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Holding the hands of Ukrainian refugees

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Denis Shaporenko is 36 years old, has cerebral palsy, and has lost 50% of his vision. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he fled, making aliya to Israel, becoming one of 18 000 refugees who have landed in the Jewish state since the war began.

But what happens to these olim who arrive with nothing and need to build a new life? Though the Israeli government is doing what it can to absorb them, many other organisations have also stepped in to help.

One such organisation is olim advocacy non-profit Yad L’Olim. In the space of a few days, it created an entire department dedicated to Ukrainian olim and is now working on the ground to help them with everything from food vouchers to finding work to ensuring that the government assists them.

Another oleh they have helped is a Holocaust survivor who asked not to be named. She escaped the war with a rabbi. They travelled to Russia, Kazakhstan, and then on to Georgia before they were able to get on a plane to Israel with a group of other Jews from her city. She has found social housing, but she’s lonely. Yad L’Olim’s team of Ukrainian speakers meet her and help her with any of her needs as well as helping her to find social activities, friends, and a community.

And the refugees aren’t just from Ukraine. One refugee, whose name is protected for his safety, made aliya from Russia. He fled because he didn’t agree with Russia’s attack on Ukraine and didn’t want to be forced into the army. In Russia he had worked in a large international firm. The Yad L’Olim team helped him with his documents and he has already found work in Israel.

“When the war started, I didn’t think that we at Yad L’Olim would have any role to play,” says the organisation’s founder, Dov Lipman. “But we started getting emails from people who had been in touch with us during the pandemic – we helped people from more than 22 different countries – and we realised that they needed help.

“So I went to some of the hotels where the first olim from Ukraine were staying. And I realised that as much as the government is really amazing, they had many, many needs and didn’t really understand what was going on around them. They couldn’t really communicate with me, so I immediately set out to raise funds and hired a Ukrainian-speaking team.

“We put it together within a few days, and now we have a team that goes around to all the hotels, meets new olim, and helps them with everything imaginable: food vouchers and furniture – because they came with nothing; opening a bank account; their documents; medical issues; finding a place to live; and the most important thing, finding a place to work. We have a full database of the olim and our entire team works with them on a daily basis. They need someone to hold their hands through the entire process.”

Yad L’Olim will even partner with Keter in hosting a free store in Jerusalem where Ukrainian olim can “shop” for essentials like clothes, toiletries, and linen.

The organisation is also lobbying the government to ensure that it plays its part. “When the olim first came, we realised they weren’t getting lunch or laundry services at the hotels, so we took care of that. Now we’re hard at work because 2 000 Ukrainian refugee children haven’t been placed in schools, so that’s another priority. We’re working on their immediate needs, housing, employment, and government relations. The government is limited in terms of resources, and that’s why non-government organisations like Yad L’Olim are pitching in to help,” says Lipman.

He says most Ukrainian olim have now left hotels and are dispersed around the country. About 9 000 refugees got their aliya documents before they got to Israel, about 8 000 got them in Israel, and about 1 000 haven’t been processed yet.

Another organisation playing a role is Myisrael, which raises money for small charities. South African olah Eli Rudolph is project co-ordinator at the organisation. She explains that the refugees that have officially made aliya qualify for olim benefits like a monthly stipend and national health insurance.

But those who haven’t officially made aliya don’t get any benefits. “A lot of what they’re getting depends on charities. We’re working with a few charities that are helping,” says Rudolph. “Some have set up free ‘pop-up shops’ so Ukrainian refugees can just come in and get supplies that they need. We’ve been supplying people with underwear, toiletries, and vouchers for basic home items. We’ve even be able to give laptops to some of them. I hosted a collection at my shul for toiletries.”

They have also been asked by a municipality to raise funds for animal therapy for orphans. “These children have been through incredible trauma. They were either orphaned before the war, during the war, or they were separated from their parents for whatever reason. For those separated, the chances are they will never be reunited with their families.”

Telfed has also played a role. “During chol hamoed Pesach, Telfed’s PRAS students met Ukrainian olim temporarily residing in Ganei Yerushaliam Hotel in Jerusalem. The students spent hours playing with children of all ages, bringing with them a huge donation of toys and school supplies,” says Telfed’s head of scholarships, Alona Zamir. ‘PRAS’ (a Hebrew acronym for ‘Assistance Project’) is a Telfed scholarship programme where students volunteer with members of the olim community.

“As the Ukrainian olim don’t speak Hebrew or English, communication was done mainly through social games, music, and sport. Telfed’s PRAS students have experience volunteering with children of Southern African olim as ‘big brothers’ or ‘big sisters’, accompanying them throughout the year with their social integration and language acquisition. The skills they’ve refined through their volunteering was a major contribution for Ukrainian olim children.

“The South African olim community also generously donated toys, balls, school bags, school supplies, and games. The students took these donations with them when they met with the children. It felt as if Ukrainian olim children won a whole toy store at once! Our plan is to continue this activity in the summer holiday with a summer camp for the children run by PRAS students.”

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