Smokehouse, a restaurant in Chisinau, the capital of the Eastern European country of Moldova, has become a distribution point for food, diapers and other supplies for refugees fleeing the war in neighboring Ukraine.
Smokehouse used to serve American-style Tex-Mex and BBQ, including pulled pork sandwiches with sides of mac and cheese, baked beans and corn succotash.
“That’s where all the Americans go,” Elaine Marshall, the N.C. Secretary of State, said in an interview. “And all the Tar Heels in particular, we go there. You would not be a stranger at this restaurant.”
Marshall has visited Moldova more than a dozen times over the last 20 years. She’s the driving force behind an unusually deep relationship between a state and a foreign country, one that many North Carolinians would be hard pressed to find on a map.
The governments of Moldova and North Carolina signed a partnership agreement in 1999 that has inspired and facilitated countless connections and exchanges. Teachers, librarians, nurses, dentists, agricultural scientists and others in the state have reached out to help one of Europe’s poorest countries since it emerged from under Soviet domination in the 1990s.
Those ties will be called upon again in the months and years ahead as Moldova faces a humanitarian crisis caused by the war.
More than 375,000 Ukrainians have spilled over the border into Moldova, fleeing Russian shelling. Many continued on to neighboring Romania and other countries, but more than 100,000 refugees remain in the country, many staying in the homes of welcoming strangers.
Because of relationships established over the years, some North Carolinians were quick to help. Two weeks after the invasion, the nursing program at UNC Greensboro, which has long been active in Moldova, organized the first of several Zoom seminars for nurses on the medical and psychological needs of refugees. They hit the limit of 500 Zoom connections, drawing small groups and classrooms from around the country.
Marshall and the U.S. ambassador to Moldova also spoke on that first call to praise and encourage those participating.
“These are people that are going way out of their way to do what’s right by the people of Moldova and Ukraine, who don’t deserve what’s happening to them right now,” she said.
David Jarmul and his wife, Champa, of Durham have been in touch with people they knew during two years in Moldova as Peace Corps volunteers starting in 2016. In his blog, David Jarmul recently wrote about the efforts Moldovans are making to welcome Ukrainians with food, medical care and shelter.
“It’s unbelievable the generosity of how Moldovans have opened their hearts and their homes to the Ukrainian refugees,” Jarmul said in an interview. “Moldova is a small country; it’s a poor country that doesn’t have a lot of resources.”
Jarmul said the North Carolina-Moldova partnership has played a key role over the years in helping the country and credits Marshall and her staff for keeping it strong.
“For those of us who care about Moldova, it’s just very energizing to have this infrastructure within the state and the sense of community that there are others here in North Carolina who share our concern and our passion for Moldova,” he said. “And that’s been very important, and never more than at a time like this.”
Relationship stems from Soviet Union’s demise
Moldova is a country of rolling hills and rich soil good for growing grain, vegetables and fruit, especially grapes that go into its best-known export, wine. Another major source of income is money sent home by Moldovans who have gone to other European countries in search of work.
The special relationship between North Carolina and Moldova began in the mid-1990s with a U.S. government program aimed at helping to stabilize European countries once controlled by the crumbling Soviet empire. Under the State Partnership Program, state National Guards were paired with a country to teach and advise their newly independent defense forces.
Since 1996, members of the N.C. National Guard have had more than 500 “engagements” with their Moldovan counterparts, said Maj. Mike Sterling, the Guard’s state partnership director.
These include Guard soldiers offering advice on engineering, logistics or organization, as well as joint training exercises. In 2019, 103 Moldovan armed forces personnel joined the N.C. Guard’s 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California.
“It’s a big deal to bring our Moldovan partners over and get to experience that,” said Maj. Matthew Boyle, a Guard spokesman. “That’s considered the premier training site for the armed forces.”
Early on, N.C. Guard soldiers and airmen who went to Moldova encountered children in orphanages or with untreated dental or medical problems. When they returned home, they began enlisting help from their employers or nonprofits, Marshall said, and the Guard suggested the state consider a civilian partnership alongside the military one.
In 1999, Gov. Jim Hunt and Moldova’s president, Petru Lucinschi, signed an agreement pledging expanded cultural, government, academic and civic exchanges. The agreement was good for five years and has been renewed four times, under both Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina and western- and Russian-leaning governments in Moldova.
The North Carolina-Moldova Partnership for Peace program doesn’t have a state budget, Marshall said. She and her office encourage and help facilitate exchanges between the two countries, but the real work is done by nonprofits, schools, universities and others across the state.
“People of goodwill here meet up with people of goodwill over there, and they kind of work one way or the other to help with this,” she said. “And that’s how this nursing thing came about.”
Marshall said a North Carolina dentist working in Moldova was asked if he knew of someone who could help improve training for nurses. The dentist contacted the UNCG nursing program, which led to more than a decade of collaboration including help developing a bachelor of nursing program at the Nicolae Testemitanu State University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Chisinau.
That relationship, supported over the years by the local Rotary Club, allowed UNCG to quickly put together the seminar on caring for refugees, including slides in both Romanian, the main language of Moldova, and Russian, which is also spoken there.
A ‘neutral county’ wary of a wider conflict
In addition to the flood of refugees, Moldovans are anxious that Russian president Vladimir Putin might one day invade their country as well. Like Ukraine, Moldova has a Russian-speaking province, Transnistria, that declared independence in 1992 and is occupied by Russian troops.
Also like Ukraine, Moldova is not a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which would offer support in case of an attack. But also like Ukraine, Moldova would like to become a member of the European Union.
Sterling, who spent two years in Moldova as the N.C. National Guard’s representative in the U.S. embassy, said the country is on the precipice of East and West, a sort of demilitarized zone.
“They’re torn between two powers,” he said. “President Maia Sandu openly states all the time that we are a neutral country; we will not take sides.”
Sterling said the COVID-19 pandemic largely limited exchanges between the Guard and Moldova to virtual meetings. Three engineers from North Carolina visited the country in December, he said, but none have gone since.
Moldova’s military is busy now with humanitarian work, Sterling said, helping at border crossings and refugee centers.
“The Moldovan people are great people. They’re humble; they realize their shortcomings,” Sterling said. “The bottom line is, it’s a country that needs support from the outside to help maintain its current economic and social status.”
To read David Jarmul’s latest blog post about conditions in Moldova and how to help, go to notexactlyretired.com/2022/03/31/what-my-friends-are-seeing/.
This story was originally published March 31, 2022 12:24 PM.