Mariupol. Until three months ago, this port city of some 400,000 residents—Ukraine’s 10th largest city—wasn’t well known outside of the region. Then the Russian invasion forces launched a massive attack on the city.
That’s Alexander’s hometown. A few weeks ago, Alexander, 13, whom everyone calls Sasha, arrived at Hadassah Neurim, the Youth Aliyah village on the seashore north of Netanya established by Hadassah in 1948. Like thousands of children since the village’s establishment, Sasha arrived by himself. His father passed away and his mother is a physician and hospital department head in Mariupol. Sasha and his mother found shelter in the hospital basement at the beginning of the war until they could leave the country. His sister, a student in Lviv, is still in Ukraine.
Vanessa, 15, came from Odesa, the country’s larger seaport city, where she went to a music school until the war began. She fled with her mother and her little sister to Romania. She was glad to leave for Israel, but she worried about coming all by herself and leaving her circle of friends behind. In her transition, she made friends with another girl and, in her words, “that made it less lonely.”
Motvei, whose name is the Ukrainian version of Matthew, 14, grew up in Shostka on the Ukrainian border with Russia but was attending a religious school in Kyiv when the war started. He escaped with his mother to Hungary, and they decided to take the opportunity for him to continue school in Israel.
They are three of the 25 Ukrainian youngsters expected in this first wave of young immigrants to Hadassah Neurim. Nine have already arrived, unexpectedly faced with the need to make new lives for themselves.
The youngsters were met at the airport by their adult, Russian-speaking counselor from Hadassah Neurim. Within a week of their arrival, they've started school, where they learn Hebrew, Israeli history and other subjects, including lots of art therapy.
A special team of Russian-speaking staff was added to the existing team of teachers, therapists and counselors at the village. Some 40 percent of Hadassah Neurim’s 300-plus students come from Russian-speaking backgrounds. All the Ukrainian students speak Russian as well as their native Ukrainian. Now they must learn Hebrew and improve their English.
“We know all the new arrivals will need support, but each one has undergone a comprehensive interview to determine who needs immediate intervention for post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions,” says Lior Carmeli, a psychotherapist who heads the therapeutic unit. “On the one hand, we want to find out about their educational history, interests and hobbies, and, on the other hand, we want to know their personal backgrounds and what might make them more vulnerable. They have come here straight from the fire.
“Our message to them is, you are safe. We’re happy you are here. We know it’s hard to adjust, and we’ll be here holding your hand for as long as you need it.”
In the meantime, Sasha is eager to get back to his studies. He wants to be a doctor like his mom and knows he needs to learn Hebrew and get good grades. He heard that the meat in Israel isn’t as good as that in Ukraine, but he’s been pleasantly surprised by the tasty and plentiful meals at Hadassah Neurim.
Vanessa doesn’t think she wants to continue in music education, though she might like to join Hadassah Neurim’s music group because she loves to sing. “It’s all so new, I have to find my way,” she says.
Motvei is interested in history. “I’m satisfied so far, but unsure if I would be better off in a more religious framework.”
Russian-speaking social worker Anna Shulkin says that the overall feeling of the students is that they are relieved to be in Israel after their sudden, tumultuous and uncertain journeys away from home. They are determined to build new lives for themselves. “Of course,” she adds, “they’re anxious about the family members left behind.”
That anxiety is shared by the more veteran students from both Russia and Ukraine, many of whom have relatives and friends in Russia and Ukraine. The staff emphasizes finding reliable sources of news and not to be panicked by fake news flooding social media.
“Before the war, we didn’t allow cellphones in class, but now we do. The students can concentrate better when they know they won’t miss news from home,” explains Shulkin.