education services. Mr Perciun informed me that the government is currently evaluating available solutions to fund and implement wider-scale inclusive education services. I assured him of Lumos’ continued support and partnership to help care for and champion the rights of the country’s children and families.
It was a privilege to visit Moldova and to speak to so many people who are passionate about child rights, and who are working hard to make the lives of children and their families better. This is a country that has made huge progress in this area, but the challenges remain significant. Childhood intervention and inclusive education services are just the start; we need to make sure that parents and families have the right resources and the right support to continue this work at home, to ensure that all children can grow up in safe and supportive environments. We must invest in schools, healthcare and education, but above all we must invest in families.
The war has already had a huge impact in Moldova, but this is just the start that we’re seeing now. Thousands of displaced children now need access to child protection, healthcare and education services. They need our help.
Our emergency appeal is still open for donations. We must not allow the war to destroy thousands of childhoods. Help us to invest in their care, so that they can grow up to reach the full potential of their bright futures. Help us to invest in families.