The Montreal woman who returned to a land her family fled 30 years ago—to help the Ukrainian refugees of today

Irina Polak Veronneau, an IsraAID volunteer from Montreal, standing outside what used to be her grandparents’ home.

Back in 1992, she was a child fleeing Transnistria with her family from a military conflict to Ukraine. 

Thirty years later, Irina Polak Veronneau was back in the land of her birth, this time helping Ukrainians seeking refuge in Moldova from war.

Social worker and art therapist Veronneau, a school counselor for Agence Ometz, volunteered with IsraAID, Israel’s leading non-governmental humanitarian aid organization, in Moldova from April 9-30. She worked with children and their mothers in refugee centres in the capital of Chisinau, formerly known as Kishinev, a city steeped in Jewish history, much of it violent.

Veronneau is no stranger to disaster zones. She first worked with IsraAID in 2006 in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, and in Sierra Leone during the ebola outbreak six years ago. 

But returning to Moldova was personally emotional with its echoes of her own experience as a 13-year-old. “As soon as the plane touched down, I had tears in my eyes,” she said.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the eastern Transnistria region unilaterally broke away from Moldova and in 1992 the dispute with Russia escalated into armed struggle.

“We left Transnistria in a hurry, me, my parents and older sister, and got on the bus for Odessa. We left behind almost everything, bringing mostly family photos and books,” she said.

The family stayed in Ukraine only a few months before making aliyah to Israel.

Veronneau, who has lived in Montreal for four years, was in Israel in March visiting relatives when IsraAID reached out to see if she would take on one more assignment.

“My only hesitation was whether I could take the time from work; I was very moved Ometz (a Federation CJA agency) and École Maimonide were so supportive,” she said. “They saw it as tikkun olam.”

Of course, she also had the blessing of her Quebec-born husband who stayed at home with their two children aged 8 and 6. They met in Haiti, where both were working on humanitarian projects – he with the United Nations and she with IsraAID again. “It was supposed to have been two months, but turned into two years,” she said.

IsraAID was one of the first foreign teams on the ground in Moldova, arriving the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, serving those in need without distinction to their origin. Since then Moldova, a small country of just 2.6 million people, one of the poorest in Europe, has received over 400,000 Ukrainian refugees. According to the United Nations, that means Moldova has welcomed the highest proportion of refugees per capita of any country.

So the needs were great when Veronneau arrived. She assisted in several reception centres set up by the government, drawing on her art therapy skills to ease the refugees’ trauma. Most came from the Kyiv area, but some had fled the devastated city of Mariupol.

They came in buses, or on foot. Veronneau was struck by one elderly woman who had walked kilometers to cross the border.

She also trained local aid workers who have carried on since she left. Russian, a language in which Veronneau remains fluent, was the lingua franca.

Veronneau, who earned her MSW at Hebrew University, went back to school after she settled in Montreal for a certificate in art therapy at Concordia University, something she had long wanted to do.

She realized from her earliest humanitarian missions how powerful art, not only visual but the full range from music to drama to movement, can be for people enduring trauma.

The Ukrainian children, who had experienced shelling and devastation, were often able to express their feelings more easily while engaged in an art project, she said, an approach more gentle than face-to-face dialogue.

The mothers also were able to talk more openly when they had something to occupy their hands with. “We would put some clay on the table. No one was told they had to do anything with it, it just happened naturally: they would reach for it and slowly start speaking about what they were feeling,” said Veronneau who also works in a women’s shelter in Montreal.

The strongest emotion was uncertainty, she found, about the homes and loved ones they left, the impact on their kids, and what would happen next.

Veronneau had a little time to get reacquainted with Moldova, once known as Bessarabia, and its history. By the 1890s, Jews represented almost half the population of Kishinev, which was the scene of two terrible pogroms in the early 20th century and whose Jewish community was decimated in the Holocaust.

She was amazed by the beauty of the city today and felt at home. She visited her grandparents’ former house about two hours outside Chisinau. Her mother came in from Israel for a few days. 

At Passover Veronneau picked up matzah at the Chabad centre that reaches out to the small Jewish population in the city today.

“I feel gratitude toward IsraAID for this opportunity,” she said. “It is a great feeling to have had the privilege to do something to help people on their very difficult journey. And I learned a lot.”

Since coming back to Montreal, Veronneau has kept in touch with some of the refugees, sending short videos through WhatsApp to encourage them to carry on.