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Israel expects 10,000 refugees from Ukraine

Israel is bracing for the arrival of up to 10,000 immigrants from war-torn Ukraine in the coming weeks and months, according to the Jewish Agency, the global organization that facilitates the immigration of Jews to Israel.

Roman Polonsky, the Jewish Agency’s regional director for the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Germany, told a Forward reporter that the Agency upped its initial estimate of 3,000 potential immigrants after thousands of Ukrainians in search of assistance contacted a hastily established hotline created by the Agency and a partner nonprofit, the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews.

About 5,000 of those calls were about how to make aliyah, Polonsky said.

Ukrainian refugees who have managed to arrive at newly formed humanitarian aid centers are exhausted, cold and hungry, with little more than the clothes they are wearing, Polonsky said.

“Many fled with two small bags and maybe a cat and a dog,” he added.

In recent days the Interior Ministry had blocked several Ukrainians who had sought to enter Israel, a decision that angered Ukrainian officials. In response, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced Monday that her office was loosening entry criteria — but only for prospective immigrants considered strictly Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

The new directive will temporarily welcome to Israel anyone allowed to immigrate under the country’s Law of Return — even if a non-Jewish immigrant is not accompanied by a Jewish relative, as is usually required.

Israel’s longstanding immigration rules would have barred many non-Jewish Ukrainians whose Jewish relative was a male of draft age, 18-60, since Ukraine is not permitting those men to leave the country.

With few exceptions, the refugees permitted to cross into neighboring countries are women and children and people over 60.

“Families are separated. We see a wife with children and elderly parents go beyond the border while the men go back to fight. It’s a very difficult choice for a family to make,” Polonsky said.

Adding to the difficulties, some of the refugees have COVID-19, due to the time they spent in bomb shelters, on long bus rides and in the chaotic conditions at the borders.

“We don’t ask for vaccination documents,” Polonsky said, adding that any refugee needing medical care is receiving it.

For the Jewish community members who cannot or will not leave Ukraine, the Agency has earmarked $1.5 million to Jewish institutions so they can shore up their already tight security.

“Their main concern now is security guards, which aren’t easy to find because they’re of draft age. We also distributed satellite phones because regular communications can be disrupted,” Polonsky said. Right now, he said, the Agency’s number one goal is to get people out of harm’s way.

“Our aim is to save lives, to help all Jews who need help and are capable of crossing the border and finding them food and shelter.”

The Jewish Agency, which works in tandem with the Israeli government, is just one of the many Israeli bodies working in Ukraine, trying to evacuate the approximately 200,000 Ukrainian Jews to neighboring countries and support Jews who have chosen to stay. Among those working to provide refugees with food, medication and shelter are Israeli government personnel, the Joint Distribution Committee, IsraAID and United Hatzalah.

“The Russians have attacked from every side, except the west so that is the only way for the refugees to leave,” Polonsky said. Those who have managed to cross the border are now in Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Poland and Slovakia.

Ukraine is home to a core group of about 43,000 Jews, according to the most recent surveys, but about 200,000 people are considered eligible to immigrate to Israel based on its Law of Return.

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