Anglo olim helping Ukrainian refugees in Israel

You may be amazed to learn about massive efforts underway to help the Ukrainian Jews who have just arrived in Israel, and how much is being done by the Anglo olim who preceded them.

 KELLY BRIN (L) with refugees and volunteers in the pop-up shop. (photo credit: Kelly Brin)
KELLY BRIN (L) with refugees and volunteers in the pop-up shop.
(photo credit: Kelly Brin)

If you’re imagining bedraggled Third World refugees, heads wrapped in babushkas tied under the chin, these Ukrainians are going to surprise you. 

You may also be amazed to learn about massive efforts underway to help the Ukrainian Jews who have just arrived in Israel, and how much is being done by the Anglo olim who preceded them. In Jerusalem spoke to two volunteer Anglo leaders, and to Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum to learn more.

When 33-year-old Kelly Brin, wife and mother of three, made aliyah with her family in September 2020 in the midst of Israel’s second COVID lockdown, she could not possibly have imagined her life 18 months later. The Brin family faced their own absorption challenges during a most unusual time. “What kept me here was the extended kindness from all those in Israel,” she acknowledged.

The daughter of a woman raised in Ukraine, this registered nurse and life coach outfitted with “a helping personality” is volunteering all day, every day, to help Jerusalem’s Ukrainian refugees. “I have always been inspired to help others. As a kid, my mother was always shipping money and items to Ukraine, to her former friends and community,” Brin shared.

Closely assisted by Rachel Waldman of Katamon, Melissa Sussman of Efrat and Sara Krown of Ariel, Brin coordinates a massive effort to supply incoming refugees from the war in Ukraine with their initial daily needs, such as clothing, hygiene products and bedding. 

 SEEING TO their daily needs: Goods on display at the shop. (credit: Rachel Waldman) SEEING TO their daily needs: Goods on display at the shop. (credit: Rachel Waldman)

“I personally know what it’s like to go through trauma and what a difference it makes to have others welcome you home and support you. I feel connected to the Ukrainians and all those who immigrate to Israel. I know they have a long journey ahead of them and I want to support and contribute as much as I can,” Brin revealed.

“I can relate to the vulnerability that all the refugees are experiencing. I truly emphasize with them and want to help in any way I can. I really enjoy inspiring others to do the same.”

It began a few weeks ago when Brin learned about a need to move a truckload of goods for the refugees from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Initially, the call was for 15 drivers with private cars, because there was no funding for a truck. Brin covered the cost of renting a truck and then asked if anyone was working on behalf of the refugees who ended up in Jerusalem. 

Her next project was to collect items to send to a field hospital. Initially, donated items were simply dropped off at her family’s apartment, but it rapidly became clear that another storage solution was needed. Brin quickly learned that Rabbi Yosef Friedman of Chabad of Kiryat Haleom had an empty storefront, which he lent to the volunteers. 

And the Jerusalem Pop-Up Shop was born. 

“We set up tables. On Monday, March 14, the doors opened,” Brin related. The Pop-Up Shop is temporarily located at 18 Abba Eban St., and Brin confirmed that they are “working with the city to get a permanent location.”

“I started a WhatsApp group on Friday, March 4. I just felt like it was calling me to initiate this. Within a week, we had 150 members; we now have 250. We have a Google document circulating for people to sign up for slots to volunteer in our shop to organize the Ukrainian refugee customers. Additionally, they help package requested items that we ask other volunteers to deliver to the hotels and places where the volunteers reside.”

Not every Ukrainian refugee in Israel today plans to stay in Israel, but since so many of them came with so few material possessions, Brin and her team are trying to fill their basic daily needs for suitable clothing and toiletries. For those who have found a place to stay outside the sort-term hotel rooms the government is providing, the Pop-Up Shop is also working to match refugees with bedding, furniture and appliances.

Brin related a story about “a family that was transferred [from the hotel] and had an apartment rented for them. However, they didn’t have anywhere to sleep except on the floor.”

A week prior, someone offered to donate 10 beds. When she got the call about this family that needed beds, she was able to get beds to them within a few hours. “And it was beautiful because the moving company had canceled on me. [Instead], a volunteer answered our call and got the mattresses there in time, just as the refugee family arrived. So, through our group and through our efforts, we managed to provide bedding through volunteers. It was incredible.”

How does the Pop-Up Shop learn about what the refugees need? “We go to the hotels with the contacts that are responsible for them. We ask them specifically what they want and need, and try to fulfill it,” Brin explained. A simple Google document is used to share the specific needs with her volunteer network. 

Brin feels strongly that, “used clothing takes away from the dignity of the refugees,” so 90% of the clothing distributed at the Pop-Up Shop is new. Volunteers go shopping for specific items that have been requested by the refugees. 

Other volunteers reach out to suppliers to get what they can at the best cost. For example, there was a request for 400-500 pillows and blankets for a large group that was to be housed in Kfar Chabad. 

Everything is grassroots at this stage. Although Brin and her team are happy to cooperate with anyone, they are not officially affiliated with any other organization; all their efforts are informal at the moment. 

Brin has informally cooperated with Naomi Galeano from Beit Shemesh. “She started by herself, just like me. We’re still in touch from time to time, coordinating efforts. She speaks Hebrew, so she is able to be more involved with other organizations around the country and she’s personally working with others directly to get people out of the Ukraine.”

In Israel, it takes two years to be recognized as an official non-profit. In the meantime, Brin recently opened a PayPal account to raise money to purchase things that are urgently needed. If a volunteer doesn’t step up and buy the item needed within 24 hours of the request, she will pay for it from funds collected.

“WE’RE IN crisis mode right now,” Brin reported. “People are arriving every day. The language barriers slow them down. Some speak English. There’s a lack of knowledge and resources. A lot of people don’t feel that their needs are being met,” she acknowledged. 

Thousands of refugees are already in Israel and more are coming every day. For a few weeks after they arrive, refugees are housed in hotels. “It’s really questionable what’s going to happen [after that]. I’m concerned where these people are going to go. The big work is still ahead of us. For now, we work to take the weight off their shoulders so they can get basic household needs and not worry about that.

“I’ve been hearing from a lot of Ukrainians that they are planning to go back after the war. I’m anticipating six to12 months of having a shop open,” Brin said. 

“There’s a sense of gratitude coming from everyone. Everyone is coming together. People are really appreciative. We are helping people who are really so vulnerable,” she shared.

Although Brin understands a little Russian and speaks basic Hebrew, she emphasized that “pretty much all our work is done in English. We have volunteer translators on board and most volunteers are olim from the US.”

Volunteers also create one-off events, like a birthday party for a newly arrived 10-year-old girl, a Purim carnival coordinated with Aish Hatorah Yeshiva and a training session for volunteers to make sure they understand working guidelines and get the support they need. Brin wants her volunteers to understand, “What are the rules? What are the boundaries? How do we take care of ourselves so we can give them the best care?”

Brin shared that funding is the most important thing right now. She highlighted the fact that many of the refugees, “come from middle-class and wealthy homes; it’s embarrassing for them to take now.”

“People send money by BIT and Venmo. It just started as a fun little project and keeps turning into more,” she related.

EVEN THOSE with the best of intentions can make mistakes if they are not properly trained to work with refugees in crisis. Sadly, some volunteers had to be removed from Brin’s group. “Some are not respecting boundaries. We’ve had to remove some people because of a breach in the regulations. It’s beautiful how people want to give, but it has to be done in a specific way,” Brin emphasized.

She and her volunteer team rely on guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) in all their interactions. The guidelines include tips such as respecting people’s right to make their own decisions, being aware of and setting aside one’s own biases and prejudices, making it clear to people that even if they refuse help now, they can still access help in the future and more.

The WHO guidelines also warn against potentially exploitative or damaging behavior, such as volunteers exploiting their relationships with those they help. There are firm guidelines in place for volunteers to avoid physical or sexual relationships of any kind, with refugees. Volunteers are told they must not force their help on people nor be intrusive or pushy in any way.

They are also cautioned to protect the privacy of refugees by, for example, neither taking pictures or videos of refugees, nor posting stories and pictures on social media without the express permission of the refugee. In addition, refugees should not be housed except through the aegis of official organizations in order to keep refugees safe.

According to Deputy Mayor Hassan-Nahoum, the city is currently housing over 300 Ukrainian refugees in five area hotels, and all of the refugees are eligible to make aliyah. 

“The municipality is working in close coordination with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry to help logistically with hotels for the first month,” she said. “We have city volunteers who speak Russian and Ukrainian in every hotel, helping the immigrants with anything they may need. 

“We have set up a command center in City Hall to ensure smooth running of services to the group. We are coordinating government offices coming in to process their immigration so they don’t have to go anywhere, [making] it is easy and painless for them.” 

Hassan-Nahoum also reported that the city’s Education Department runs afternoon children’s activities in the hotels, both to occupy the children and to give parents some time for themselves. In addition, the city lobbied on behalf of the refugees to serve lunch each day, so now the hotels are providing three meals a day.

The city sends Russian and Ukrainian-speaking volunteers to the hotels “to help the refugees with anything they may need and connecting them with all the various departments and ministries involved.”

The hotel stays are temporary and the city is preparing for the next stage, according to Hassan-Nahoum. “The Jerusalem Municipality has absorption coordinators in every neighborhood, ready to help with housing, schooling and jobs. Our welfare department is planning ahead [to provide] what families will need to adapt to regular life.”

To help Israel’s newest citizens find work, Hassan-Nahoum said that the city is coordinating their employment services with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry. Parallel to that, “the Jewish Agency is helping identify possible apartments and public housing to house them after the month at the hotel,” she explained. 

 DEPUTY MAYOR Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (L) in the shop with volunteers, including two orphan girls from Dnepro. (credit: FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM) DEPUTY MAYOR Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (L) in the shop with volunteers, including two orphan girls from Dnepro. (credit: FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM)

Hassan-Nahoum emphasized that, “The most important thing we are doing is coordinating the outpouring of help from ordinary people as well as volunteer organizations [who are] helping in all aspects of this process.

“I am involved with helping Kelly Brin’s group find an alternative location for the incredible Pop-Up Shop they have set up. I visited last week and we are already checking out a number of options the city can offer. I will continue looking until we find the optimal location.”

For those interested in volunteering, there are currently two active WhatsApp groups. The Hebrew group has just under 200 participants and the Jerusalem Volunteers group in English has over 250.

She concluded with a caution, “There has been an outpouring of help from kind people everywhere. It’s heartwarming to see. At the same time, we urge people not to bring all their old clothes or toys. This morning, we had to remove 15 bags of clothing, things that are third- and fourth-hand, which nobody would want, from one hotel. Keeping people’s dignity in this process is extremely important.” ❖

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Anglo-led efforts in Netanya

Until very recently, Anglo immigrant Nechama Levy devoted herself, as a full-time volunteer, to assist Anglo olim in their post-aliyah adjustment. She created Alynu “to empower olim and facilitate their successful integration into Israeli life.”

When 63 Ukrainian refugees arrived in Netanya, Levy pivoted her organization to address both their immediate needs and, even more importantly, to assist with their successful absorption in Israel. 

“These refugees are a gift for Israel. They may have come with nothing, but they are all professionals,” she said. Among the refugees in Netanya, Levy has identified trained doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and hi-tech workers. 

While Levy and her team of dedicated volunteers work to fill urgent daily needs, they are most concerned about the long-term success of these professional olim. 

Levy contrasts these latest olim with the majority of Anglo olim. “Anglo aliyah is a wonderful aliyah,” she said, “but they know that when they make aliyah, they can go back. They have something to go back to and most have some money in the bank. 

“This Ukrainian aliyah, these people are coming with nothing. They have nothing to go back to. We have to try to help them here because they have nowhere else to go,” she elaborated.

LEVY AND the team from Alynu.com have been innovating since the Ukrainians arrived in Netanya. They started a shoe campaign to provide brand new and good quality used shoes for those who came wearing flip-flops. They brought in a human resource company to help the refugees get jobs caring for the elderly while they study Hebrew, and they are creating a program that will incentivize veteran Russian and Ukrainian olim to mentor the newest arrivals.

“The first month, they get three meals a day in the hotel. The hard thing is what’s going to happen after. They have to find where to live. Just before Passover, that’s not easy for anyone and Ukrainians don’t have the language,” Levy explained.

Meeting short-term needs is easier. “This is an emergency state at the moment. The most urgent needs will be when they leave the hotel.”

Levy shared that government offices are understaffed and that the bureaucracy makes getting things done that much harder. In addition, the refugees themselves are mostly women and children without their husbands and fathers. “They are still in shock. It’s surreal. And before you know it, they will be thrown out of the hotels. Then what?”

That’s the gap Levy and Alynu.com is trying to fill. “We’re currently requesting grants. Our vision is to help as much as we can to ensure their long-term success.” That includes providing help with job placement in their fields, housing and appropriate education for the children. “I will do everything I can to help them succeed long term,” she stated.

Levy mentioned that 100% of the money raised in Alynu.com’s emergency campaign goes directly to helping the Ukrainians. “My volunteers are very passionate. We care very much about helping them succeed,” she concluded.