In a youth centre just outside Tel Aviv, dozens of Jewish-Ukrainian children are recovering after fleeing war for the second time in two terrifying years.
The children were living in a group home in the Zhytomyr region of northern Ukraine when they were awakened by explosions on Feb. 24, 2022, the first morning of the Russian invasion. With enemy troops attacking their country from three directions, a plan was quickly developed to evacuate the more than 100 kids and the group home’s staff to what seemed like the safety of Israel.
On Oct. 7, the nightmare was repeated for 40 of the children when air-raid sirens screamed over their new home in the southern Israeli port city of Ashkelon. They were just 10 kilometres from the Gaza Strip, and Hamas fighters were pouring through holes in the Israeli security perimeter, killing and kidnapping men, women and children.
The group of children are among tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians who have come to Israel since the start of the war for Ukraine. Among them are refugees, draft dodgers and a few who have travelled to Ukraine to fight before returning to Israel after Oct. 7.
The kids, who are between seven and 18 years old, spent six hours in a bomb shelter that Saturday before emerging during a moment of apparent quiet for food and a trip to the synagogue. Then, amid rumours that Hamas gunmen were inside the city, they returned to their safe house. The staff who had accompanied them from Ukraine began making plans to flee again.
“The kids immediately noticed something was not normal. We went to the shelter and stayed there for a few hours. Some kids really panicked and started crying. We understood that we must take them away from Ashkelon as soon as possible,” said Malki Bukiet, who was the director of the Alumim-Chabad Home for Jewish Children in Zhytomyr and has remained with the kids in Israel.
The children are now at the youth facility on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, where sirens – usually followed by the sounds of Israel’s air defence systems intercepting Hamas rockets – are still a near-daily occurrence. “We feel as if anywhere we go war is following us,” said a 12-year-old girl named Chani, in a statement relayed via the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity headquartered in the United States that sponsored the evacuation from Ukraine, and also assisted the move from Ashkelon. “I really don’t know where I can feel safe any more and I’m so scared that I’ll need to get on another plane to escape war.”
Ms. Bukiet said the kids are now receiving group treatment to cope with the trauma and turmoil of the past two years. One of them, she added, has already joined the Israeli military.
Israel and the history of the Jewish people have been linked to the war in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely claims that his troops are fighting to eradicate “Nazism” in Ukraine – even as Russian air strikes and artillery fire have destroyed at least 11 synagogues around the country. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, has frequently likened his country’s struggle to Israel’s – two democracies cursed with bad neighbours.
Mr. Zelensky, however, has been disappointed with the tepid support Ukraine has received from the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has prioritized good relations with the Kremlin, which has influence over Hamas, as well as the autocratic government of neighbouring Syria.
The Ukrainian President reportedly sought to visit Israel to show solidarity after the Oct. 7 attacks. However, Mr. Netanyahu – who has welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron and others – told Mr. Zelensky that “the time is not right” for him to visit, Israeli media reported.
The war in Ukraine has brought a fivefold increase in the number of immigrants arriving in Israel from both Ukraine and Russia – about 15,000 and 43,000 respectively. Many in the latter group were fleeing Mr. Putin’s increasingly repressive rule and the possibility of being drafted to fight in his war.
Anna Kolobayeva, a 45-year-old St. Petersburg native, said she and her family had already decided to leave Russia when their plans were moved up in September of last year, the month Mr. Putin announced a partial mobilization, which meant that her 41-year-old husband, Kirill, and 23-year-old son, Andrei, could be drafted.
“We realized they could just close the country and that would be it, we couldn’t leave,” Ms. Kolobayeva said in an interview in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, where the family now lives. She said she struggles to understand the war between Russia and Ukraine, which she sees as a fight between two brotherly peoples torn apart by geopolitics. “I feel terrible for the people who are dying for something – and they don’t know what it is.”
She and her family have also spent time in Antalya, a Turkish resort popular with both Russians and Ukrainians trying to escape the war. While there was tension between the two groups in Turkey, Ms. Kolobayeva says Russian and Ukrainian Jews have no problem co-existing in Israel. “We’re all on the same side here. We’re all relatives.”
Not everyone moving between Russia, Ukraine and Israel is fleeing the fighting.
Arie, a code name, is a 34-year-old Russian-born Israeli paratrooper who has travelled repeatedly to Ukraine since the war began. At first he was providing Ukrainian soldiers with training in combat medicine. Later, he connected with teams of surgeons and paramedics who went on front-line missions to perform battlefield medicine and casualty evacuations. While the medics worked, Arie – whom The Globe and Mail is not naming out of concerns his family in Russia could face retribution – provided perimeter security with other foreign volunteer fighters.
More than once that meant he was firing his AR-15 assault rifle at soldiers from the country of his birth. “It was disappointing for sure. But when I was a kid, when I was growing up, I never expected that my country would become something very close to Nazi Germany from the perspective of propaganda and ideology,” he said in an interview this week at his home in Haifa. He said he left Russia and moved to Israel in 2014, shortly after the Kremlin’s seizure and illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
But as passionate as he is about the Ukrainian cause – and the need to confront Mr. Putin’s Russia – Arie returned to Israel as fast as he could from Ukraine after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on the communities of southern Israel, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis. On Wednesday, he joined his reservist paratrooper unit as it was deployed toward Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Fears are high that Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which like Hamas is funded by Iran, could open a second front in the war.
“This is my home. I’m very sympathetic to Ukrainians. But the moment this happened, the feeling was that this is much more important for me, with all due respect to the Ukrainians,” Arie said.
While Mr. Biden has linked the wars in Ukraine and Israel as two fronts in a struggle to defend democracy from “terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin,” Arie sees them as very different fights, connected only by the Kremlin’s desire to see war spread to the Middle East to turn the world’s attention away from Ukraine.
He argues that there’s an important difference between Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine and Israel’s 56-year-old military occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza. Israel, he said, never took the next step and annexed the land (though it has annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which were both also captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War).
Israel officially recognizes the Palestinian people and negotiates with their representatives. “It’s a question for us: How should this occupation end? How should we provide security in the centre of Israel?”
Russia, meanwhile, has declared the annexation of five regions of Ukraine, and Mr. Putin has said there is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian nation.
Arie believes the battle to crush Hamas – even if Hezbollah joins the fight – will be over in a few months at most, far faster than the war for Ukraine. But he’s not planning to return to the other battlefield afterward.
“I’m not like an adventure seeker that just needs more adrenalin. War is a very scary thing. If you have family, if you have some obligations, you cannot think that I really want now to go sit in a military unit and not see my three-year-old-daughter. It’s not true. I’m pretty nervous.”
He said he had gone to help in Ukraine, then returned to serve in Israel, purely out of a sense of obligation, to stand beside his friends in both fights. “In any war, there is no joy.”
With reporting by Daniel Yaacobi in Tel Aviv
Editor’s note: Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the International Federation of Christians. The organization's name is International Fellowship of Christians. This version has been updated.