Wave of Ukrainian refugees. Credit: rfranca/Shutterstock.
Wave of Ukrainian refugees. Credit: rfranca/Shutterstock.
feature

Russia-Ukraine War 2022-23

One year into the war, the displacement, physically and emotionally, of Ukrainian Jews

The Russian invasion put Diana Bukman back in touch with her ex-husband in Israel. It also sent her former colleague across the world to Richmond, Va.

PART TWO OF TWO STORIES

The term “displaced persons” doesn’t always capture adequately how much of a geographical impact wars have. Diana Bukman, who is now half a world away from a colleague in Ukraine and reconnected in Israel with her ex-husband, knows that all too well.

Moving to Israel was what made her first marriage fall apart. Her then-husband insisted on making aliyah, while she wanted to stay in Ukraine, where she directed a volunteer center in Odessa.

“It was not in my dreams to live in Israel,” she told JNS.

A year ago this month, when Russia invaded, Bukman wanted to stay in Ukraine to help, but her mother insisted that she pack her bags and flee the country with her two children. Her intended destination was Germany, where she could easily find work in her field. But a Jewish Agency bus brought her and her children to Bucharest, Romania.

The organization provided free meals, accommodations and mental-health counseling. In the fog of one of the century’s greatest crises, Bukman found herself headed in the direction that had been at the center of the collapse of her marriage years prior. Jewish Agency officials prepared visas, and put her and her children on a flight bound for Tel Aviv.

Soon, she was back in touch with her ex-husband.

“When I came, he asked me what I needed because he understood that I was alone with two kids,” said Bukman, now based in Jerusalem. “He tried to help me to adapt.”

A year into the Russian invasion, Bukman has largely gotten used to life in Israel, even though she had worried about finding a job in the country. “All my life, I asked, ‘Why do I need to learn Hebrew? I will never live in Israel,’ ” she said. (Bukman had visited the Jewish state many times, and her brother lived there for more than five years.)

In Jerusalem, she has friends, a job and parents nearby. “They help me with the kids and try to make a good life for them with a lot of activities. On weekends, we go to parties,” she said. “I have an excellent life.”

More than 15,000 Ukrainians have immigrated to Israel since the outbreak of the war, according to figures released by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration. The Jewish Agency has largely coordinated the effort, in cooperation with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and backed with significant funding from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Bukman said her Hebrew is not sufficiently strong to understand what is being said on Israeli television about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But she gets a sense of that in person.

When many Israelis ask where she is from and she tells them, they respond: “Glory to Ukraine,” she said. “But some people here in Israel from the Soviet Union think Ukrainians are Nazis.” She had to obtain a restraining order when some men verbally assaulted her and made her afraid for her and her children’s safety.

As she and her family acclimate, Bukman is ambivalent about returning to her home country.

“Every day, I change my mind. We can’t go back right now. But I ask myself, ‘When the worst part stops, what can I give to my kids there when it’s destroyed?’ ” she said.

It remains a dream to return to Odessa, although she realizes that her life there would be different from what it once was. She told JNS that it will be better for her children to stay in Israel for a while, though after the war ends, that may be a different matter.

Ukrainians take refuge in a subway station that serves as a shelter for thousands of people during a rocket and bomb attack by Russian forces, February 2022. Credit: Drop of Light/Shutterstock.

‘All of our plans, our dreams, our jobs … ’

The war has not only brought Bukman back into contact with the ex-husband—with whom she had such a difference of geographic opinion years ago—but has placed a great deal of distance between her and her friend, Oksana Stakhnevych, a volunteer at the JCC in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine.

When the invasion began, Stakhnevych, who was then 35 weeks pregnant, and her two young children headed to the western part of Ukraine, where she continued her volunteer efforts. But then it eventually became too dangerous there as well.

Last April, she and her children traveled from morning to evening, making their way out of Ukraine through Europe. Stakhnevych heard of an opportunity to travel to the United States via Mexico.

“We know some Ukrainians flew to Mexico and crossed the border,” she told JNS. “My husband said we have two days to get all the documents we would need and to buy plane tickets.” Over the course of seven flights, they lived in airports.

“You leave the plane, and you don’t know if it will be summer or winter, day or night,” she related.

Stakhnevych crossed into California with her children from Tijuana, while her husband, who had a tourist visa, crossed at another entry point. She arrived in San Diego and got in touch with the one person she knew in the country—an employee of the Weinstein JCC in Richmond, Va. The Zaporizhzhia JCC had joint programming with the Richmond Jewish community.

The Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and Jewish Family Services resettled Stakhnevych, her husband and their three children in Richmond. The city is one of 18 Jewish communities across the United States and Canada receiving a Ukrainian Resettlement Grant, a $1 million Jewish Federations of North America initiative, in partnership with the Shapiro Foundation.

Recently, the White House and U.S. State Department announced a program that sponsors Ukrainian refugee families.

“We’ve fully mobilized our networks of Jewish Family Services and human-services agencies to have the skills to help families, synagogues and other organizations bring refugee families to America,” Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JNS.

JFNA and the Shapiro Foundation are helping resettle thousands of Ukrainian refugees, both Jewish and not.

Richmond’s 10,000-strong Jewish community has welcomed Stakhnevych, and her children attend Jewish schools. She works at the JCC with whom she’d partnered when she lived in Ukraine.

“I had the Jewish community all my life in Ukraine. When I came here, I found something similar,” she said. Stakhnevych told JNS that it has been easier for her to transition than it is for other Ukrainians, who aren’t part of the Jewish community.

Still, moving from Ukraine to Richmond has been an enormous adjustment. “All of our plans, our dreams, our jobs—all canceled in one day, in one moment, when we left our house,” she said.

Stakhnevych has no plans to return to Ukraine for now.

“We want to go back. But it’s important for us that our kids not feel the war, not see the bombs, not hear the sirens. They have friends here, and they have the opportunity to grow,” she said. “We have work, and we’re in a safe place.”

More Ukrainian families are moving to Richmond. Already, 40 have settled in, three of them Jewish.

“Our understanding of life has changed because we understand other things are important,” said Stakhnevych. “Not money, not business. What’s important is … ” Here, Stakhnevych’s voice became strained. She paused for a moment before completing her sentence.

“ … family,” she said, putting her face into her hand and crying.

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