Participants of the second mission volunteer at the Krakow JCC
On February 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian troops began invading Ukraine after Russian president Vladimir Putin announced what he called a “special military occupation” and called for the “denazification” of Ukraine. In the year since, tens of thousands have died, and millions more have fled leading to the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskyy has become the face of his country. He has appeared in his signature brown sweatshirt on American television, at an in person visit to the White House with President Joe Biden, and most recently, speaking via video conference to attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where he urged the world to move faster in its responsive decision making.
Locally in both May and August of 2022, The Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville sent delegations to Poland, a key point of entry for Ukrainian refugees, where participants spent time volunteering and providing humanitarian aid. The earlier group also visited the Poland/Ukraine border where refugees streamed across the checkpoints. Both groups spent time in Warsaw visiting temporary offices of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), and in Krakow at the JCC.
People begin to line up at the Krakow JCC before it opens at 9am.
The JAFi offices in Warsaw are set up in a hotel, where over 150 people were housed awaiting flights to make Aliyah (emigrate) to Israel. Among the services offered are medical care, Hebrew classes, and mental health counseling. Kesenia Reznichenko, herself a refugee from Ukraine, is one of the aid workers. In a recent email, she says the JAFI offices continue to process people applying to make Aliyah, and in fact, the numbers currently stand at approximately 200. And it appears the demand will continue for a while. “The pace has gone down, but it doesn’t stop. People keep coming. We have new headquarters and [have organized] all the work here.”
Mission participants witnessed the need for basic personal items, something that also continues. “We also still provide humanitarian aid as it’s winter and people need some warm cloths and of course do not forget about medical care,” says Reznichenko.
The mission participants visited with a few of the families awaiting their turn to board the long-awaited flight to Israel. Reznichenko says she keeps in touch with some of the new olim (immigrants). “They are making their first steps in Israel. Israel helps them with accommodation, first jobs and Ulpan (Hebrew lessons). Of course, it is not easy running from a war and building life from scratch, but it is so important to have a country that waits for you and a place you can call home,” she says.
Reznichenko was traveling abroad when the invasion began and has not been able to return home. She says the start of winter brought greater hardships due to the destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure. “There are problems with electricity and heating all over Ukraine. As you know it’s winter and pretty cold in Ukraine. In Kyiv, for example, people have electricity only for few hours a day.” Reznichenko’s elderly grandmother has remained in Ukraine, largely alone, for the duration of the war, but regular phone calls help with isolation, “My grandmother also struggles to live in current conditions with electricity shutdowns and a chilly temperature in her flat. But she really tries to stay positive and that supports me so much whenever I feel down.”
Ukrainian Aliza Kaiser has lived in Nashville for several years and last year she helped her mother and grandmother flee. She also reports about the lack of electricity during the frigid winter in Kyiv where most of her friends live. “A lot of my friends used to work for a newspaper there and a lot of my friends were journalists. So, whenever they post things, they're sitting under little candles and trying to write their articles or if they're getting an air raid [and] sirens, they're in the subway on their laptops trying to write articles and deliver news to the world. It's insane but it’s also kind of incredible and I am baffled by their courage every single day.”
Reznicheko says the lack of electricity is not the only challenge, as the attacks continue to rage throughout the country. “Civilians keep dying from missile attacks and Iranian drones and soldiers die in fights for the country. The hottest spots now are in Donetsk region.”
The Krakow JCC provides food for about 500 people each day
Elsewhere in Ukraine, humanitarian efforts continue. Both Federation missions visited the Krakow JCC, where a makeshift store has been created to provide for the needs of the largely non-Jewish refugee population in Krakow. During the visit volunteers packaged personal items, bulk food, and other necessities. Early in the morning, before it is even open, people line up to wait their turn to shop. Klementyna Pozniak is the Director of Hillel Krakow, a program of the JCC. She says the demand for food items continues, as does the steady flow of people arriving daily. “We’re still feeding up to 500 people day. When you look at it, if you can’t buy food because you don’t have a job, this is the one place you can go on a regular basis.” She says donations from around the world remain a critical need.
Another area of concern in Poland is housing. Pozniak reports the government subsidy provided to Polish families housing refugees has stopped, “We are having a housing crisis here because the city’s population has increased by about 100,000 people, with most of them being women, young children, and the elderly.” She adds that Krakow’s ancient infrastructure is not conducive to multi-family apartments, so the government is encouraging people to look to outer towns and villages where are better housing opportunities.
Locally, Kaiser’s mother, Inna Shulkina and grandmother, Lilya Krasnopolska, are settling into life outside of their beloved Ukraine one year after fleeing. Shulkina, an English teacher, was able to obtain her Employment Authorization Document which allows her to work. But there are still some challenges. “It’s not as easy as people predicted because I’m not licensed as a Tennessee teacher. I want to join public school as an ESL teacher. I keep doing small jobs and volunteer with the Nashville International Center for Empowerment: help Ukrainian kids adjust to [their] new life in America.”
Shulkina also continues to teach her Ukrainian students who are scattered across the globe. Her day begins, as always, at 5am when she logs onto the computer. “When I’m teaching my Ukrainian kids, I forget that I’m overseas. It’s just like teaching online back home during the pandemic.” She says the connection brings some much-needed comfort and familiarity into her life. She says building structure and routine is their main goal right now, as well as trying to stay in touch with loved ones in Ukraine. “We keep in touch, and we call [friends and family members back home] every single day. And we just keep our fingers crossed for them. Ukraine is 8 hours ahead. We do everything in the morning while Ukrainians are still not in bed. Thanks to this time difference, we can stay in touch before our working day begins here in America.”
It can be difficult to follow news of war, particularly one like this which has been simmering for nearly a decade. Pozniak says currently, Ukraine appears to be taking an offensive position. “When you take into account how Zelenskyy is placing his troops and leading his people, that seems clear. They are very dedicated to winning this war with as few casualties on their side as possible. Remember, this isn’t new for them. The war really did begin in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.” She says it is clear the war will not be ending soon, and when it does, there will be much work to be done. “There will be a lot of ramifications we will be facing both internally and externally in terms of displaced Ukrainians, the fact that a whole country that will have to be de-mined, it’s very scary to think about.”
As for the future, the endgame is not yet in sight. But Ukrainians remain hopeful. Shulkina says it is difficult to think long term. She says her friends back home live in a constant state of fear. “They do not feel safe because you can’t feel safe if you live in the epicenter of war, but they are managing and waiting for changes and they trust our government and the forces and the new American weapons. Hopefully the evil will be stopped.” President Zelenskyy’s visit with President Biden helped bolster the flagging spirits of the embattled country. “So, you saw how members of Congress gave him standing ovations and applauded and helped and supported and it means a lot is all worked out. People hope that it will work. Hope is our everything now.” And she has a message for the American people, “I want people to know that Ukrainians have come here not to be lazy; we have come here to work and give back to American taxpayers who support us. And thanks to whom we get our food stamps and cash assistance. We want to give back because we feel grateful and forever grateful for the Americans who actually have given us a chance for survival.”
Monetary donations are still critical. To donate, visit: https://www.jewishnashville.org/ukraine
Please login to leave a comment