Beyond Religious Divide: How The Muslim Community In Romania Are Helping Refugees From Ukraine

During the peak period of the war that saw refugees from Ukraine flood through the borders with neighbouring countries to escape, Muslims from Romania were some of the most proactive groups to help.

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During the peak period of the war that saw refugees from Ukraine flood through the borders with neighbouring countries to escape, Muslims from Romania were some of the most proactive groups to help.

The Russia-Ukraine war has generated a flurry of responses, either in the form of professional analyses by leading experts in geo-political studies, international relations, and strategic studies or in the form of knee-jerk reactions on social media.

Other more nuanced commentaries on the war have highlighted racism and other forms of discrimination against non-Europeans who are also fleeing the war in Ukraine as students and immigrants from Nigeria, India, Ghana, and other countries or negative reports against non-Europeans by some media outlets’ correspondents like CBS’ Charlie D’Agata.

The deluge of responses is not unexpected when we consider the war as a major event that is shaking the fringes of Europe and sending reverberating waves and tractions to the administrative centre of the continent in Brussels. However, like many other major events, certain parts of the ‘story’ hardly make it to the forefront in major media outlets.

One of such underreported aspects of the war is how Muslim groups, themselves a minority in Europe and often in the peripheral in parts of the continent, have been helping refugees with different forms of humanitarian aid even though they are arguably considered by some as outsiders from within.

Humanitarian Disaster of the War

The humanitarian catastrophe of the war is apparent. The wave of refugees fleeing from Ukraine due to the ongoing showdown has been described as unparalleled in Europe since the second world war. According to UNHCR, at the beginning of October 2022, there were over 7.6 million refugees. By February 2023, the report shows that there are still over 8 million individuals from Ukraine scattered across Europe.

The deluge of refugees has prompted support from state actors and non-state actors alike. One such community is the Muslim community in general and those in Romania in particular.

The humanitarian assistance by Muslims towards the refugees from Ukraine comes through individual donations as well as through organised groups that provide platforms for receiving Sadaqa, Zakat or other forms of giving. ‘Sadaqa’ simply understood as charity or giving, can be described as a form of voluntary alms (material or non-material) that are offered to the needy with the intention of service to Allah. Zakat is another form of giving that is directly tied to Islam. As one of the five pillars of Islam, Zakat is a “charity God obligates Muslims to pay yearly on their money and property to the needy. Although other forms of giving exist in Islam, the two suffice here.

Refugee Crises and Ukraine: How are Muslims Helping?

Even though the Muslim community across Europe constitutes a minority group and is sometimes discriminated against, they have been able to help individuals fleeing from the war in many ways through food supplies, shelters, social services, and other forms of provisions.

For example, some members of the Muslim Cultural Centre Wollaton, Nottingham launched an appeal for funds which was followed up by contributions to the refugees. In their appeal, they requested different items such as quilts, blankets, hygiene and sanitary items, shoes, clothing, pain relief medication and more.

Islamic Relief, an international Muslim-led humanitarian group that accepts Zakat donations from Muslims worldwide has reportedly committed about $700,000 to help individuals and families that have been affected by the war. According to Reliefweb, the intervention by Islamic Relief, through the transfer of funds to other partners, will provide people in Ukraine and refugees from Ukraine with the needed relief materials such as kits and food supplies.

Apart from international transfers, Muslims in neighbouring countries have also helped refugees from Ukraine in different ways. In Romania, where Muslims constitute a minority, members of the community have helped by providing shelters, food and more.

The Muslim Community in Romania: Sharing ‘Holy’ Spaces, Food and Love

During the peak period of the war that saw refugees from Ukraine flood through the borders with neighbouring countries to escape, Muslims from Romania were some of the most proactive groups to help.

The doors of neighbouring mosques were often left open for those who were unable to have access to spaces that were provided by the government. In some places in Romania, the main mosque chamber where the actual salat takes place was lined out with rows of beds and blankets. In other mosques and Islamic Cultural Centres, guest rooms and common rooms were re-purposed to house some of the refugees and shelter them from the frigid air in a country where the temperature could easily drop to 0 degrees.

While responding to questions, a member of the Muslim community who participated in the refugee cause stresses that “the prayer room was prepared and used as shelter. Many members of our community volunteered their own cars as transportation for people, refugees, food, and anything else that was needed to (be moved to) different locations across the country and across cities”. 

One of the main prayer rooms of AMR – Asociația musulmanilor din România – Association of Muslims from Romania that was used to receive refugees from Ukrain. Source: AMR Umanitar

Provision of Food

The Liga Islamică și Culturală din România – Islamic and Cultural League of Romania – was able to coordinate with its members to meet with other Muslims at the border area where they provided relief materials for individuals fleeing the war. According to some of the participants, the Islamic centre provided warm meals to refugees to give instant relief while they supplied various canned food materials to the coordinating government officials on the ground. 

Members of the Muslim community participating in the provision of food to refugees.

According to one of the volunteers from the Muslim community, “food distribution event took place at the border with Ukraine in Isaccea on the 27th of February 2022”. Isaccea has been reported to be a crossing point for refugees coming from Kherson, Mariupol and Mykolaiv. Apart from Isaccea, it was also reported that there was a distribution of food “at refugee centres in different cities across Romania”. A volunteer participant from the Muslim community who travelled from Bucharest to the border area reported that:

“(Some) women cooked and delivered food and whatever else was needed for eating to the refugee centres, Muslim-owned restaurants prepared and donated warm packed meals for the refugees that were crossing the border, other members of the community donated the money necessary for everything that was put together to provide sanitary necessities, food, shelter and even medical or accommodation bills.”

By the 13th of May 2022, the Muslim organisation called AMR (Asociația Musulmanilor din România – Association of Muslims from Romania) reported that they have managed to distribute sixteen tons of food in the Ukrainian cities of Cernăuți and Odessa. Apart from canned food, volunteers also provided emergency cleaning services, catering services, and other activities to meet the daily needs of their refugee-guests. 

Activities for Children

Various activities were also organised for children by local Muslims in conjunction with others in Constanta and Bucharest. According to one of the participants from the Muslim community in Bucharest, “children-related activities took place at the Cultural and Islamic Centre during the weekends”. 

“Some Ukrainian children” in Constanta – Source: AMR Facebook Page.

Provision of Translation and Other Administrative Services

Apart from food and other tangible supplies, bilingual or multi-lingual members of the Muslim community in Romania also provided free translation services for their new guests to help them navigate bureaucratic bottlenecks and the documentation that was necessary for their emergency integration into their new environments.

This also included accompanying refugees to hospitals and other places. According to another volunteer from the Muslim community who speaks Romanian, English, and Dutch and is currently studying another foreign language, but asked to remain anonymous:

“As a volunteer, I transported refugees to and from hospitals for their medical appointments, I also acted as a Romanian-English translator, I informed the refugees about the available organisations involved in this (refugee) project and about the processes needed to be made to be able to live in Romania. I also assisted the social workers involved in this project with file documentation and data entry by completing intake assessments and analysing information to determine the needs of the Ukrainian refugees, goals, and objectives. I communicated daily with the Ukrainian refugee community and offered resources to assist with their issues.”

Free Cleaning Services

Some members of the Muslim community also partook alongside others in activities to tidy up places where some refugees were to be hosted. According to a female Muslim student who volunteered between March and May 2022:

“…while we were out together one of the students received a phone call from one of his classmates asking him if he can come and help to clean and arrange an old dormitory building that hadn’t been in use for a long time, because that dormitory would be transformed into a refugee centre. All three of us went there that night and while cleaning, one of the students in charge received a phone call and was informed that a bus filled with people was going to come that night and that we would need to accommodate them and help them settle into the dormitory which then became an actual refugee centre. From the 3rd of March until the start of May I volunteered in that refugee centre.”

In appreciation of the contributions of the members of the Muslim community in Romania such as Liga Islamică și Culturală din România (Islamic and Cultural League of Romania) as well as other groups that helped in the preparation of the dormitory, Universitatea Tehnica de Constructii Bucuresti – UTCB (The Technical University of Civil Engineering of Bucharest) announced on their Facebook page that: 

“…with the help of donations from Siniat Romania, AMR Umanitar, Primaria Sectorului 2 Bucuresti, Matrix Rom, (Kaufland) Social Canteen, BOGAS and many others, we have renovated and opened Home C2 with more than 100 rooms and accommodation capacity of 300 seats for refugees and people who have left Ukraine, to whom we try to provide necessary products and food.”

From the foregoing, it is comforting that despite the tumultuous and turbulent experience that the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has brought, some refugees from Ukraine have been able to find a degree of comfort from people around the world.

For Muslims in particular, a community that has experienced persecution across different periods whether it is the forced migration to Abyssinia-Ethiopia circa 613-615 CE, the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 and the ongoing Rohingya genocide that started in October 2016, the idea of helping the needy is a divine instruction.

Regardless of the period and cultural affinities, we live in an unpredictable world where political instabilities or natural disasters could force millions out of their comfort zones. Beyond our cultural, ethnic, political, and religious divides, it is gladdening to be able to help one another as brothers and sisters in humanity.

All interviews and statements were conducted and collected by the author.