Jews escaping Ukraine: A modern day refugee camp in a Polish Hotel

Get to know some of the Jewish refugees who managed to flee Ukraine to a Polish hotel as fighting continues for the fifth day.

 Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina, 12, and Max, six, who escaped the fighting in Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (photo credit: Zvika Klein)
Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina, 12, and Max, six, who escaped the fighting in Ukraine, February 28, 2022.
(photo credit: Zvika Klein)

WARSAW – I would have never guessed that the beautiful and intelligent family sitting at the end of a Polish hotel bar were refugees with nothing in this world but the clothes on their bodies, their passports and cellphones.

Until a week ago, Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina, 12, and Max, six, lived outside of Kyiv near Boryspil Airport. Now, just seven days later, they are refugees, living temporarily in a hotel near Warsaw Airport. Natalia is an educator and owns a chain of English private schools, and Andre is a swimming instructor and coach.

During our conversation, I could tell she was trying not to cry.

“We had a good life, but that is all behind us now,” she said. “We are focusing on the future.”

Natalia’s parents and brother are still in Kyiv. She said she wasn’t totally fine with leaving her parents behind.

 Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina, 12, and Max, six, who escaped the fighting in Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (credit: Zvika Klein) Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina, 12, and Max, six, who escaped the fighting in Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (credit: Zvika Klein)

“We needed to leave them because I needed to have a choice to decide on my family’s future,” she said. “It was a very difficult choice for me. We left them in order to save our lives. As a mother, I decided that I want my children to have a better future. I’ve been speaking to my parents a few times a day.”

They left Kyiv on Sunday and headed toward Lviv, since all of the Israeli officials were there, Natalia said.

“While driving, we heard rockets,” she said. “Luckily, the children were sleeping. I was nervous and pointed to my husband and yelled, ‘Look!’ We drove for 20 hours without stopping. Andre and I kept on changing places as drivers so we wouldn’t fall asleep.”

After those nerve-wracking 20 hours of driving, they reached the Israeli Embassy. Yet their small amount of clothes and belongings are still in the car in Lviv. They ran toward the Jewish Agency-funded buses as they continued hearing more bombs.

“I took my children without socks or anything else,” she said with tears in her eyes. “We are here only with the clothes on our back and documents. That’s all.”

Andre’s mother lives in Beersheba. Natalia said they were considering moving to Israel after the children finished school but decided to proceed with their dream now.

 Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina, 12, and Max, six, who escaped the fighting in Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (credit: Zvika Klein) Natalia and Andre Forys and their children Arina, 12, and Max, six, who escaped the fighting in Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (credit: Zvika Klein)

“We needed to change our plans,” she said. “My daughter loves Nativ. It’s her favorite place. It’s like a youth movement, and they discuss different broad social issues. She also goes to their Jewish summer camp.”

Andre’s mother moved to Israel in 2005. They would visit her once or twice a year before COVID-19 made traveling difficult.

“Most of our friends cannot leave Ukraine, since... men under the age of 60 cannot leave the country since they are still eligible to fight in the army,” Natalia said. “We have one couple of friends that were able to leave, and we hope to meet them here at the hotel tomorrow.”

Andre was able to leave Ukraine since he has three children and is therefore exempt from army duty according to Ukrainian law. He has a son from a previous marriage.

The Forys have been taken care of by the Jewish Agency staff in Warsaw and are expected to immigrate to Israel this week.

“I hope that we will live in Israel for a long time and that it is the place for us, forever,” Natalia said.

JEWISH AGENCY head emissary to Ukraine Shmuel Shpak greeted us in the hotel lobby. He isn’t your typical emissary. He’s 65 and wears suspenders. Yet Shpak is probably the best person the agency could have hired to run this complicated evacuation operation.

 Jewish Agency head emissary to Ukraine Shmuel Shpak. (credit: Zvika Klein) Jewish Agency head emissary to Ukraine Shmuel Shpak. (credit: Zvika Klein)

He grew up in Ukraine but immigrated to Israel as a teenager, years before the large waves of aliyah from the former Soviet Union. After years as a CEO and company chairman, he decided to give back to his country and his nation.

“I’m sorry, but I do not have much time,” he said politely, his phone ringing nonstop. “Exactly a week ago I moved to Lviv from Kyiv together with the embassy. We worked there for five days until a decision was made to move the embassy. From there I was sent by the Jewish Agency to set up the transit station, which is expected to fill up here in Warsaw for refugees on the way to Israel.”

Shpak arrived in Poland Sunday night. By Monday, about 25 Ukrainian Jews were at the hotel, which by then had turned into a modern-day refugee camp.

“We’ve secured hundreds of rooms for future immigrants to Israel,” Shpak said. “Whoever gets a green light and has all the papers will immediately be sent to Israel. Those who don’t qualify will kindly be asked to leave with a day’s notice.”

The families all get three hot meals a day, funded by the Jewish Agency.

“I’m a refugee, too,” Shpak said sadly. “I lived in Kyiv. I have a full apartment and do not know if I will ever return to it. I never thought that I would even be in this type of situation.”

Asked how it feels, Shpak replied, “Like sh**. True, I left with two suitcases of clothes, [but] I have a lot of things left in my apartment that got lost. I’ll never see it again. I don’t see myself ever going back.”

As for the status of the apartment he left behind and whether it is still standing, Shpak said, “There were too many shellings next to my building. I didn’t check, but I just know.”