Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Ukrainian refugees need our help. Here’s how Jews can act now

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently made an urgent plea to global leaders:

“If you don’t help us now, if you fail to offer a powerful assistance to Ukraine, tomorrow the war will knock on your door.”

The war is already knocking. Ukrainians — especially women and children — are fleeing their cities, enduring unimaginable risks.

These brave Ukrainians need humanitarian assistance. But humanitarian work cannot be left to humanitarian organizations alone.

Embed from Getty Images

Organizations like HIAS, the international refugee agency of the Jewish community, are only as strong as the funding and backing we get from governments and the international community — and only as persuasive as the voices of our supporters, who must demand decisive government action.

While the global refugee crisis was already out of control, the worst may be yet to come. The crisis in Ukraine poses an unprecedented challenge. A country of 45 million people has been invaded by a military superpower. We all have a role to play and sacrifices to make.

Zelenskyy’s warning is based on centuries of history and lessons we recently learned in Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan, which combined created 82.4 million refugees, the largest refugee crisis in world history. Nearly 29 million people crossed an international border seeking refuge or asylum.

For HIAS, helping Ukraine in particular is deeply personal. Over the last two decades, HIAS Ukraine has itself gone from being a foreign entity to becoming an independent Ukrainian organization, now known as “Right to Protection,” led and staffed by Ukrainians, most of whom have themselves already endured long standing forced displacement. To us, they are family.

Embed from Getty Images

When HIAS Ukraine (today R2P) was launched 22 years ago, HIAS was still helping Jews flee Ukraine due to antisemitic persecution. Today, the estimated 200,000 Jews in Ukraine are not in danger because they are Jews, but because they are Ukrainian.

In my first overseas trip during the pandemic, I participated in a commemoration of the 1941 Babyn Yar Massacre. I was grateful to witness, on the same trip, lives being saved through the humanitarian work of R2P in Kyiv and Slavyansk.

After the current conflict erupted, HIAS helped move R2P staff to safer places, where they are reopening operations to help internally displaced persons with food, provisions, and the documentation to help forcibly displaced persons who were already sheltering in Ukraine find safety elsewhere.

The flaw is that States that receive refugees by accident of geography are dependent on the good will of others to help them meet the needs of people fleeing danger.

We all need to demonstrate that good will.

Embed from Getty Images

The 1951 Refugee Convention, drafted largely by three Holocaust survivors, strives to ensure that no one of any religion, ethnicity, social group, political opinion or religion will ever again be trapped inside of a genocide.

Article 33 of the Refugee Convention — its key provision — drafted by Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Lewin — states that no signatory state may return a refugee to a place where they would face persecution.

While Europe has taken the lead on welcoming its Ukrainian neighbors, they may soon be overwhelmed. HIAS teams are on their way to border areas to see how we can support asylum seekers from Ukraine. Israel and the Jewish Agency are likewise sending people to help Jews who desire to make it safely to Israel.

The United States needs to likewise demonstrate its responsibility by contributing assistance to ensure the safe reception of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe.

As Zelenskyy warned, if we don’t provide military assistance, it is only a matter of time before this crisis knocks on our own door. The United States can support Ukraine’s European neighbors by welcoming the women, children, elderly and vulnerable people who have close family in the United States to join them here.

In addition, the United States and other countries should urgently offer resettlement to the 6,000 non-Ukrainian asylum seekers who fled to Ukraine seeking refuge and who now have to flee someplace else.

The U.S. should immediately grant Ukrainians who are already in the United States Temporary Protected Status to prevent them from being forced to return home before it is safe to do so.

Embed from Getty Images

We pray that this situation will be temporary, and that Ukrainians can all return home soon to a free and independent Ukraine. As it did with the thousands of Kosovar refugees who were evacuated to the United States from Macedonia in 1999, the U.S. can urgently resettle refugees to the U.S. with a clear offer to help them move back home voluntarily when it is safe to do so.

HIAS and the Jewish community have a role to play in welcoming the displaced from Ukraine through resettlement sites and expanding our network of welcome circles to help refugees settle in their new homes.

Jews worldwide should feel compelled to help Ukrainians stay in Ukraine if they can, flee from Ukraine if they can’t, and return home when it is finally safe to do so.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.