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As hundreds of thousands flee Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another ex-Soviet state offers them health care, schooling and other incentives to stay and boost their labour pool

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Ukrainian refugee children get something to eat in Palanca, Moldova, on Feb. 28. Moldova and other neighbours of Ukraine have accepted thousands of refugees since the Russian invasion began.Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail

For three decades, one of Europe’s poorest countries has been emptying out: More than a million people have departed Moldova since 1991. They’re still leaving, at a pace of 35,000 a year. Across the country, 100,000 homes stand empty.

Now, Ukrainian refugees are pouring into Moldova – more than 88,000 so far – and its government and companies are scrambling to give them chances to work through acts of charity that coincide with a national need for labour.

The government is sweeping away legal barriers to their employment and opening its classrooms to Ukrainian teachers. Meanwhile, companies are offering jobs as graphic designers, office managers, construction workers, restaurant staff and IT workers.

It’s part of an outpouring of national generosity that has seen Moldovans drive hours to border points to pick up strangers and homeowners offer spare rooms to fleeing families in need of a place to sleep.

“We cannot ignore their hard times,” said Mihaela Lavrov, an office manager at Purcari, the country’s oldest winery, which has allowed people to sleep free of charge in its vineyard chateau – and rented a hotel in another location for extra beds.

Welcoming refugees has become such a national effort that traffic accidents and crime rates have fallen by about a fifth in recent days, as Moldovans focus on helping those arriving in their country.

But the tide of people also represents an economic opportunity to bring skills into a country that has struggled to keep its most talented at home. Refugees “should be integrated economically and earn money,” Igor Grosu, president of the Moldova parliament, said in an interview. Moldova has already simplified procedures for Ukrainians to open bank accounts, enroll their children in local schools and access health care.

“If these refugees decide to stay in Moldova they are welcome. That would be a solution for them – and it would help Moldova,” said Veaceslav Ionita, a former member of parliament who is now an expert in public finance at the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, an independent think tank.

“Because in my opinion, the biggest challenge for Moldova in the next two or three years is it has no workers.”

The country’s burgeoning IT sector, which has been doubling in size every two years, could easily absorb 5,000 people, he said. Five thousand more could quickly find work in automotive manufacturing, another growth industry. Local construction companies have jobs for a further 5,000.

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Scenes from the Ukraine-Moldova border near Palanca: Refugees wait for transport, a dog sits in its carrier.Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail; NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP via Getty Images

As refugees have arrived, Moldovan companies have acted with great speed to offer jobs to Ukrainians.

In Chisinau, the national Association of Information and Communications Technology Companies has offered free co-working space.

The association’s president, Veaceslav Kunev, said he has fielded dozens of requests for help in finding work. “I’ve created new jobs to help refugees,” he said, adding he has the capacity to open 10 data-entry positions.

Anastasia Nistor, who owns a branding company, has opened an office manager position that could, she says, appeal to a mother who wants to work and still be able to care for children.

Since Ukraine barred military-age men from leaving the country, most refugees are women with young children. Ms. Nistor is a mother of toddlers herself, and “I can bring a lot of toys because my home is full of toys,” she said.

She is also hoping that the refugees arriving in Moldova include a graphic designer, which is someone “we really need.”

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Ukrainians carry their belongings in Palanca.Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail

Moldova has succeeded in using tax incentives to attract IT companies, but struggled to populate them with people who have specialized skills. It’s not clear, however, how many with such talents are interested in staying in a small country with a sleepy capital.

“Most of the highly qualified IT specialists from Ukraine are planning to move to Europe,” Mr. Kunev said.

Indeed, more than half of the Ukrainians who entered Moldova have already left, travelling to more developed parts of Europe that are more distant from a war that is growing far bloodier.

“Moldova is too close,” said Vitaliia Shcherbakova, who left Ukraine on Monday. “We don’t know what’s going to happen – and Putin has said something about the nuclear weapons. So we want to be as far as possible.”

Still, the country’s government is preparing for some number to stay. Less wealthy Ukrainians “will prefer to be closer to home,” Mr. Grosu said.

It’s not a question of thinking about “economic benefit” but a matter of “humanitarian assistance” to welcome them into Moldovan society, he said, and “to give them opportunity to contribute, to work.”

Ukraine’s refugees: More from The Globe and Mail in Europe

The Decibel

International correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe spoke with The Decibel from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, about how the landlocked country has opened its arms to refugees. Subscribe for more episodes.

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