Ukrainian refugees seek to make new lives in Israel

More than 40,000 Ukrainians arrived in Israel since the beginning of Russia’s invasion. Those who aren't citizens though, exist in a legal limbo.

 A line of Ukrainians waiting to receive donations in northern Tel Aviv. (photo credit: SHIRLEY BURDICK)
A line of Ukrainians waiting to receive donations in northern Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: SHIRLEY BURDICK)

A long line stretches in front of an old apartment building in a residential neighborhood of north Tel Aviv. Around a hundred Ukrainian refugees patiently wait to receive blankets, gift cards, and other donations before the cold of winter strikes. Mothers hush their children who have grown tired of waiting for hours in line as volunteers – refugees themselves – let people through, one by one, to pick up donated necessities.

On this fall Friday, the Ukrainians hope to get home before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. As the sun sets on Fridays, public transportation becomes scarce, and it becomes challenging to travel in Tel Aviv and the surrounding areas, where most refugees have settled. It is one of many things Ukrainians had to adapt to in Israel - a country where most of them never expected to seek shelter.

“We didn’t believe that there could be a war with Russia. It didn’t even occur to me and, of course, I didn’t plan to go anywhere. I have no family left, besides my son and his family. They are Israeli citizens, and I had nowhere else to go.”

Olga Mikulenko

“We didn’t believe that there could be a war with Russia. It didn’t even occur to me and, of course, I didn’t plan to go anywhere,” says Olga Mikulenko, one of the Ukrainians waiting in line. “I have no family left, besides my son and his family. They are Israeli citizens, and I had nowhere else to go.”

Mikulenko, aged 54, is one of more than 40,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in Israel since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Like many others, she decided to move after her apartment complex in Kharkiv was bombed three times. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has cost thousands of lives on both sides, forced millions of Ukrainians from their home, and divided families and friends. 

 Olga Mikulenko at a refugee donation center in Tel Aviv. (credit: OLGA MIKULENKO) Olga Mikulenko at a refugee donation center in Tel Aviv. (credit: OLGA MIKULENKO)

Before the war, many in eastern Ukraine had family ties in Russia, and some even considered Russian as their mother tongue and ethnicity. For example, the northeastern city of Kharkiv, located less than 50 kilometers from the border, used to share strong cultural and socioeconomic ties with Russia. However, having spent months under shelling, the city was heavily damaged, and the population began rethinking their connection to Russia.

“I was born in the Soviet Union. Until February 24, I considered myself to be a Russian. After it decided to kill me, I felt strong negativity toward the Russian state in my soul. Even though my relatives and classmates live there [in Russia], some of them no longer want to know me.”

Olga Mikulenko

“I was born in the Soviet Union. Until February 24, I considered myself to be a Russian,” explains Mikulenko, who was a Kharkiv resident before the invasion. “After it decided to kill me, I felt strong negativity toward the Russian state in my soul. Even though my relatives and classmates live there [in Russia], some of them no longer want to know me.”

Without access to foreign media and free press, many in Russia are incorrectly convinced that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a justified military “special operation” and not a war. This disparity separates families living in the two countries, as those residing in Russia refuse to accept the experiences of their family members from Ukraine.

“They don’t understand the situation, that Russia attacked Ukraine and is killing innocent peaceful civilians,” says Mikulenko.

Ukrainians in Israel and the legal limbo

As the war intensified, many Ukrainians reached out to their connections in Europe. 

Some Ukrainians who have connections, relatives, or friends in Israel have decided to seek refuge here. Those with Jewish heritage have come as immigrants and potential citizens. Others arrived as temporary refugees and are living in a kind of legal limbo. This is the main problem that Ukrainian refugees, like Mikulenko, face in Israel.

Based on Israel’s 1950 Law of Return, Jews – their children, grandchildren, and spouses – have the right to obtain Israeli citizenship through the process of aliyah. Those who make aliyah and designate Israel as their new home are eligible for an absorption package, granted and administered by Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption. The package includes financial assistance, free Hebrew language courses, tuition benefits, health coverage, and more. 

Usually, the aliyah process takes around half a year, but the process has been accelerated to two months or less for Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians, given their large influx into Israel since the beginning of the war.

As a result, all Ukrainians who reach Israel are met by a representative of Nativ, an Israeli government liaison organization that focuses on individuals from the former USSR by reviewing their connection to Judaism to determine whether they qualify for aliyah. In the upcoming several months, Israel will decide whether they should become citizens or not. In the meantime, these potential citizens cannot work or lease apartments, explains lawyer Irena Rosenberg, a managing partner of Israeli law office Decker Pex and Co. 

Those who successfully prove their Jewish roots eventually collect the fruitful benefits of Israeli citizenship. Others, currently some 12,000 to 15,000 Ukrainians, stay in Israel under an unsteady tourist status, mostly as dependants of their friends and family, if they have any, and volunteer organizations.

What happens to Ukrainians who can't get Israeli citizenship?

Generally, a B/2 visitor’s visa is valid for up to three months from the date of issue. However, given the fact that the fighting in Ukraine is taking far more than three months, the Israeli government has been extending Ukrainian tourist visas, allowing the people to stay in the country while war is raging at home. The Knesset has also stated that no measures will be taken against Ukrainians or their employers, essentially allowing them to pursue employment under a tourist visa.

Nevertheless, the Knesset has passed several new rules that restrict working rights for Ukrainian refugees. In July, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that Ukrainians who arrived after June will face limited employment opportunities in some of the biggest cities in Israel. The situation is even worse for those who entered Israel after October, as the interior minister decided in January that they will be completely forbidden to work.

Even those Ukrainians who have arrived in Israel since the beginning of the war find themselves in a legal loop. While they can technically lease apartments, work, and receive private health benefits through full-time employment, their welcome in Israel is limited and will eventually end. One day, the Ukrainian tourist visas will not be extended again. It is unclear what will happen to the refugees then. 

“I want to stay here, but I can’t. Israel refused me [because] I do not have the right to repatriation. I don’t want to go to Ukraine because it’s scary there; my children should be safe,” says Alina Shumilkina, a 28-year-old Ukrainian refugee single mother of two, who came to Israel with a tourist visa.

Shumilkina’s family evacuated the city of Dnipro in early March. She still remembers the image of her apartment building, which was left without windows after a rocket landed nearby. 

“We traveled on the bus for a long time. There was little food and water,” she recounts. “We didn’t take things. At the Ukraine-Moldova border, volunteers, hot tea, and food helped us. It was very cold, snowing outside. The children were scared. They were afraid of the loud sirens.”

Shumilkina arrived in Israel almost completely empty-handed, with little knowledge of Hebrew. She was planning to reconnect with her Israeli relatives and protect her children. Her stepfather is Jewish, her mother married him 20 years ago. Nevertheless, Shumilkina and her children stay in Israel as tourists and are not eligible for aliyah. She wishes there was a way for her to stay permanently.

 Olga Mikulenko’s apartment complex in Kharkiv. (credit: OLGA MIKULENKO) Olga Mikulenko’s apartment complex in Kharkiv. (credit: OLGA MIKULENKO)

“Israel is for Jews. Israel only loves Jews,” she says. “I believe that Israel should allow Ukrainians to stay here. I love Israel. I study the language, respect religion, my relatives are here. I want to stay with them, but I have no documents, and Israel will expel me and my children after the war.”

Although Israel has not yet forcibly expelled any Ukrainians under a tourist visa status, an uncertain future, a difficult legal situation, news about the war, and the deaths of several of her friends, who lost their lives defending Ukraine, have taken a toll on Shumilkina’s mental health. To cope with everything, she takes antidepressants. 

“This is very painful. I hate war!” she repeats.

The trouble of finding work

An ambiguous legal status is another reason that Ukrainians under a tourist visa find it difficult to find a job, despite being permitted to seek employment, says lawyer Rosenberg.

“Employers don’t want to be in a situation where their employee may suddenly no longer be eligible to work,” Rosenberg explains.

Indeed, Mikulenko, who, like Shumilkina, isn’t eligible for aliyah, spent months searching for work, even though she is well qualified and was employed at a bank in Ukraine. The tourist status holds her back from employment, Mikulenko explains, even though the Israeli state claims to provide eligibility to work for Ukrainian refugees. Mikulenko feels dependent on her son, who has an Israeli passport. Her son became a citizen eight years ago when he came to visit his Jewish father, Mikulenko’s ex-husband.

But Mikulenko doesn’t want to sit around and watch nature take its course. She keeps in touch with her former neighbors and friends in Kharkiv, who are often living without electricity and water. Together with her friend Larisa Belchinskaya, who is also from Kharkiv, they are looking for and trying to help humanitarian organizations that send aid to Ukraine.

“I’m trying to find jobs, not sit idly by, and somehow help the people who are there [in Ukraine] and who can’t leave. My husband is there, my family is there. I will go home as soon as the bombing stops,” Belchinskaya says. 

Israelis can help Ukrainians through organizations such as the Israeli nonprofit Lev Echad (One Heart). Four days into the war, it already had volunteers working on the Ukrainian border. Almost a year later, the organization continuously sends medical delegations and mental health professionals to Ukraine to assist locals and children dealing with trauma.

Now Lev Echad is collecting money and donations to provide electricity, light, and warmth everywhere in Ukraine by sending generators, explains Shir Diner, a 28-year-old volunteer and medical student at Ben-Gurion University. She says that while Ukrainian infrastructural buildings are incessantly shelled, international aid and donations are crucial to ensure that people do not freeze to death. 

“The saddest thing is that all the schools in Ukraine are about to go on a two-month break because they are unable to provide the necessary infrastructure,” Diner says. She joined Lev Echad out of a moral obligation to represent Israel’s aid and change the course of history by helping Europe, where the Jewish people suffered around 80 years ago.

Nevertheless, humanitarian organizations are crucial not only for sending help to Ukraine but also for aiding Ukrainians who recently settled in Israel. Most refugees are women and children, who arrived in Israel empty-handed, without husbands, fathers, and sons who cannot leave Ukraine due to the military draft. 

After living in Israel for months, Ukrainians scrape by doing odd service jobs, such as cleaning, operating cashiers, or assisting in beauty salons. These jobs provide barely enough money to pay for food and shelter. Grateful for being allowed shelter in Israel, Ukrainians are careful not to insult the government, but most of the necessary assistance comes from volunteer organizations. 

Consequently, storage and donation centers in Israel are often inundated with hundreds of Ukrainian refugees hoping to receive basic necessities. The Tel Aviv Center for Ukrainian refugees is one of many organizations that supply blankets, pharmacy and grocery store gift cards, kitchen appliances, and winter clothes.

Some humanitarian organizations in Israel also address war-induced trauma. For example, some of the senior Ukrainians who have fled the war are Holocaust survivors.

“They couldn’t stop crying because they lost their home again,” says Shirley Burdick. She is a volunteer and founder of the nonprofit Christian organization Ten Gentiles, which aims to connect Christians with the Jewish people in Israel. With the beginning of the war in Ukraine, she reoriented some of her efforts to help war refugees from Eastern Europe as well.

Despite the generous help of the volunteers, however, the issue of legal status and living conditions in Israel leave many Ukrainians rethinking their decision to reside in Israel. 

Even Ukrainians who are eligible for Israeli citizenship find it difficult to adapt to Israel, a study conducted by Bar-Ilan University and the nonprofit One Million Lobby finds. Only one in ten immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine to Israel found employment in their profession here. Half have yet to begin studying Hebrew. Roughly 40% say that they’re unable to afford a place to live, and almost as many are unsure about their stay, even though almost all of the respondents in the study see Israel as their potential new home, 

According to Haaretz, almost a year after the fighting began, more than 30,000 of the 46,000 Ukrainian refugees who came to Israel, including around 1,000, who are eligible for Israeli citizenship, have departed Israel for other countries or returned to Ukraine.

Rafael Tsukerman, 21, who left Ukraine at the beginning of March, is now studying at Reichman University in Herzliya. He is well acquainted with Tel Aviv and jokes that he knows all the best pizzerias in the city. However, despite being Jewish and eligible for Israeli citizenship through aliyah, he doesn’t plan to stay in Israel once the war ends. 

“I love Ukraine. I think that the war will be done soon, and I’ll go back,” he says. “I don’t have the same life here – friends, home. Everything is a hundred times less. It’s a good country [Israel], but not the same as Ukraine.” ■