“I wanted to be able to express myself in the language of the country that is my current home” — Mariia, refugee and UNDP Moldova employee

Mariia Yakymenko is our newest colleague on the HR team of UNDP Moldova and a Ukrainian refugee that had to undergo an unexpected journey of resilience and adaptation since the war started.

UNDP in Moldova
UNDP Moldova


Like many other Ukrainians, she believed that she would return soon to her routine and her home, but life has opened new doors for her in Moldova, where she relocated and served as a UN Volunteer (UNV) for 3 months, as part of the UNDP Moldova HR team. Recently, Mariia was appointed as HR Associate, following a competitive recruitment, a job that brings her a sense of purpose, professional growth, and personal fulfillment.

Learn from the interview below about her activity and life in Moldova and what brings her joy during less joyful times in her country.

Where were you when the war started? How was your departure from Ukraine?

I lived in Severodonetsk, a city in the east of Ukraine, not far from the frontline. I had been working for an international organization for seven years and I was pretty content with my life there.

That morning, around 6 a.m., my friend called and informed me that the war had started. Initially, I thought it was a prank or something, but when I turned on the TV, the news confirmed her words. Now I can hardly recall how I managed to message my family in Odessa. All I remember is hastily packing my suitcases and assuming that I will temporarily relocate with my organization for a couple of weeks and return soon.

My security colleagues advised me to prepare to take shelter in the basements. Within six hours, all the shops and banks closed down, most of the local residents fled the city. Despite endless queues, I managed to refuel my car, preparing for the staff relocation scheduled for the following day.

My sister kept me updated about the situation in Odesa, where people were panicking due to the constant explosions nearby. It was a new reality I struggled to accept, but somehow, my rational mind helped me cope with it and make sound decisions.

That night, I sought refuge with my friends in an apartment, occasionally hiding in the corridor whenever we heard distant explosions. The next morning, the evacuation journey began.

Leaving Severodonetsk was psychologically challenging, I often prayed for a safe arrival at our destination. Initially, the plan was to head to Odessa, where my family was, but by the time I reached the point where I was supposed to leave the convoy, a curfew had been imposed and I decided to drive to the Sokiryany-Ocnița border crossing point.

The journey lasted 38 hours, with only four hours of sleep. My eyes were heavy with exhaustion, but I managed to reach Chișinău, where my friends and colleagues helped me to check-in to a hotel.

What memories do you have from your first day in Chișinău?

I remember seeing many Ukrainians in the city, everything was hectic, and I couldn’t decide on the next steps. With my relatives still in Ukraine, my initial plan was to stay in Chișinău for a couple of weeks before eventually returning.

On the first day in Chișinău a stranger noticed that I was from Ukraine and approached me on the street, offering to provide free accommodation, for unlimited time, in a village close to Orhei.

His house was vacant for a while and when my sister with her son and other two families arrived to Moldova, we decided to use that opportunity.

What motivated you to join the HR team at UNDP Moldova? What is your mission within the team?

In the past, I held a position in Human Resources within several international organizations. My aim was to continue advancing within the same field, rather than transitioning to a different area of expertise, besides also having a strong desire to gain firsthand experience within the United Nations system.

With this goal in mind, I applied for a UN Volunteer Human Resources position at UNDP Moldova and hoped for the best. It was another challenge I felt like embracing, as I believe that life becomes too static if not embarking on new endeavors.

Over time, I progressed and have recently achieved a significant milestone by being accepted in a fixed-term employee position. I thoroughly enjoy the process of communicating with people and supporting them throughout the recruitment process. It is an area where I excel and find fulfillment in.

What does UNDP mean to you?

UNDP appeared in my life at the point when the war was unfolding and bringing about changes for everyone in the region. Like many, I have envisioned for myself a perfect life, made plans… The war disrupted all that and forced me to start a new life. UNDP came as an opportunity to navigate the changes and focus on evolving professionally rather than be demotivated by the situation I found myself in.

How often do you meet fellow compatriots? What do they talk about? What are their future plans?

Frankly speaking, there aren’t many fellow compatriots of mine here in Chișinău. I usually travel outside Moldova to see my friends and family, and during our discussions, we try to stay positive, we are inspired by those who have chosen to remain in Ukraine.

Occasionally, we remember life before the war or discuss current news that are sometimes devastating. Despite the unfolding horrors, however, we manage to find happiness, support, and a newfound sense of unity that wasn’t as strong before.

How was the process of adapting to your new life here?

I was lucky to have encountered wonderful persons along my adaptation journey. People have been genuinely helpful, open, and incredibly welcoming.

At some point, I decided to learn Romanian language. Even if I initially grasped the main topics of conversations, I wanted to be able to express myself in the language of the country that is my current home.

Steadily but surely, I am improving my Romanian language skills.

What are the main challenges you have faced in the process of integrating into Moldovan society and culture?

The main challenge I encountered was the lack of communication and the feeling of being alone. I found myself constantly checking the news, experiencing a sense of guilt for staying safe in Moldova while my fellow Ukrainians were suffering. I missed deeply the life I had before the war, the connections with people dear to me and all the opportunities that I did not manage to pursue.

I’ve always believed that when one door closes, another one opens. This mindset helped me explore new hobbies, travel often, apply to the UNDP position, hoping that, eventually, everything will fall into the right places.

What do you think of the people in Moldova? What impressions did you have of them before getting to know them?

Throughout my professional journey, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with people from many countries, including Moldova. I’ve always had a positive impression of Moldovans, finding them funny and open-minded. This impression remained unchanged since then.

One aspect that particularly resonated with me is the way people in Moldova prioritize and preserve their family ties, they strive to stay united. This is a quality I genuinely appreciate.

What motivates you to come to work every day? What have you learned new here?

As human beings, we are inherently social creatures, and living in isolation is destructive, to me at least.

When coming to work, I enjoy engaging in the exchange of thoughts, ideas, and opinions, while striving for professional growth and sharing my knowledge. Through work, I find personal fulfillment and the opportunity to cultivate meaningful connections with colleagues.

Do you visit Ukraine frequently? What part of your home routine do you miss the most?

Every month or two, I go to Ukraine.

During these visits, I miss experiencing the simple pleasures of strolling down the streets of Odessa after 11 p.m. and visiting the sea, without fearing the hidden mines along the shore. I yearn for the joyful moments spent with friends and family during festive occasions, free from the worry that a rocket might hit the homes of my loved ones when hearing the air raid siren. I want back those mornings when you wake up and your dear ones are safe, and all is well in your country, and you can start the day and continue building upon your dreams.



UNDP in Moldova
UNDP Moldova

In Moldova, UNDP helps people build better lives, by supporting #GlobalGoals.