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Elena Marchenko, 39, stands with her two boys Dima, 12, and Yura, 10, in Hirtop, Moldova, on May 26.Janice Dickson/The Globe and Mail

Elena Marchenko sat on a soft couch on the front porch of a home in a small village in Moldova, where she and her family have sought refuge from the war in neighbouring Ukraine.

She left her home in Burlacha Balka, in Ukraine’s Odesa region, a three-hour drive from this village, more than two months ago. The Moldovan house is not ideal. It was abandoned by its previous occupant. It’s old, and it doesn’t have running water.

“Home is of course better,” Ms. Marchenko said, but she is still grateful to have a house to herself. Ukrainians on the run have sometimes been required to live in large, crowded refugee centres.

More than 475,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed into Moldova since the onset of Russia’s invasion, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most have travelled onward to Western Europe, but about 90,000 have remained in the country.

Moldova, like many places that have been on the receiving end of the exodus, has struggled to accommodate the newcomers. But local community workers see a potential solution in the country’s estimated 100,000 abandoned houses, whose owners left them behind when they moved abroad or bought new homes elsewhere in the country. A group of volunteers has begun buying and repairing some of those buildings to make them fit for Ukrainians, among them Ms. Marchenko, to live in.

Rusanda Alexandru Curca, the director of a Moldovan NGO called the Center for Cultural Projects of Art Today, said her thoughts turned to Moldova’s empty houses when refugees started arriving in her village, Hirtop. Of 800 homes there, she said, around 100 are empty.

She posted a call on Facebook for people to host Ukrainians or provide them with homes. Shortly after, she heard from someone from EcoVisio, an environmental organization, which runs a similar initiative. They joined forces, and now there is a string of seven villages, each with a local co-ordinator, helping with renovations.

Ms. Curca soon identified a few empty homes in Hirtop, which usually sell for around €3,000, and asked friends to buy them for use as refugee housing.

In some cases, the initiative houses refugees with Moldovans, whose homes receive repairs as part of the arrangement. In other cases, refugees live on their own, in homes that need to be fixed up or have recently been repaired. The initiative is currently providing homes to just over 100 Ukrainians.

Ms. Curca said it costs roughly €5,000 to fix up a home. The funding comes from a number of sources: EcoVisio, other organizations, investments from her friends, online crowdfunding and her own pocket. She estimates she will spend about €5,000 on the initiative.

She is now personally managing five homes, all of which require major renovations.

The house Ms. Marchenko is living in is owned by one of Ms. Curca’s friends, who bought it for €10,000. The previous owner had moved to Italy. (The property was relatively expensive because of its size.)

Ms. Marchenko spends her days there cooking, cleaning, reading the news and working the nearby fields. She has planted tomatoes, potatoes, greens and onions. She looks after her two young sons and a malnourished dog they met in the village and nurtured back to health. For now, they wash with buckets of water outside, but they expect to have working taps by next month.

Living close to Ukraine makes the situation more bearable. “The fact that this is so close gives me more strength and power,” Ms. Marchenko said. She intends to return home as soon as she can. “Yes Nayda, of course we will not leave you here,” she yelled to the dog.

Standing inside a different formerly abandoned property, Ms. Curca surveyed the main room, which was full of debris. Construction workers had knocked down an old fireplace, and will install solar panels and electric heating.

Ms. Curca said she began having big ideas for the abandoned homes even before the war in Ukraine. After studying in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, she returned to her native Hirtop in 2016 and began hosting art activities.

Her NGO organizes community-based art residencies, activities and art projects in villages. After the refugees leave, she said, the newly renovated homes will host artists, journalists, eco-activists, tourists and anyone else who wants to come and work.

And fixing up the homes for refugees could have other positive outcomes. “This will change the area,” she said. “Ukrainians are coming with kids and it makes the village younger.”

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