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In a Jerusalem hotel, Ukrainian refugees face the uncertainties of a new life

This article originally appeared in Haaretz and was reprinted here with permission.

The corridor of Jerusalem’s Caesar Hotel resembled an improvised football field on Wednesday. A few children, which in other circumstances should be in school, ran and played on the long carpet. They’re part of a group of about 60 adults and children that arrived in Israel just a few days ago, after a long an exhausting journey from bombarded Ukraine. Now, the hotel is their temporary home.

Currently, this is the biggest group of immigrant-refugees in Israel. Like millions of Ukrainians who were uprooted in the past two weeks, they left their homes taking almost nothing with them.

However, this group – unlike many other refugees – is eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return, creating a fault line between them and those who don’t have the privilege of being titled “new immigrant.” They’ve had state support from the moment they landed at Ben Gurion Airport. The Immigration and Absorption Ministry is helping them every step of the way. Its staff are opening bank accounts for them and depositing a few thousand shekels into their accounts – and that’s in addition to their allocated resettlement assistance.

Most of the Jewish refugees have been taken in by relatives and acquaintances. Others have been placed in hotels and inns countrywide. Those gathered in this Jerusalem hotel have nowhere to go. Many don’t even know where they’d like to be. Their lives have been suddenly uprooted without warning. There was no time for preparation or planning.

And yet, their stay at the hotel is deceptive. The wall-to-wall carpets and perfectly made beds don’t accurately reflect the drama taking place in their lives. The children run around and watch movies on their phones, their parents go out for errands and then return to the hotel. Sometimes, it almost seems like an organized trip. But in reality, they can only stay in this hotel for a few weeks – until they find somewhere else to live. The errands and tasks their parents run are urgent – registering for health insurance, opening a bank account, or finding out how to get a driver’s license.

An overflow of good will

Officials from the Immigration Ministry and Jerusalem municipality are assisting the immigrants. Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata has said her ministry is prepared to take in 12,000 immigrants in hotels, and that many of the 2,000 immigrants who have already arrived did so without any luggage whatsoever.

“A special ministry division is now at the airport with the Population Registration Authority staff and Nativ to help them issue identity cards for refugees as soon as they arrive,” she told Haaretz.

Meanwhile, at the hotel, the ministry’s representatives are in the lobby helping the newcomers navigate the intricacies of Israeli bureaucracy. One refugee lost her papers, others need an Israeli phone number. An Education Ministry official is interviewing the parents to find out who wants to register their kids for school in the city.

Katya, a Jerusalem resident who immigrated from Russia some 15 years ago, is one of many volunteers who came to the hotel to help anyone in need. “I feel I have to help,” she says. She has her own worries. Her sister lives in Moscow and is now considering coming to Israel. “It’s not going to be better in Russia,” she says.

There are so many volunteers that the most complicated task seems to be figuring out how to deal with the overflow of good will. Their intentions are good, but sometimes – it’s too much. Deliveries of clothes and food, not necessarily required, keep arriving, and the flow must be stopped.

Danielle Ginsburg, who was born in Israel to a Russian-speaking family, volunteered to help at the beginning of the week when the first immigrants arrived and has been coming to the hotel every day since. She talks to anyone who wants to speak, and tries to help them solve everyday problems. On the first day, many refugees asked for very basic equipment like underwear and hygiene products, a grim reminder of the urgency at which they fled Ukraine.

“The state’s representatives take care of the big things, I’m here for the little things,” says Ginsburg. For example, for Vladimir and Alexandra Rotenberg’s cat, Bowie, named after David Bowie, she found a donation of cat equipment. It was from Ginsburg that nine-year-old Vadim received a cape and a notebook with a picture of Harry Potter on it, his favorite book. His face lit up as he tried on the black cape.

The Rotenbergs are academics, sociology researchers.They’ve resided in the center of Kyiv for the last six years, until just two weeks ago when they were awaken one morning by the sound of shelling. “We understood the invasion had started,” says Alexandra.

For the first week, they remained in their apartment’s dark bathroom, hiding from the shelling. They chainsmoked and kept themselves updated by reading the news and social media. When they read about the fierce attacks on Kharkiv, they realized it was time to leave.

“We took two bags and the cat and boarded the first train that arrived,” she says.

The Rotembergs had began their journey to the Jewish Agency center near the Polish border, carrying with them papers attesting to Alexandra’s grandmother being a Jew.

On the way, they were forced to spend the night at the train station in Ternopil, as they couldn’t manage to board a single train – all were filled beyond capacity.

It took the family over 24 hours to reach the Jewish Agency at the border. From there, they made their way to Warsaw, where they boarded a flight to Israel. On Sunday, they landed at Ben Gurion Airport. They have no relatives in the country, only two aquaintences. They hope the academic community will assist them. A few universities have stated they would help researches from Ukraine by providing them with work for a certain period of time.

The Rotembergs, though, are worried for the friends they left behind in Kyiv. “We were lucky to leave within a week,” says Rotenberg. “Anyone who stayed longer is afraid to go out of the house.”

Secular parents, Chabad daughters

Sisters Christina and Karina Genoshkevitch, aged 14 and 13, from Chernihiv in north Ukraine, pass the time on the sofa in the lobby, listening to music on their phone. Their parents are secular, but they left home by choice to join a Chabad boarding school in Kyiv.

The two sisters fled the city a few days ago before the war began, and found shleter in another school. They reuinted with their parents later, at the border as they prepared to flee. On Sunday, they’ll join a religious girls school in the Har-Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem. In the meantime, their parents are searching for an apartment in town. If the sisters have any fears, they hide them well behind their constant smiles.

Asia Riderman and her husband Ilya, a holocaust survivor and poet. (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg/Haaretz)

Asia Riderman and her husband Ilya, a holocaust survivor and poet. (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg/Haaretz)

In the corridor on the sixth floor sits Asia Riderman, 30, from Odessa. She patiently answers, when asked repeatedly, how she met her husband, Ilya, 84. They’ve been married a little more than ten years. She was 16 when she first heard his poems, and later went to his philosophy club. “It was like a miracle,” she describes their meeting. Her grandmother, who lives in Israel, cut off her ties with her since she got married. Even now, when she’s in Israel, she won’t talk to her, although she’s her only relative in Israel.

Ilya, a Holocaust survivor and a poet, had worked for years as a journalist and a theater critic. He asks to go to rest in the room, while Asia tells us how they had escaped from Odessa when the shelling began.

Asia lived in Israel for two years as a child, when her father had studied in Midreshet Ben Gurion. “Those were the golden years of my childhood,” she says.

Ever since then she’s dreamed of returning to Israel. The dream came true unexpectedly and in an undesirable way, but she’s optimistic. She has a master’s degree in psychology and wants to continue her academic career. And find a house, perhaps out of the city. “I’m dreaming of a small, green place,” she says.

Meanwhile, Liana Ivanova, 32, is trying to get her two-year-old son Yvgen to sleep. She is noticeably tired, but doesn’t lose patience. Until two weeks ago, Ivanova and her husband Alexander were the proud owners of a boutique in Odessa selling clothes they designed themselves.

Passengers are welcomed by a crowd upon their arrival at Israel's Ben Gurion airport on March 3, 2022, after fleeing Ukraine to Romania before arriving in Israel. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Passengers are welcomed by a crowd upon their arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport on March 3, 2022, after fleeing Ukraine to Romania before arriving in Israel. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent years Israeli tourists have discovered the shop and in light of their success they started thinking about coming to Israel. But their life was upended the day the war started. They packed clothes and medicines and started traveling with their children to Lviv, hoping to get away from the battle area. Ivanova’s sick mother and 93-year-old grandfather, who refused to leave his home, were left behind.

What was usually a 10-hour trip turned into three days of traffic jams and attempts to find ways to bypass the destroyed roads. Alexander is exempt from joining the army for medical reasons, but that didn’t convince the volunteers at the border passes. They tried to cross the border again and again at different places and were turned back every time. Alexander even tried to cross the border alone with the children, hoping to make it, but was refused. He remained in Ukraine and is now driving children and women to the border passes.

Liana Ivanova was left alone with the children and many questions. She wants to work, but understands she probably won’t be able to be in the fashion business. She has no idea what she will do and how. “What will I do with the children in the meantime? How long will we be here?” she wonders in fluent English.

Over 10 years ago she visited Israel as part of the Taglit project – her mother is half-Jewish – but beyond that she doesn’t know Israel. Nor does she have any relatives here. She has a childhood friend, who lives in Tel Aviv. In the weekend she’ll visit him with the children. The older son, Vadim, 9, is circling around her in his new Harry Potter cape, which he received from Ginzburg the volunteer.

“My husband told him that from now on he’s the man, that he has to take care of us,” she says with a tired smile and starts another cartoon on YouTube for little Yvgen.

This article originally appeared in Haaretz and was reprinted here with permission.


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