SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Mark Siemonsma of Rock Valley, Iowa, recalled talking with a refugee from Ukraine in June who ran a daycare.

She had fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion in February. “Her husband stayed behind to fight,” Siemonsma said. “She ran a daycare in Ukraine,” he said.

The woman was hoping to return to operate the daycare again. “But she had just heard the daycare had been bombed. There was nothing to go back to,” Siemonsma said.

As of mid-July, 1.45 million refugees to entered Romania since the war started in February. About 83,000 were in the country as of mid-July.

Karina Buiukli, 27-years-old, holds her 2-year-old son, Maxim as her mother Galina Stepanova, right, watches after an interview with The Associated Press, in Brasov, Romania, Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Having escaped from Russian shelling, Ukrainian refugees are now focused on building new lives — temporarily or permanently. Countries neighboring their homeland, like Poland and Romania, are sparing no effort to help them integrate and feel needed in the new environment. (AP Photo/Stephen McGrath)

Siemonsma and Steve Sikorski of Sioux Falls, heard other stories while working with refugees from Ukraine in Romania.

Sikorski said he talked to about 100 of those refugees. “Only two of them were men,” he said. “The rest were grandmas, moms and kids.”

Sikorski and Siemonsma are Rotarians and belong to two different clubs in Sioux Falls. They’ve both been in Romania numerous times on a joint effort between Hope Haven and Rotary to distribute new and refurbished wheelchairs. Hope Haven has an extensive history of distributing wheelchairs around the world.

Hope Haven has a site and ministry in Barlad, Romania.

Over the past 16 years or so of visiting Romania, the two men have made friends, including members of some local Rotary clubs that have helped with wheelchair distribution.

The project was different in 2022 as a challenge to Siemonsma to help Ukrainian refugees prompted him to start a fundraiser that grew to $180,000 to help provide aid to Ukrainians.

Siemonsma relied on his personal contacts and sent 300 emails asking for help. As the director of development for Hope Haven, a non-profit that assists persons with physical and intellectual disabilities, Siemonsma said he also asked his employer for help.

“I asked if I could run the donations through it,” Siemonsma said. The 5013C status and Hope Haven’s reputation gave his fund-raising project credibility and integrity, he said.

It wasn’t long before other Rotarians and Rotary clubs and individuals throughout a several-state area learned of the project.

Donations from individual Rotarians and clubs helped to grow the pool of donors from Iowa and Minnesota.

“I was overwhelmed,” Siemonsma said.

Donations came as $25 and even $10,000, Siemonsma said.

Sikorski said donations came from individuals, churches and others.

Sikorski said Rotary District 5610 obtained a $25,000 disaster grant to help Ukrainian refugees.

The already established connections with Rotary clubs in Romania and Ukraine helped with the project.

Local Rotarian Mark Siemonsma, far left, and local Rotarian Steve Sikorski, far right, with two Rotary members from Ukraine. The four were helping with aid to Ukraine refugees. Photo courtesy of Steve Sikorski

Hope Haven handled the money which was split into thirds, with one-third each to a Rotary club In Bucharest, Romania, a Rotary Club in Barlad, Romania and Hope Haven’s ministry and work in Romania. All money would be used for refugees or to help those still in Ukraine, Sikorski said.

Items donated and purchased include food, clothing and medical supplies.

Sikorski said it’s about 100 miles between Bucharest and Barlad and there are refugee centers along the route.

“Every Wednesday afternoon they take six vans over to (to help)” Sikorski said of the operation from Bucharest in June.

A box truck regularly leaves Barlad to distribute items.

“A lot of the huge churches were converted to refugee centers,” Sikorski said.

Many people may have seen photos of refugee camps in Afghanistan, but “we didn’t see that in Poland or Romania,” Siemonsma said.

People in Romania often opened their homes to refugees, Siemonsma said.

Churches became centers where those families could get food and clothing for refugees, he said.

Supplies for Ukrainian refugees at a warehouse in Romania. Photo courtesy of Steve Sikorski

While items were distributed for refugees in Romania, a Rotary club in Ismail, Ukraine, helped distribute and sent supplies into Ukraine,” Siemonsma said. “Even up to Kyiv.”

Sikorski and Siemonsma referred to many of the Romania and Ukraine Rotarians they worked with as friends.

“This is really a story about people helping people,” Siemonsma said.

The two men said that more humanitarian aid will be needed for refugees and in Ukraine.

Two main concerns he heard while talking with refugees were women concerned about those who stayed to fight as “Ninety-five percent of them are not soldiers,” Sikorski said. The other was a concern “About where their children are going to end up.”