ORT Teacher Yearns for Return to Kyiv

Five months after fleeing her home outside Kyiv shortly before it was destroyed by heavy shelling, an ORT teacher has reflected on her family’s experiences as refugees and their hopes to return to Ukraine.

Vanda, who taught Hebrew at the ORT school in Kyiv for more than 15 years, escaped to the Netherlands with her husband, two children and their grandmother. They are now trying to rebuild their lives but face further months of uncertainty after the loss of their home.

Telling their story for the first time, she attributes her family’s financial and physical survival to the help provided by ORT supporters around the world.

ORT’s operations in Ukraine serve more than 7,500 students in seven schools and additional programs, but more than half of our Ukraine school family population have left their homes during the conflict, with the majority seeking shelter abroad. The global education network is planning a new fundraising drive, aimed at improving security at ORT schools ahead of the return of some in-person learning in September.

Vanda is highly dedicated to her work at ORT Educational Complex #141 in Kyiv. The school is inclusive and provides additional support for children with special educational needs. Both of Vanda’s children – Danya, 15, and Dasha, 11 – benefit from these services.

When the conflict started at the end of February, her first thought was for her students, colleagues and the school itself. Vanda’s family home was in a quiet neighbourhood in the commuter city of Irpin, and she travelled up to 90 minutes every day to work.

“All I could think was ‘how can I continue to teach? What can I do to help?’,” she explained.

Her experience of spending time in Israel meant she was prepared for the threat of missiles. At home, Vanda taught her children how to shelter on the floor in case of bombardment, and to stay away from the windows. As the shelling drew nearer to Irpin, the family tried to maintain a sense of normality, visiting the supermarket, trying to stay in touch with friends, and taking part in whatever online studies and teaching were possible.

On the second weekend of the conflict the family sat in the corridor with their Shabbat candles, praying for peace and safety. They spent their nights fully-clothed on the floor. But it was soon obvious that the danger was too grave and they would have to leave.

Danya and Dasha in the shelter.

Through tears, Vanda explained how they fled their home: “We heard there was a train taking women and children out of the city. My daughter’s speech is limited and taking the train was too big a risk – if we were separated it is unlikely we would ever find each other again.”

With no other option, the family left by car, driving with the lights off and taking emergency backpacks filled with documents, food and warm clothing.

They eventually made it out of Irpin, reached the highway and were able to stay temporarily in a small, cramped house in a nearby village. The family relied on handouts of potatoes and grain from villagers.

On the evening of March 15, Vanda received a call from a friend. Their house had been shelled and destroyed by the subsequent fire.

“The neighbors said if we had been inside then we would have had no chance of survival.”

The family reached Poland and soon moved on to the Netherlands, where they now stay in the town of Velddriel, about 80km from Amsterdam.

Vanda said: “About 500 Ukrainian refugees came here, many with children. I was teaching online at my ORT school until the end of the academic year. Now during the summer I am teaching refugee children a range of subjects – Ukrainian literature, leadership development, and cultural studies lessons. We learn about great artists, writers and historical figures.

“There is a big difference between the ORT students I see and the other Ukrainian kids – especially in their social skills and communication.”

Despite finding a semblance of stability in the Netherlands, Vanda and her family have no assurances about their future. With no home to return to, going back to their lives in Ukraine is currently not a realistic option.

“It is hard for my children to be away from home, they are going through a difficult adaptation period and they do not know any Dutch.

“I am grateful to God for working in the ORT school, because we are all like a big family. I keep in touch with all my colleagues and hope we will meet again.

“Personally we would not have been able to survive financially without ORT’s help. On every step of the way ORT has been supportive, kind and attentive. We had to buy a lot of things: shoes and clothes for the kids. ORT provided financial help to purchase food, petrol, other necessities.

“I don’t know what will happen next. Of course we want to return. But it is a very long, complicated process to get compensation for the loss of our home. For now I am focusing on volunteering and making sure my children are settled and well.”

Vanda’s family home after the shelling.

As ORT’s schools in Ukraine prepare to return to in-person learning in September, necessary steps are being taken to ensure the safety of our teachers and students.

Work will take place to reinforce and improve school basements for use as shelters, and plans are being made to hire professional security guards.

Teachers at all ORT schools in Ukraine will receive emergency response training. This will ensure they are prepared to respond efficiently and compassionately if an emergency situation occurs. They will also receive training in delivering aspects of Jewish education as our Israeli teachers will not be returning to Ukraine at this time.

ORT is also planning secure transport and the provision of meals for students.

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