In what appears to be a normal dorm room located in the corner of one of Universitatea Tehnică de Construcții București’s (UTCB) buildings, two college students get ready to start their day. 

This doesn’t consist of packing backpacks or finishing up last-minute homework; there are bigger things to worry about. Right outside their door, hundreds of refugees from war-torn Ukraine are waking up and need something to eat.

The students leave the room and join a group of peers inside a narrow pantry, squeezing between shelves stacked with packets of ramen noodles, large bags of corn flakes, and stacks of canned foods. It’s their morning meeting: a quick overview of what needs to be done that day and who has time to do it.

They quickly disperse, and for the next six to eight hours, most of these students will spend their days endlessly sprinting around the building, cleaning, sorting, and bringing in goods— almost as if this was their job. Only, it’s not. They’re 18 to 22-year-olds who are doing all they can to keep this temporary refugee shelter open and functioning.

But pipes are breaking, doors are missing locks. Laundry needs to be changed, and clothes and food donations need to be sorted. These student volunteers are experiencing unimaginable pressure, forced to find solutions to take care of roughly 180 to 240 refugees daily.

A call to action from Romania’s government

UTCB students carry donations into the refugee center.

What is now a functioning refugee center began with a single call from Sector 2’s city hall. They needed help housing incoming refugees and asked if the university had extra dorm space. They did, but in a dormitory that had been abandoned four years prior. Still, it was an option; and shortly after the call, university staff brought up the idea of opening those shuttered doors.

The Student Association for Engineering Students set up an open call to gather student volunteers who were willing to clean, paint, move beds—anything that would help get the old building up and running. A group of highly motivated students rapidly mobilized and formed a group on Whatsapp to coordinate their efforts.

Currently, these students make up 90% of the volunteers on site, according to Anca Margineanu, UTCB’s project manager. Whether it’s painting walls, sorting through clothing donations, or attempting to fix plumbing issues, the students do it all in order to keep the 300-bed facility at Bulevardul Lacul Tei 124 running. 

“Some of them don’t have time to go home and eat,” says Margineanu.

While at first, this center was used as a temporary one or two-night stay for refugees in transit, many recent arrivals are opting to stay longer, as UTCB’s dorm rooms provide more privacy than other government housing alternatives, where cots are often set up in gymnasiums or large classrooms.

But as Margineanu explains, this center was meant for emergency housing. It can’t stay open long term—especially with just the support of student volunteers. “It’s unsustainable for long term living, for more than some months.”

Taking things one problem at a time

A look at some of the facilities at UTCB’s refugee center: long hallways host private 3-bed dorm rooms, with shared shower and toilet facilities (many in which are often non-functional).

Although UTCB appears to be among the most adequate housing options offered in Bucharest (as told by Margineanu), it still has its fair share of flaws. As a result of a dormitory abandonment for four years, the facility is experiencing a great deal of maintenance issues. The most impactful of these is problems with plumbing, causing cracks to form in the walls, and leaks to occur, slowly deteriorating the much-needed home.

Margineanu states that since opening the refugee center, they have been experiencing maintenance issues every week. “There is a risk of closing if we do not fix the problems,” explains Margineanu. But fortunately, so far the center has been able to find stop-gap solutions with the help of City Hall District 2, UTCB partners, volunteers, and NGO funding, allowing them to stay open and house more refugees. 

Although they have managed to prevail every time, Margineanu warns that, “this is not sustainable at all; this is only a short-term plan in crisis.”

The university plans to renovate the facility later this year, but with the intention of providing students with university housing. The students hope to keep the dorms operational until then, so they can continue housing refugees.

“It’s hard to predict the future,” says Margineanu. “Every day something new can happen.” The building is very old, the cleaning and university staff are working as volunteers, and there’s a high reliance on outside help for laundry, food, clothing, and translation services. They also need a kitchen and new plumbing.

The needs can be overwhelming, so they take things one day at a time and one problem at a time.

When volunteering becomes a full-time job

UTCB students paint the walls in order to reopen the abandoned dormitory building.

It is important to keep in mind that the workforce of the center is at its core full time university students. For them, volunteering is more than simply devoting their time; it means compromising class and study time—often rushing from the shelter to campus to take a test, to later come back and continue volunteering. Thankfully, student volunteers are exempted from attending some classes but still have to attend certain seminars and meetings.

Some of these students are volunteering for more than 10 hours a day, and Margineanu worries that the continuation of the center will impact their studies. “I just hope they don’t lose their schooling,” she says.

But there is little that can be said to these students that will prevent them from showing up to the shelter every morning without exception. “If not us, who will?” says Leo Rocha, an international student at UTCB.

Due to the lack of sustained NGO presence, the functioning of the center relies on the students, many of whom feel compelled to show up regardless of their social or school schedules. “[There’s no] better thing to do right now with my time,” adds Leo.

The shelter hopes to partner with more NGOs in the near future in order to alleviate stress from students and solve both logistical and structural issues. Margineanu also hopes that outside funding could provide monetary compensation for these students.

“We have students that stay here more than 8-10 hours a day, so this became like a full-time job,” says Margineanu. 

The students are tired, but maintain motivation and positivity, even after maintaining this schedule for well over a month. “They are developing into better versions of themselves,” says Margineanu. “When I was 20, I couldn’t have done this.”  

If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to UTCB, you can find a list of updated needs, contact information, and payment details in this spreadsheet.