Helping when others can’t: how Bucharest’s humanitarian volunteers work with Ukrainian refugees

Helping when others can’t: how Bucharest’s humanitarian volunteers work with Ukrainian refugees

Seated between an orange medical tent and an ambulance at Bucharest’s Gara du Nord Station, Teodor “Dodo” Nemteanu, 44, a Romanian paramedic specializing in disaster management takes a drag of his cigarette as he rests on a short break. 

On February 26th, after a long shift assisting the homeless, Romanian social services told Dodo, “A train is coming with refugees from Ukraine.” I asked, ”Is this a joke?” ”No, they said. The war has started.” 

With the help of 20-30 volunteers, Dodo got to work converting an abandoned restaurant and three waiting rooms into a refugee center. “There were stickers covering the windows. You see the glass there? I broke it to get in because we couldn’t find the keys.” Dodo recalls about the restaurant which became known as “room one”. 

“It was 5:10 am when the first train arrived with 22 mothers with children. You could see how fast people had to leave” he says, “Small children arrived with different colored shoes that didn’t match - people were scared, crying, it was a new country and no one spoke the language.” 

In the face of a slow government response and notable lack of qualified translators, the community’s quick actions were essential. The now famous ‘orange vests’, composed mostly of volunteers from Romania’s Moldovan minority (who often speak Russian) and the Ukrainians themselves – played a crucial role. 

For refugees, the inability to communicate not only poses a technical problem when receiving aid, but can worsen or even prolong the effects of trauma. 

It’s clear from the mix of helpers at the station and throughout the city, that this response relies on the passion of a well-connected community. 

“Almost all donations were given by regular people, and independent volunteers — even the nightclubs donated to us!” told Alina Sorina Cernea, a volunteer at Gara de Nord. 

With hundreds of refugees arriving daily, the small team provides clothes, beds, showers, an infant incubator, a room for children with special needs, and other essential services. 

With the help of the NGO World Central Kitchen, the team gives out 400 hot meals a day — services that only Dodo’s group has provided. While the flow of refugees has begun to slow, the situation remains desperate as most early arrivals remain reliant on assistance. 

“Right now we have 300 refugees who live nearby, they are able to come back to take supplies, diapers, food, toiletries, anything they need”, explains Dodo. 

Many families who choose to stay remain fractured, with fathers unable to leave Ukraine and extended family elsewhere in Europe. These factors can be paralyzing for mothers, when deciding what to do next. 

While Dodo and his team remain positive, long hours and exposure to trauma has taken its toll. 

“The moment that changed everything for me,” Dodo explains, “I was with a mother, nursing a baby. In one hand she held her child, and in the other, she was on a video call with her husband. All you could hear was machine gunfire… He died on camera. I’ll never forget that.”

As people like Dodo and Alina fight exhaustion and the war begins to fade from the headlines, recruiting new volunteers is a challenge. Alina, who has been working four days a week, sometimes fifteen hours at a time, explains, “My friends don’t invite me out anymore, they know I’m tired. They ask me ‘How long can you do this?’” Alina continues, “I can’t say ‘oh I’m tired and I’m exhausted, I work hard for many hours. I don't want all this to be lost because we don’t have people [to volunteer].” 

In the past five months, Dodo’s team has received donations and grants from the local municipality as well as a handful of NGOs including World Central Kitchen and Save the Children — However, as focus begins to shift, contributions have declined. 

“After August 1st we will not have food anymore” Explains Alina. “Dodo is trying to find some restaurants to provide meals, but it won’t be enough”. Refugees who rely on aid from local volunteers may find themselves without food and essential items as organizations reduce their contributions. 

Although these complaints are not new, communal volunteers often feel overlooked, excluded from key discussions and fundraising mechanisms. By helping people who may not qualify for aid, the group is able to fill the gaps left behind by larger NGOs. Although the team makes efforts to minimize negative effects that may arise from providing aid, ad-hoc responses can stress a system that already struggles with transparency. UN reports highlight how many humanitarian interventions, although well intentioned, can trap refugees in a dependency. 

While this presents an additional challenge for smaller organizations reliant on untrained volunteers, Dodo and his team “make efforts to prioritize people who weren’t here for a long time, to not create dependency ” Alina explains, “We try to separate those who take advantage from those who really need help”. 

Despite limited recognition from the Romanian national government, the local municipality and the Bucharest community continue to champion Dodo and his team. “He was the first guy at Gara de Nord.” Alina says, matter-of-factly, “Dodo inspired us”. 

With the ability to inspire others, Dodo’s experience as a first responder didn’t start with humanitarian aid. Dodo found his calling amid one of Bucharest’s worst disasters, a fire which burned the Colectiv nightclub to the ground, taking the lives of sixty four young adults. After the tragedy, Dodo decided to help. 

Initially outfitting his own car for emergency situations, he began studying to obtain his paramedic certification, “after one more year I bought an ambulance” Now every night, Dodo’s neon-yellow ambulance patrols the heart of the city, helping anyone in need. In the face of disaster, Bucharest demonstrates the power of community. Where larger systems fail – be it in aiding the homeless, emergency response, or comforting refugees fleeing war – Dodo and his team will be there.

Written by Madison Tuff