Jewish Groups Open Refugee Camps

Ukrainian servicemen ride on an armoured vehicle during a patrol in the eastern Ukrainian town of Vuhlehirsk Thursday. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)
Ukrainian servicemen ride on an armoured vehicle during a patrol in the eastern Ukrainian town of Vuhlehirsk Thursday. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

As fighting rages in much of eastern Ukraine, two Jewish groups have set up accommodations to begin dealing with the growing refugee crisis.

“There are over 100,000 displaced persons in Ukraine and the number is growing,” said Igor Kaslovsky, Coordinator of the Program for Displaced Persons under the auspices of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. “Of that number somewhere between five and ten thousand are Jewish.”

Kaslovsky explained the number is constantly growing because of the difficulty that many in the war zone face in fleeing. He claimed that this was not only due to fear of getting caught in crossfire, but also because pro-Russian fighters actively restrict travel from the east.

“Presently, we have 30 people in a hotel that we own in Kiev,” said Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, under whose auspices the Confederation Program operates. “We are setting up an additional building to house up to 300.”

Rabbi Bleich said that the center was established in Kiev to allow its residents easy access to employment opportunities. Children have been sent to the Confederation’s camp, 15 miles outside the city. The program provides vouchers for three meals a day in Kiev’s kosher restaurant and has also established a fund to help with medical expenses and other basic needs.

The program is working in tandem with Jewish organizations from several eastern cities to focus on the most needy cases including the elderly and several expectant mothers.

“We are taking people on Shabbos, its hatzalas nefashos,” said Rabbi Bleich. “Jews are not being targeted, but they are suffering with everybody else. People are being shot indiscriminately, R”l.”

The Confederation’s residents come from the eastern city of Donetsk, from which Mr. Kaslovsky hails.

“My school was bombed and my apartment building collapsed from shelling,” he said. “I am working to bring my sister and her family who are still living there.”

Kaslovsky said that plans for the future differ among residents. Many of them do hope that the situation will stabilize enough for them to return to their homes and businesses. Others, however, from cities like Lugansk have very little infrastructure to return to. 

Since early July, Rabbi Shalom Gopin, Director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Lugansk, has been running a program for the many refugees from his embattled town on a camp grounds on Zhitomir, according to a report from Chabad.org.

“This is the biggest Jewish refugee crisis in Ukraine since World War II,” said Rabbi Gopin, speaking to Chabad.org from Zhitomir. Like so many of their neighbors in embattled eastern Ukraine, “the Jews of our community left everything behind,” he says. “They have no homes, no jobs, no money. Many still have family stuck in Lugansk.”

“Ukraine is in a terrible situation today,” said Kaslovsky. “People want to live their lives without this constant fear.”