The small boy applies the stethoscope to the teddy bear as the speech therapist guides him through the job that each toy does: drops for the eyes, an otoscope to look into the ear.
Like all the staff here at the Logoped Magician clinic in the Moldovan capital Chişinău, therapist Svetlana is working while wearing a cornflower blue dress and the traditional Ukrainian flower wreath, the vinok.
“The uniform – it’s because of the concentration of children with autism and developmental difficulties,” says Irina Fursa (35), who founded the centre after fleeing here from her native Odesa with her daughters, aged four and six.
“When they see something colourful and beautiful, they fixate on the teacher.”
Before the clinic’s arrival, there was no such centre in Moldova, Fursa says.
United Nations (UN) and European assistance programmes helped navigate local regulations and to open a business bank account. Now, with two floors brightly kitted out with obstacle courses, music rooms, and a massage booth, the centre employs 20 staff and acts as a speciality cluster serving about 150 Moldovan and Ukrainian children with a variety of challenges.
“We are the first and the largest,” Fursa says.
The centre demonstrates something that policymakers argue should be realised more widely: the contribution that refugees can offer to society.
For years Moldova’s promising young people have left the country in search of better prospects than the average local salary of €600 gross a month, leaving behind a population of 2.6 million that is highly dependent on diaspora remittances, with less than half in employment.
Cristina Zmochu (22), is one of three Ukrainian nurses who have been hired to work at Moldova’s National Blood Centre since arriving as refugees. Each morning, she leaves her boarding house where she lives alone to get to work for 7:30am for her 12-hour shift. She has volunteered for as much overtime as she can get, saving for future plans, while simultaneously pursuing a qualification in psychology.
The centre’s vice director, Silvia Rosca, says it is a constant struggle to find and keep qualified staff, and can’t praise Zmochu highly enough. “She’s very hardworking,” she says, as the young nurse blushes.
In the aftermath of the invasion more than 700,000 refugees poured across the border with Ukraine, of whom 102,000 have remained, landing one of Europe’s poorest countries one of the largest refugee populations in proportion to the size of its population.
The majority are women with young children. Among those of working age, 70 per cent have a university degree.
“I see it definitely as an opportunity. Because we also have a lack of labour force because of the brain drain,” says Carolina Bugaian, the director general of telecoms company Moldcell, who has been involved in integrating Ukrainian refugees through the Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Moldova (AFAM).
Yet so far, official figures show that only 1,000 Ukrainian nationals have been placed into employment in Moldova, though more have jobs on the black market.
Access to affordable childcare is a big obstacle. Their personal circumstances can also be a challenge: some are coming from dependent or abusive relationships, and need support to build financial independence.
For many, it has taken time to accept that they are now refugees, and to begin to build a life in Moldova rather than thinking they will be going home any day now. Many have kept their children in online Ukrainian schools, rather than enrol locally, reflecting the assumption that their stay is temporary.
Francesca Bonelli flew to Chisinau immediately after the invasion and scrambled to establish a branch of the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, which initially operated from a hotel room, co-ordinating the rush of people across the border.
Eighteen months on, she says the refugees have needed time to adjust.
“It’s a psychological factor,” Bonelli says.
“One lady from Mykolaiv who came here in March last year, she told me: Francesca, I arrived here in March of 2022 and since then every day that I’m here, I think in two weeks I will go home. But more than a year passed, and I’m still here.”
Earlier this year the Moldovan government introduced temporary protection for Ukrainian refugees, aligning with the EU, in a move Bonelli hopes will help refugees to settle as it gives them more stable residence, education, and employment rights.
On Monday morning, a classroom full of Ukrainian women sat with notepads and pens in front of them as the teacher passed handouts around.
On the agenda for the day: developing an idea, making a business plan, followed by one-on-one mentoring in the afternoon with a coach.
This was the first day of entrepreneurship training course for Ukrainian women organised by AFAM with the support of UN programmes. Applicants were selected to attend based on their business idea – the event was oversubscribed.
Yevgenia Deinis, who fled Kharkiv with five daughters aged between three and 19, ran a coffee machine installation and maintenance business at in her old life. Asked about her business plans, she laughs and says “not coffee again”, because the machines are terribly complicated. “Maybe a bakery.”
Olesia Babinets, a designer from Odesa, has been making intricate beaded brooches and is wearing one on her lapel. She hopes to learn marketing skills for her creations.
“Whether it’s here, or in Ukraine, these skills will be very useful,” Babinets says. “It’s an opportunity.”