Extending a helping hand to Ukrainian refugees

An interview with a Ukrainian family that escaped the war.

 Ukrainian refugees arrive in Israel on February 9, 2023 (photo credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV/IFCJ)
Ukrainian refugees arrive in Israel on February 9, 2023

On February 24, 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine, and the world has not been the same since. The physical, psychological, and economic damage that the war inflicted has changed the lives of millions.

According to figures from Israel’s Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry, since the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, more than 50,000 Ukrainian refugees arrived in Israel, some of whom claim the right to aliyah based on the Law of Return. Some 15,000 of them remain.

Meir Panim, Israel’s largest assistance network for the needy, has been at the forefront of providing help and support for hundreds of Ukrainian families who have fled the war and arrived in Israel. In the spring of 2022, after the war began, the organization arranged a special Passover Seder for Ukrainian refugees who had come to Israel with nothing but the shirts on their backs.

The conflict in Ukraine has been ongoing for a year and a half, and there is no end in sight. Meir Panim continues its efforts to help all Ukrainian refugees in this country. The vast majority of the Ukrainians have taken up residence in Tiberias. Through the assistance of a Ukrainian translator, the Jerusalem Post interviewed a family that is living in Tiberias.

Sixty-five-year-old Irena Poliev, her thirteen-year-old grandson Alexei, Irena’s sister Nina Konitsa, Nina’s daughter Anna, 30, and Anna’s five-year-old son Boris arrived in Tiberias in March 2023. This is their story:

 Ukrainian refugees arrive in Israel on February 9, 2023 (credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV/IFCJ)
Ukrainian refugees arrive in Israel on February 9, 2023 (credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV/IFCJ)

Until the war began, the families lived in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine. Kharkiv is located just 30 kilometers (19 mi) south of the Russia–Ukraine border and was considered a major target for the Russian military early in the invasion.

The city was shelled repeatedly in the first months of the war, from February until May, in what was known as the “Battle of Kharkiv.” In mid-May, Ukrainian forces pushed back Russian units attempting to encircle the city from the area. By May 20, Russian forces again resumed their bombardment of Kharkiv. Overall, it is estimated that over 600 civilians were killed in the shelling of the city.

When the shelling of Kharkiv began, Irena and her family fled to the underground Metro train station and stayed underground for a week. Under repeated shelling, the family, afraid that the Metro tunnels would collapse, escaped, taking a bus to Dnipro, in central Ukraine. From there, they continued east to Lviv, and then on to Poland. The roads were jammed with people and war materiel going east. They purchased plane tickets to Israel when they reached Warsaw.

Once they reached Israel, Irena, Alexei, Nina, Anna, and Boris went to Tiberias, where they rented an apartment. “The people in Tiberias helped us, and brought us clothing and food,” says Irena. “We received a warm reception.”

While the family is happy to be living in Israel, far from the war in Ukraine, they are dismayed that the family is not together. The husbands of Nina and Irena were drafted into the Ukrainian army and remained in Ukraine. Though they are in touch with them, they are not permitted to leave.

Additionally, there have been some rough spots in their absorption in Israel. “It has been difficult for the children and grandchildren, say Irena and Nina. “The hot climate and the language barrier have made things difficult.” Ana and Boris eventually went to Germany and remained there with her husband.

Despite the difficulties, Irena and Ina are grateful for the assistance that they have received from Meir Panim in Tiberias. The family’s first Passover in Israel in 2023 was memorable, because of Meir Panim. “They prepared special holiday meals for us, gave us meals throughout the week, packages of food and vegetables, and distributed gifts to the children. The atmosphere was warm and friendly,” say Irena and Ina.

Since their arrival in March of 2022, they add, Meir Panim staff has prepared hot meals for them throughout the week and offers them fruits and vegetables once a week. But it is the warm and caring attitude that has really made the difference. “The relationship of the staff of Meir Panim, especially from Yehudit Amar, the branch manager in Tiberias and her husband Dudu, who is an honorary Meir Panim staff member, has always come with a smile and kind words. We have never experienced anything like it in our entire lives.”

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This article was written in cooperation with Meir Panim