Scaling the magnitude of the Ukrainian refugee crisis

A firsthand account from the ground as part of United Hatzalah’s “Operation Orange Wings.”

Hadas Rucham (left) offering snacks to a Ukrainian refugee. Credit: United Hatzalah.
Hadas Rucham (left) offering snacks to a Ukrainian refugee. Credit: United Hatzalah.
Hadas Rucham

“So, how was it?”

I returned from the United Hatzalah humanitarian aid delegation’s trip to the Ukrainian border more than a week ago, and I still do not know how to answer this question—a question that I have been asked so many times.

I’m never sure whether the person asking the question is just showing interest to make polite conversation, or if they’re really interested in hearing the true answer of just how painful the experience was for the refugees who are going through this tragedy.

So my simple answer is, “It was painful, difficult, moving and terribly sad, but the trip and the work I did on the border also left me with a feeling of immense satisfaction and great Jewish pride.”

And if we break down the general question to a more specific question I get asked, “What exactly do you do on such a delegation?”

It’s too much to address all that we went through during the days there, as there are countless exciting stories to tell. But I’ll try to introduce the work we did to help the refugees who left their entire lives, and often loved ones, behind them, and to share a little bit of their world and what they’re going through.

I was part of a delegation consisting of more than 50 United Hatzalah volunteers—EMTs, paramedics, doctors, psychologists and social workers. We were divided into four teams, and each day we’d embark on a specific mission in the rotation with our team members.

Everyone helped out with whatever was needed because there was a need for a lot more than just providing medical and psychological first aid. When my staff was assigned to work in the kitchen on Friday, I had the privilege of cooking about 2,000 meals for refugees scattered throughout Chisinau. You read that right—2,000 meals. (From now on, cooking for the Passover Seder night will be a small task for me.)

Fresh food is such a comforting thing. It provides a homely, maternal and relaxing feeling. The thought of the refugees receiving a hot kosher meal on both Shabbat and weekdays, thanks to my help, moved me so much. This was the first week that the industrial kitchen that United Hatzalah created in Chisinau was opened. Later, the kitchen began pumping out between 5,000 to 6,000 meals per day.

We traveled to the two borders checkpoints that are open between Moldova and Ukraine, the southern (about a three-hour drive) and the northern (about five hours), and stood there for long hours in the freezing cold. We were there for two purposes: To provide basic medical care and humanitarian aid to the refugees crossing over the border—distribution of food, drinks, toys and candy to children (who both broke my spirit and captured my heart); and to lend a comforting hand with a loving smile. The second goal was to locate the Jewish refugees and give them all the information and assistance to forge on, both in terms of their stay in Moldova and rescue flights to Israel that were available for them.

My first day at the border was unbearable. I fell apart when seeing long, endless lines of women and children standing in line with small suitcases they managed to carry with them all the way to the border. They were pale and exhausted, waiting and longing to pass through the gates to a new and unfamiliar country, just to save themselves from the hell that was just a short time ago their home.

The number of people waiting at the border is hard to believe. Just the amount of babies in strollers and young children—tired, but obedient and not complaining. The children were often holding a suitcase that was larger than they were. Nearby were once-powerful and affluent women, with earrings and high heels and stylish fur coats, who now stand and ask for hot food. Standing alongside them are grandparents who packed their whole lives into a small bag and straightened their hunched backs so as not to fall into despair. These are sights we never imagined seeing in the year 2022.

On other days, we visited hotels as well as centers that have been set up for the refugees inside and around the capital city of Chisinau. Here the work is different. The refugees there are already safe; they have a place to lay their heads, a hot shower and hot food. But the feelings of helplessness and uncertainty taunt them, and they remain restless.

Hotel prices (even run-down places that cannot seriously be called a hotel) skyrocketed due to the demand from refugees, and people were left without money to pay for a room.

These people are in a foreign country and don’t know where to go. They’re without basic necessities. Some have children with them, and some are sad because they had to leave their family or pet behind.

I sat down in the lobby to help whoever needed it. In a mix of broken Russian, a little English and a little more Hebrew, I helped them understand what the next steps available to them were and assisted them in the decision of where to go from here.

Chief Rabbi of Moldova Rabbi Pinchas Salzman graciously opened his synagogue, The Jewish Center, as a shelter for all refugees. We commandeered the location and set up headquarters for our humanitarian aid mission. We also secured the agreement from the city to set up a field hospital to provide medical care to refugees across the street from the synagogue. Dozens of refugees came in and out of the synagogue each day. Just the thought of the amount of kindness and charity those walls have witnessed in the past month makes me emotional.

There was even hot food prepared there all the time, distributed with great love to anyone who knocked on the door. The first day we got there, even before I’d settled in, a father and son entered the synagogue together. They look lost, pale and tired, holding two bags in each hand. In broken Hebrew, the boy said to me, “Hello, we were told that kosher food can be obtained here. Is that OK?” I sat them down and brought them plates of food. I had to hold back my tears when I realized that they’d just finished a grueling three-day journey on the road to get here.

We provided medical treatment and care to all the refugees who asked or required it, and even treated a cat, a beloved pet of a refugee who was suffering from dehydration.

We set up field clinics in tents, on the roads and at the borders. After any medical treatment, our psychotrauma and crisis response unit volunteers joined to provide emotional support, because the body and mind are connected, so mental treatment is also required, especially in times of such upheaval and trauma.

Hadas Rucham works with a Ukrainian refugee child at a hotel in Chisinau. Credit: United Hatzalah.

Like a good girl, I listen to my mom, who always told me to take my diabetes medicine with me everywhere I go—and finally, something good came of it! One day, a woman came in and refused to sit down or put aside her belongings and eat. It turns out that the woman was out of insulin and didn’t want to eat out of fear that her sugar levels would skyrocket and cause her to have a medical emergency. Luckily, I was able to spare her some insulin, and the feeling of relief that was on her face was indescribable. Due to the influx of refugees, there was a shortage of insulin in the entire county. As a result, the Health Ministry of Moldova asked Israel for help in supplying the country and the refugees with the much-needed medication. Later that day, United Hatzalah chartered a plane that flew in tons of medical equipment, food, medicines and humanitarian aid. One of the items on the plane was more than a ton of insulin.

As the needs rose we began a convoy of rescue airlifts that we termed Operation Orange Wings. This operation would be the pride of any national military operation. At the beginning of the war, as the airspace in Moldova was closed, we transported refugees in convoys of buses to the Romanian border, and then flew thousands of refugees to Israel. We opened dispatch centers, first in Moldova and then in Israel, that were tasked with registering the documentation of the refugees; liaising with the Ministry of Absorption and various diplomats and ambassadors; and helping the refugees locate places to stay in Israel, whether through locating their families in the country or connecting them to the aid agencies that would assist them once they landed. Everyone had to be cared for. Since then, we’ve succeeded at opening Moldovan airspace for humanitarian flights, and we were the first organization to fly refugees directly out of Chisinau. We were also the first to fly a full cargo plane carrying more than 20 tons of medical supplies, food and humanitarian aid into Moldova.

The children. Oh, the kids there crushed me. Children, by their very nature, want to play, have fun and expend energy. However, their mothers are exhausted, their minds preoccupied with issues focusing on just trying to survive the difficult situation imposed upon them. The fathers and older brothers were forced to stay behind in Ukraine and fight in the war. Imagine what a few minutes of playing with the children, and keeping them occupied, does for their tired mothers.

The children were entertained with games, painting, dancing, soccer and a variety of other things. We even opened a martial arts class in a few locations. We would hold the babies so that the mothers, who had held them often for days on end during their journeys’ across the border, could rest. The tired face, the tormented eyes, the anxious but grateful look of the mothers, were all worth it.

I think that it’ll take me a long time to digest the difficult experiences and unfortunately, the war is still ongoing and is taking the lives of many more victims.

I’d like to quote a post written by famed refusenik Natan Sharansky, which is just so accurate and emotional for me at this time:

“When I was growing up in Ukraine, There was nothing significant about our Jewish identity except anti-Semitism and hatred towards us. I was reminded of this, this week, when I saw thousands of people standing at the borders, trying to escape the tragedy in Ukraine. They stand there day and night, and the one word that can help them get out of there is, ‘Jew.’

“If you are a Jew—there are Jews out there who will take care of you, there is someone on the other side of the border who is looking for you, and your chances of leaving are high. The world has turned upside down.

“When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was an unusual word for evil, no one envied us, and today on the Ukrainian border, Jew is an extraordinary word for good, it describes people who have a place to go and there is an entire nation, which is their family, waiting for them.

“The comparison to the Holocaust is very complex, but still, there is one thing that is so significant and powerful for me—80 years ago, on the blood-saturated land in Moldova and Ukraine, we were the persecuted, without a state, in need of mercy and a place to hide. Today, we Jews who are privileged to live in the Land of Israel, are privileged to be on the side that helps and gives to everyone and takes care of rescuing Jews in any situation, no matter what the trouble is.”

We are all one people. Long live the nation of Israel!

Hadas Rucham is a social worker in the surgical ward in Laniado Hospital in Netanya. She lives with her family in the town of Kedumim and is the operational director of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit for United Hatzalah. 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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