A year and a half ago, most of the world had not heard of Donetsk.
An industrial city of one million in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region, it was never a world-famous city or major tourism center.
Recently, however, the world’s attention has focused on this medium-sized urban agglomeration because it has become the center of a Russian-backed insurgency against Kiev that has cost thousands of lives and displaced more than a million people.
More than three-quarters of the city’s prewar Jewish population has fled. Many have dispersed throughout Ukraine, but as the conflict rages on, increasing numbers of refugees are turning to the Jewish state as a solution.
When the fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine last summer, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), led by president and founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, stepped in to help – bolstering the Jewish community and providing it with medicine, food, safe housing in refugee camps far from the fighting, and summer camp respites for children. In addition, IFCJ began chartering flights for those Ukrainian Jews who wished to make aliya to Israel. Since December 2014, IFCJ brought 10 flight of Ukrainian Jewish refugees to Israel aboard its Freedom Flights – a total of 1,200 olim… and counting.
“It’s important for us that all our olim from Ukraine make aliya to Israel in the truest sense of the word – to have an ‘ascent’ here both spiritually and economically.
Therefore we do everything in our power to successfully integrate them into Israeli society and to provide them with what they as individuals need to thrive and to have a truly sweet – and peaceful – New Year,” Eckstein said ahead of the new year.
Many refugees complain of discrimination in housing and employment in Ukraine due to their perceived rebel sympathies – problems especially difficult to handle while dealing with the psychological strains of war. Roman, 25, and his wife Sasha are one such couple who escaped from Donetsk to make their way to Israel.
There would be nothing particularly unique about Roman’s story, except that he was kidnapped and tortured by separatists before coming here.
A former government attorney working in the legal department of a factory, Roman was a staunch Ukrainian nationalist at the beginning of the separatist takeover, a fact that he cites as the reason for his later suffering.
In late May 2014, a group of separatists stormed the factory and kidnapped him.
“When I was in Donetsk, I supported Ukraine, but there were many people in the city who don’t like Ukraine,” he recalls, and his coworkers informed on him to the separatists.
“I was kidnapped there because of this,” he relates. “Separatists armed with automatic rifles came to us in the morning, waving a sheet of paper with two names, mine and my boss’s. [They] entered my department and my office. They were wearing masks, so I didn’t see their faces.
They kidnapped me and my boss, and they took his car.”
They drove Roman to a nearby town 25 km. away, accusing him of working as an agent for the Ukrainian security services.
“They beat me,” he says, recalling that they jabbed him in the kidneys while keeping him holed up in a basement.
“But we had a connection in Donetsk, so my family contacted the deputy of the mayor of the Donetsk area.” With the help of this deputy, the mayor and others, he says, he was freed after several hours.
“It was I think for 16 hours, maybe 18 hours without light in the basement, the little basement. It was scary. They threatened to kill my family if I didn’t tell the truth.”
He was yanked out of the basement and interrogated by a higher-ranking separatist who threatened to shoot him unless he confessed to working for Kiev.
After several hours he was released and thrown into the street.
When he reached his home, he found his girlfriend and his mother “crying a lot.”
The trains to Kiev were still operational at that point, and within a week, the couple was on their way to the capital. They had been romantically linked for a long time prior to Roman’s kidnapping, but this episode of violence pushed the two to tie the knot just as they were leaving. Because Sasha is not Jewish, they waited in Kiev for a year in before coming to Israel, to prove that they had not married merely to facilitate her aliya.
Two months ago, the couple arrived and settled down in the northern kibbutz Ein Hashofet.
“It’s a big change for her,” he says of his wife, adding that she likes Israel but needs time to acclimate.
The transition is also difficult for him.
He was a lawyer in Ukraine, but does not speak Hebrew well enough to enter that profession here.
“You need to start from the beginning. It’s difficult,” he shares. “We want to learn, learn, learn – to choose new professions for ourselves. For example, I am thinking about IT specialization. My wife wants to be a tattoo master.”
Still, he smiles, “I don’t regret coming here, because I’m a Jew. It’s like a second home. Maybe it’s hard at the start; Israel is a difficult country in some ways. We came here because of the war; we didn’t have many alternatives. As a Jew I could go to Germany, but we chose Israel because I have family here. I know this country, and I like this country. I love this country.”
According to Roman, the presence of other refugee couples on the kibbutz eased their transition.
“It helps that there are Russian-speakers here who we can talk to about life in the kibbutz. They give us advice about kibbutz living and so on. It makes things a little easier. I’d say so.”