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‘At 15, you can grow up’: Refugee stories of anguish and hope at the Ukrainian border

MEDYKA, Poland — It was weeks after the bombs started falling close to her fifth-floor apartment in Kyiv that Irena Sakada began to really worry about her 15-year-old daughter, Sofia. That’s when Sofia put down her paints.

Unlike most of their friends, Sakada, a manicurist who is 46, had expected the Russian attack, and had prepared. “I had a very strong intuition, so I packed my suitcase and all the documents,” she told a group of Jewish nonprofit leaders visiting Poland’s Ukrainian border this week.

“And I started to explain to Sofia what she should do if I’m gone at work – what should she take, where should she run,” Sakada continued. “At 15, you can grow up.”

Irena Sakeda sits beside her daughter Sofia who wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.

After an Indescribable Ordeal: Seated at left, Irena Sakeda and her daughter Sofia recall their escape from Kyiv. By Jodi Rudoren

They felt the first bombs on the very first day of the war, when their Yorkshire Terrier, Smart, started jumping around by the window at 4 a.m. The next morning, they joined the throngs searching for underground shelter, but found that several addresses promised by the municipality were inexplicably locked.

“Eventually we just broke the lock and invaded,” Sakada said. Some 120 people squeezed into six rooms, each about 15 meters long, sleeping on the floor, no electricity or bathrooms.

“They were very creative,” she said. “One by one they used jars or anything they could use.”

After three days, mother, daughter and dog left the scary squalor to stay at a friend’s apartment. After another four days, they headed west across Ukraine, eventually landing in the Polish city of Lublin, where they have been staying in a hotel the Joint Distribution Committee – the largest Jewish nonprofit involved in the refugee effort – has been operating as a shelter since March 5.

“I was very concerned because at some point she stopped painting,” Sakada said of her daughter, who wants to be an animator and game designer. “Then, suddenly, three days ago, she took up the brushes again.”

The Sakadas were among a handful of Jewish refugees who shared their stories across a 36-hour visit to the border region for 30 executives and lay leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America that I tagged along with this week.

JFNA raised more than $30 million over the first three weeks of a Ukraine emergency relief drive, and has been a major long-term backer of both the JDC and the other main Jewish group working at the border, the Jewish Agency for Israel. Last year, Federations gave more than $69 million to the Jewish Agency and $30 million to the Joint.

This was the second JFNA mission to Poland in as many weeks, and two more are planned for the first week of April. Eric Fingerhut, the group’s CEO, wants key leaders from around North America – our group included people from Hartford, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore, Atlanta, Columbus, Philadelphia, Florida, Montreal and New Jersey – to witness the crisis first hand and come home with stories to tell that will further galvanize Jews to give.

The trip was short, and the group was large, so what we got were snapshots of the largest and most rapidly developing refugee crisis since World War II. More than 2 million Ukrainians have poured over the Polish border over the past month. These are a few of their stories.

Valeriy Eremena sits with aid workers in a conference room

An Oasis of Sorts: Valeriy Eremena (wearing a gray sweater) had moved with his wife to the countryside before their house was destroyed. By Jodi Rudoren

After the pandemic began, Valeriy and Tatiana Eremena, retirees in their 70s, moved from Kyiv to the countryside, near a town called Makarov about 50 kilometers west of the capital. For the first couple of weeks of the war, they stayed put.

“They weren’t shooting at us but they were shooting near us,” Valeriy explained. “We got used to it.”

Then something hit the house “and the house burned,” he continued. Tatiana was home. “It’s a miracle she escaped,” he said, adding that she has burns that have yet to heal. “She managed to take just the cell phone.”

The Eremenas have a daughter who made aliyah to Israel in 1999, so they figured they would join her there, given Israel’s Law of Return that guarantees citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. But they had no passports, no documents showing their heritage – no identification of any kind, it had all been destroyed in the fire.

They thought about trying to return to Kyiv to retrieve their papers, but their city apartment is on the 15th floor, very dangerous in this air war. So they went instead to Lviv, the western Ukrainian city that has been relatively free of bombing. There, they contacted the JDC, whose Chesed program had copies of the Eremena’s papers from a social-services initiative they’d participated in years before.

From Lviv the couple eventually got to Warsaw, where they have spent several days in one of four hotels the Jewish Agency has taken over in Poland’s largest city to house refugees and process their immigration paperwork.

“With God’s help, tomorrow we will be flying to Israel, making aliyah,” Valeriy said. As he spoke that last line, the JFNA group gasped.

JFNA meeting near the Poland-Ukraine border

Mission Driven: The JFNA has raised more than $30 million over the first three weeks of a Ukraine emergency relief drive, and has been a major long-term backer of both the JDC and the other main Jewish group working at the border, the Jewish Agency for Israel. By Jodi Rudoren

Aleksander and Ella Khanin, who lived in the town of Ludik in western Ukraine. Aleksander, a 60-year-old professor of mathematics at a local university, was wearing a blue nylon yarmulke when we met in a synagogue that is housed in the hotel, which was originally built as a yeshiva in the 1930s. Ella, 54, did not say anything about her work; instead, she spoke of her mother, who was born in 1924, and was staying with them in the hotel.

“She couldn’t run and hide in the shelter, she was physically unable to do so,” Ella Khanin explained. “In 1941, they lived in Bedichev, and fled the Nazis. Now she had to go in a different direction.”

Compared to people who lived in eastern Ukraine, Ella said, they were lucky. Some people had been killed in Ludik during an attack on a television tower, but “until this day, in our town, there are shops that are open, kids that are going to school,” she added. ”But every day, day and night, people are going down to the shelters because we have sirens and the city is bombarded.”

“I won’t go on about how difficult it is at our age to start a life from scratch,” added her husband. Aleksander. “I’ll just say, my mother-in-law is 97 years old. She survived the horrors of the Second World War. She saw blood, she saw missiles. And now she has to see it all again.”

Mark Wright, a 56-year-old lawyer from Tampa who was in our group and had brought duffel bags filled with goods to donate, pulled Aleksander aside from the group conversation, and placed a blue embroidered tallit around his shoulders. His father’s tallit.

“My father had it, then of course I had it for a while,” said Wright. “Then I thought it was important for Aleksander to have it.”

A father pushes his daughter in a shopping cart, which contains a princess backpack and other belongings.

Crossing the Border: Refugees, their belongings in shopping carts, traverse a kilometer-long brick path to finally arrive in Poland. By Jodi Rudoren

At the border crossing itself, in Medyka – the largest of Poland’s nine crossing points – there was a relative trickle of refugees when we visited Tuesday afternoon. They were escorted on the last kilometer by aid workers in neon vests, their few belongings in shopping carts; a week before, we were told by those who were there, that kilometer-long brick path was a slow-moving wall of people, and there were no shopping carts.

On Tuesday, though, there were more volunteers and visitors than those needing help. A volunteer in a furry-mouse costume greeted the children, others offered them chocolate and small stuffed animals. “Best soup and coffee,” called out the guy at the Indian food truck sponsored by United Sikhs. There were fresh apples and oranges, cookies and water, baby food and diapers, wool hats and jackets, SIM cards and toys, even wood-fired pizza and the remnants of blue cotton candy.

A man with a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag draped over his shoulders pushed his wife in a wheelchair; they were from Mariupol, the southern city that has been occupied by Russian forces for days.

A younger woman with a similar Ukrainian flag draped over her shoulders was not a refugee – not yet, anyway. Her name was Lila Bukhalova, and she is an actress from Kharkiv who works with marionettes. She is 34 years old and now living in Lviv.

“Three days ago, we heard the planes, but they were our planes, Ukrainian,” Bukhalova told me. “But we were scared. For us in Kharkiv, when we hear the planes, the bombs will follow.”

She said she had left Kharkiv after eight days of bombardment, with her mother, who is ill. They have been staying in a church basement in Lviv; her father remains in Kharkiv.

It took me a while to understand what she was doing at the border, politely asking volunteers if it was OK for her to take a bottle of water. “Translating,” she explained. “For those who don’t know English.” She said she planned to cross back into Ukraine that night.

Sofia Sakada, who has plans to be an animator and games designer, shows off one of her drawings, which is redolent of anime.

Present and Future Artist: Sofia Sakada, holding up one of her drawings, has plans to become an animator and game designer. By Jodi Rudoren

Of all the stories, Irena and Sofia Sakada’s was the one that stuck with me, perhaps because Sofia is not just practically the same age as my own twins, but also a painter, like my daughter, Shayna.

As Irena told their story, Sofia sat with both her legs and her arms crossed, wearing gray sweatpants and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. She barely looked up – not at her mother, not at us. Not when Irena talked about her having to grow up at 15, not when she spoke of the lack of toilets, not when she talked about their little dog, Smart.

Irena herself had been reluctant, started slowly. “I cannot speak about the war at all,” she said when it was her turn. “I’m sorry, I’m having terrible nightmares.” But once she began, she seemed unable to stop, spinning the nightmares out in detail as Sofia sent next to her, eyes fixed on her own feet.

Then she surprised me by standing up. “I’m a painter,” Sofia said. “It was very important for me to take my colors and my brushes. It’s a part of me.”

And then: Did we want to see her new painting?

“I tried to express my feelings with this character,” she said as she held up the impressive and complicated work, a cartoonish teenage girl with spiky bows and webbed hands, mostly in blood red. “There’s a small teddy bear she holds, because I think kids now, they just want to live, they want a toy, and they cannot understand why they cannot have it.”

The Sakadas were among 56 refugees at the Lublin hotel-yeshiva on Tuesday night. Last week, it was more than 100. They have been there the longest. During the first week or more, they mostly just stayed in their room with their little dog.

But these last few days they’ve taken some walks around the city center. Sofia is looking into art schools. Irena has been working in the makeshift “store” in the hotel’s basement, where refugees can come and get clothes, medicine, water and other supplies donated by visiting Americans and many others, all for free. She is thinking about looking for a job doing nails in Lublin.

“Looking at the little children gave me the power” to return to painting, said Sofia, who sounded much, much older than 15. “It gives us the energy to continue to have hope.”


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