Students from war-torn Ukraine make the challenging journey to Israel

Crimean, Ukrainian students put politics aside and unite over their shared love of the Jewish homeland during Birthright trip.

UKRAINIAN JEWISH students, including some from Russian-occupied Crimea, enjoy themselves during a Birthright trip to Israel this week. (photo credit: Courtesy)
UKRAINIAN JEWISH students, including some from Russian-occupied Crimea, enjoy themselves during a Birthright trip to Israel this week.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Jewish students in the West, the challenges of joining a Birthright program to Israel including eating unappetizing airplane food and dealing with jet-lag.
For Maria Akulova, a resident of the Crimean city of Simferopol, however, the journey was somewhat harder.
Along with around 13 other Ukrainians from Russian-occupied Crimea, she was slated to join a group based out of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on a joint 10-day trip to Israel but was unable to travel into her former country.
As a result, the group had to travel for 40 hours, using a variety of means of transport, in order to link up with the rest of the program last Sunday evening.
Starting in Simferopol, she took the bus to the Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don – a trip that included a ferry ride and hours on the highway – before transferring to a train to Moscow where she had to wait nearly eight hours for her flight to Tel Aviv.
“We used every type of public transportation to get here,” the 25-year-old university language instructor told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday in Jerusalem.
Recalling the journey, Akulova said that as they passed through the Crimean Peninsula, parents of the some of the other members of her group who lived along the way came to the stations and brought food.
“We were like a family from the first day,” she said.
Although the Ukrainian Birthright contingent was instructed to leave politics at home, Akulova said that the participants had discussed their respective experiences.
“We asked the Ukrainians how is the life there because they have it more difficult because of the war. There are three students from Donetsk [Ukraine].
“They said that life is difficult for them there, but they said that if Russian occupations will start there they would go to the war and fight for their country.”
Russian troops occupied the Crimean Peninsula last year following the Ukrainian revolution, and annexed the territory shortly thereafter.
Several of the Birthright participants are residents of Donetsk, the capital of a Russian- backed separatist uprising against Kiev.
More than three quarters of that city’s Jewish population has fled since the fighting broke out last year.
“This group is amazing, great people, some of them are from Crimea and some from Ukraine. They meshed as one united group really quickly over their love of Israel,” guide Tatiana Leyvim said with a smile.
She said that she did not think that politics were a big part of the trip and that the topic had not consumed the participants’ attention.
“This topic only brings pain and affects them in real life, and it could have a negative effect on the goal of the trip and the whole of them coming here.
“In Israel, they are Jews. When they go back home, they’ll return to the politics and there’s nothing you can do about that,” she said.
“While they’re here, this is also their homeland, not just Crimea and Kharkiv,” she said. “This is their land as well and for them this is important. Even if they do talk politics when I’m not around, it doesn’t affect the group dynamic, there have not been any conflicts among group members.”
Among those from Donetsk are Ilya, who now studies in university, and Karina, who still lives in war-torn Donetsk.
The no-politics rule helps because “people came from different regions, some from the East some the West, and everyone has their own opinion… and if each person preaches his or her opinion we wouldn’t be a united group,” Ilya said. Karina agreed, adding that the participants “try to shut down these conversations and not bring up touchy topics.”
“I like that people here are so open,” Karine said of Israel.
“It doesn’t matter who they are or what age, everyone is ready for a conversation. Elderly citizens are very modern here, they know how to use computers and smartphones, our babushkas don’t know how to use these devices!” “In the last year-and-half we started to learn to really appreciate life and therefore if we have the chance travel, to see, to have an adventure, and live in the moment, this is what we must do, because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” she added.
The two disagreed when it comes to the role that Israel should play in their lives.
While Israel is a beautiful country with wonderful people, “one’s home is the place where he was born and no matter how bad the situation, a home remains a home,” Ilya said.
“There might be bullets and rockets however for me the place of my birth remains my home.”
Responding to Ilya, Karina countered that one’s home is “not the place where you were born but rather the place where you feel happiest.”
“Therefore if you feel happy in Donetsk you must stay there. However, if you feel better in Israel you must move to Israel,” she said.