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One expert's surprise over how Romania's reacted to Ukrainian refugees


As we talked to people here in Romania about the country's response to the refugee crisis, we kept hearing the same thing.

RADU UMBRES: I have to say that I was amazed by the incredibly positive reaction that Romanians had to them.

MARTIN: That was Radu Umbres. He is an anthropology lecturer at the National School for Political Studies and Public Administration.

We've been in Romania for some days, now and a number of people have said they were surprised by the way their fellow citizens have responded. Can I ask you why you're surprised?

UMBRES: Well, it's indeed a very interesting phenomenon, and there are probably many, many reasons for it. First of all, we are a rather poor country, for European standards, at least. And also, Romanians don't have a great image of themselves. Sometimes, we are self-loathing in many, many ways, and the image that we have of ourselves is that, in general, we are not especially generous towards foreigners.

MARTIN: I can tell you one of the things that we've noticed is two things - first, that people on an individual level have been so generous. But the other thing that we've noticed is that people have been so remarkably efficient and well-organized. And I don't say that because I have any opinion about whether Romanians should or should not be, but the efficiency has been really noteworthy. For example - a call center set up so that there's one number that people can call to get directed toward resources, whatever they need. The fact that people set up kitchens at the borders before any big NGOs came in to offer food. And I'm just interested if there's a precedent for this.

UMBRES: I think there's one important factor is the fact that Romanians don't really trust their government, and they don't expect their government to do much. So we have - well, in the past decades, we've learned to be quite self-reliant. So in a way, they sort of took matters into their own hands. But understand that this is especially one part of Romanian society, meaning people who are relatively young, people probably belonging to middle classes, highly educated and with a liberal perspective upon the world.

MARTIN: But of course, as with most things, it's complicated. And while Ukrainians have been welcomed with open arms over the past few weeks and a genuinely energetic and creative effort to meet their needs, Umbres says there are other voices that haven't been heard from yet.

UMBRES: I think that a part of Romanian society has perhaps a different attitude towards it. For example, I did fieldwork in a village in northeast Romania, which is rather close to the Ukrainian border. And even though they do feel empathy for the Ukrainian refugees, they also think that, well, that village is quite poor, and their life is rather wretched in some ways. And they look at some of these refugees, and they say that they come in expensive cars, and they think that, well, for these people, there's so much support while we've been left behind. And I think there is a certain discourse in Romania that says, well, why do we have this amount of mobilization for foreigners while we have our own old people or people who are poor, people who've been marginalized, and we haven't - they haven't received so much attention?

MARTIN: That was Radu Umbres. We'll hear more from him later in the program about how Ukrainians are finding their way into the fabric of Romanian life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.