Imagine being a teenager forced to leave everything you know– your home, your friends, your school, your family and your country, fleeing from a conflict you don’t even understand. Such is reality for those teens fortunate enough to find refuge in Israel after escaping the war in Ukraine.
They landed here without the language, many with no concept of what Israel even is or means to the Jewish people. They had to start all over. The Russian teens have hopes to return to their homes eventually. Yet they are meeting with Ukrainian teens that have lost everything, having no homes to which to return.
As we all know, being a teen even in the comfort of home can be more than daunting. Add all these issues, and matters are suddenly that much worse.
Realizing that the families arriving in Israel during this tragic war are busy dealing with their own issues of establishing a life here, often without Hebrew proficiency or an understanding of Israeli culture, two incredible women, Nastya Riabtseva and Nastya Ivanova, recent immigrants from Russia themselves, decided to create a “safe haven project” for these teens. In March 2022, close to the war's onset, they offered a group of Russian-speaking teenagers the opportunity to walk around Jerusalem.
The idea was broader than just showing them around town – their goal was to try to build a community. Wild Walks has since organized teen groups all over the country. Hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian teens meet weekly, exploring their fears, concerns and dreams and process their life experience through art. The first partner to assist the project was Wild Kids Animation Studio in Talpiot.
“I have only been in Israel for a short time,” explains Riabtseva, who came with her Israeli husband and children, sensing that staying in Russia would not be safe. How right she was! Arriving in September 2021, she struggled to get her feet on the ground. “The language, the culture and the challenges of raising our children in a country foreign to them were all major issues.” This did not stop her from forming Wild Walks not long after her arrival.
“Most project volunteers have only been here for a short time, the longest a year or two. They have yet to command the language and do not have the connections they need in their cities to find places and people to collaborate with,” she explains. They are still searching for a place to meet in Haifa, where a Russian actress is leading a theater group with these kids.
Inroads around Israel
Vera, the group facilitator, made aliyah 10 months ago. Her counterpart Aliza, also a Russian immigrant, leads archaeological projects with the group. Another volunteer from Haifa holds a weekly Zoom session so that every Wild Walks teen in the country can join in and meet other teens. ”The response has been tremendous!”
In Tel Aviv, the teens are involved with social media projects, creating podcasts about their lives and those of family and friends. There are two groups at present, and they have joined forces with the Syarut organization to travel around Israel and get to know their new home –providing them with more podcast fodder. These podcasts will be used to share significant facts about Israel with other Wild Walks teens and show them they are not alone in their challenges.
In Jerusalem there are three groups. Thanks to Nastya Riabtseva’s husband, David Kriksunov, a native Israeli working at the National Library of Israel in Givat Ram, the teens were offered the opportunity to meet in the library weekly and organize "art laboratories" in which teens may express their innermost feelings. Two of the groups are involved with the National Library project, while the recent laboratory was attended by the Wild Walks teens from all over the country.
The third Jerusalem group focuses on field trips around the city and is in the process of creating audio tours so that visiting groups of teens can travel around Jerusalem and hear all about the history and significance of each site in their native language.
ARIK SHRAGA made aliyah from Russia in 2011. He studied photography and videography and works, among other jobs, as a photo journalist at the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Riabtseva was lucky to have met Arik by chance in Jerusalem. After hearing about the project, he jumped on board to become the PR and multimedia content creator for Wild Walks. With young families to take care of, both Arik and Nastya divide their time between working for a living, supporting their families and running this important organization.
“All of our staff around the country are volunteers. Many do not yet speak Hebrew, which of course is a huge issue when it comes to gainful employment. In spite of this, our volunteers are extremely dedicated to the kids and to our mission. They all have something unique to contribute.”Arik Shraga
“All of our staff around the country are volunteers. Many do not yet speak Hebrew, which of course is a huge issue when it comes to gainful employment. In spite of this, our volunteers are extremely dedicated to the kids and to our mission. They all have something unique to contribute,” Arik says.
One of the issues that had not occurred to me was the Ukrainian teens feeling resentful about hearing and having to speak Russian. Though they are aware of the fact that the Russian teens are refugees as well, it does not take away from the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine. Nastya says that they are in the process of separating the Ukrainian and Russian teens into two groups.
Add the issue of conflict resolution to all the other issues that Arik, Riabtseva and the other volunteers are dealing with in this project, and one can see why they need support.
Wild Walkers speak
“I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for Wild Walks. It is something that rescues me in Israel,” notes Marta, a participant. “When I arrived here, I had no idea what to do, how, why, for what or where. Now I have people, places and stories that anchor me in Jerusalem.”
Constantine, father of Arina, says, “After COVID, and then after the war broke out, our kids had lost their social skills, and we all became anxious. Due to Wild Walks, they started calming down and thriving again.
“We are a little over a month here, and Arina suddenly joined this project and liked it a lot.
“When she got involved in this [art laboratory] event in the National Library, she just flourished. She comes home hot-eyed, and we, the parents, get hot-eyed, too.
“Since Arina got involved in the project, she keeps sharing bits and pieces of her creative activities, she chatters and tells stories about the people here. It’s just wonderful to watch her!” ❖
Joining Teen Nights
In addition to helping Nastya and Arik network in Israel to find support in general society, I am excited to share that some of the teens will be involved with my Jerusalem School of Rock.
Once a month I organize a “teen night” where young bands from all over Jerusalem come to perform for their friends and sometimes family. Plans are in the works to hold a fundraising event in Jerusalem this month, the one-year anniversary of the organization. Attendees will meet the kids and the staff, hear their stories and see their art and music first hand.
Those interested in getting involved should contact Tracey Shipley: 054-810-8918 or firstname.lastname@example.org