(NEW YORK) — Omar Alshakal was just 17 when he left war-torn Syria behind before swimming his way to Europe. Almost a decade later, the Syrian refugee and his non-governmental organization welcome Ukrainian families fleeing Russian bombardment as they enter Romania through the border town of Siret.
“It’s a really hard feeling to flee from your home,” Alshakal, 28, founder of Refugee 4 Refugees, told ABC News during a recent interview in Siret. “Women are crying when they cross the border because they just said goodbye to someone they love.”
Since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, more than 4.1 million people have fled Ukraine and over half of Ukrainian children are displaced, according to the United Nations.
The response from European governments in favor of refugees was swift. One week after Russia launched its invasion, the Council of the European Union unanimously agreed to offer temporary protection to those fleeing Ukraine.
In France, the government has launched a campaign called “Je m’engage pour l’Ukraine,” or “I get involved for Ukraine,” which connects regular French citizens with Ukrainian refugees in need of assistance.
“They say some of the politicians in Europe, they make it very clear those people believe in the same religion we believe in” Alshakal told ABC News, comparing his situation to that of Ukrainian refugees. “That’s why we [in Europe] are helping them because they are scared of Muslim people and they are scared of those people from different country.” “As a person I was really upset, but as [the founder of] an NGO I can’t complain because we are here to help people,” he added. “We don’t care about where they’re from. We don’t care about the religion. We don’t care if they are black or white.”
Although Alshakal wishes he had received similar treatment as a Syrian refugee, he empathizes with Ukrainians because of his own escape from war.
“I still have the hope that I’m going back to my city, to my place, to my house,” he said.
According to the U.N., more than 390,000 of those fleeing Ukraine have crossed into neighboring Moldova, the smallest nation to share a border with Ukraine.
Like Ukraine, Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite being the poorest country in Europe, Moldova opened its border to Ukraine’s refugees, letting in the equivalent of 15% of its population in a matter of weeks.
In the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, 17-year-old Katalina volunteers after school at an abandoned cinema-turned-temporary shelter for refugees.
“I visit Ukraine, I have relatives, my grandfather is from Ukraine,” Katalina, who only gave ABC News her first name, said during a recent interview in Chisinau. “They are our brothers, our neighbors, and I’m sure that if Moldova has some problems, they would help us without thinking about it.”
Another Moldovan citizen, Dan Romanescou, also does what he can to help by offering accommodation to Ukrainian families.
“I helped a family who were really in need,” Romanescou, 30, recalled during a recent interview with ABC News in Chisinau.
Romanescou was born in the disputed territory of Transnistria, which borders western Ukraine and where at least 400 Russian peacekeepers are posted.
“We are scared because it’s war nearby,” he said. “My grandparents were deported in Siberia in 1943 — it was during Soviet Union.”
“Now, we face the situation that Russia wants to rebuild somehow the ex-Soviet Union space, which Moldova was a part of,” he added.
After fleeing their home in Ukraine and crossing into Slovakia, Irigna jumped on a bus with her son Yaroslav and daughter Sophia.
“We are going to the school for one night,” Irigna, who only gave her first name, told ABC News during a recent interview in Kosice, eastern Slovakia. “Next, maybe Vienna … but we don’t know.”
According to the U.N., more than 292,000 of those fleeing Ukraine have crossed into neighboring Slovakia.
In the eastern Slovakian village of Inovce, less than a mile from the border with Ukraine, Father Pavol Novak serves as the priest of a Catholic church.
“I never thought that there would be a war. I just didn’t want to accept that,” Novak told ABC News during a recent interview in Inovce. “But when it actually happened, it wasn’t a question of yes and no; it was duty. We felt like there’s no choice, we had to help people at any cost.”
Novak’s church has housed more than 100 refugees from Ukraine since the start of the war.
“We don’t know what could happen to us and maybe we will be in this situation in the future, and maybe we’ll need help,” he said. “So maybe if we help now, people will help us in the future.”
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