Ukrainian Students who Fled to Israel Feel Safer There, Even During War

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post

For Sviatoslav, Michael and Maria, the attacks on October 7 were an unimaginable development – but for them the implications carried a different resonance than for their peers at the Kfar Silver Youth Village near Ashkelon.

The trio are part of a group of students who fled the war in Ukraine in March 2022 and came to Israel to study at the village, owned by the World ORT educational network, in what they hoped would be more peaceful surroundings. 

After leaving behind their war-torn home country they immediately set about acclimating to a completely different culture, learning Hebrew and navigating their high-school studies. 

Monique Zahavi, International Relations Coordinator at World ORT Kadima Mada, the network’s operational arm in Israel, describes the students as “incredibly resilient and inspirational”.

She says their challenges have not stopped them from striving to reach their potential. “They contribute to school life at every opportunity. The depth of thought and engagement that they contribute to our young ambassadors sessions is heartwarming.” 

These four teenagers all moved from wartorn Ukraine to Kfar Silver near Ashkelon in Israel From left Michael Reider Artem Karpin Maria and Sviatoslav Kulyk

Sviatoslav, 17, described the shock of that fateful morning in October. “I was in Ashkelon with friends and was woken up at 6am by the rocket fire. There were reports that terrorists had infiltrated Israel. I saw pictures of Sderot. Ashkelon is extremely close to Sderot. We closed all the windows and doors and stayed in the safe room for two hours. Yeah, that was scary.” 

Due to its proximity to the Gaza border, Kfar Silver students were among the first to be evacuated, under the watchful eyes of Amos Gofer, the village’s CEO, and other staff.

Sviatoslav moved into his grandmother’s house in Holon, while Michael, Maria and other dorm students were taken to Hadassah Neurim, a verdant youth campus with a view of the sea, just north of Netanya. Some six weeks later, they returned to Kfar Silver, amid frequent rocket fire that forced them to sleep on mattresses in the safety of the bomb shelter.  

In fluent English, the three share what it was like to flee the Russian onslaught on Ukraine. Sviatoslav asserts that the booms of the Iron Dome missile interceptions do not faze him after what he experienced in his hometown of Kharkiv. “I saw Russian soldiers invading my city, I saw dead people lying in the street. At least five times I thought, ‘I’m going to die right now’ because there was constant shelling right next to us and we didn’t have any bomb shelter.”

In the early days of that conflict, the teenager and his parents suffered severe hunger, unable to leave the house due to a curfew, and then forced to wait in line with thousands of other terrified civilians to buy bread. 

Michael, 18, a native of Kyiv, is also no stranger to deadly rocket attacks. The day after the war began in February 2022 he fled with his family to a village on the border of Belarus, where they stayed for six days. From there he made his way to the Polish border where it took 15 hours to cross over, waiting all night in a line with thousands of other people to board one bus that took only about 30 people at a time. Michael describes a scene he will never forget: people forced to leave their belongings behind in the snow, since all the extra space on the bus had to be used to transport people. 

Once in Poland, Michael had to wait for a week, but he had all his needs including food and accommodation taken care of before boarding his long-awaited flight to Israel. Two weeks after arriving he moved to Kfar Silver.

Maria lived with her mother in Kharkiv, close to the frontline, but fortunately was staying with her father in Kyiv. With her brother and father she fled westward to a village where the homes lacked indoor plumbing and she had to take a shower at the neighbors’ home. After a few weeks, they crossed the border to Moldova, and took a taxi to Kishinev. The next day they were already on a flight to Israel. “At 16 I was old enough to travel alone,” Maria relates, “but because my younger brother was underage, he needed a legal guardian to accompany him. Luckily, my father found a volunteer to cross with us and he accompanied us all the way Israel.”

Arriving in Israel with no way to return to Ukraine was not what any of the students had expected. The three had been in the midst of the application process to study at Kfar Silver for the school year of 2022-23 through the Naale program which welcomes students from the former Soviet Union to Israel ahead of their family members joining them in making aliyah. 

They had anticipated arriving in the summer of 2022. Eighteen-year-old Michael said he was “so happy to finally arrive in the land of Israel — and to Kfar Silver, one of the best schools in Israel, although it wasn’t exactly in the way I wanted”.

Maria was able to visit her parents and grandparents in Ukraine last summer, but Sviatoslav and Michael are in a different category. If they travelled home, they would be subject to Ukrainian law that prohibits males, even below conscription age, from leaving the country. 

Sviatoslav admits that he misses his home, his friends and his family. He met his mother and sister during the last two summers when they came to Israel to visit, but has not seen his father in the two years since he has been in Israel. “The situation in Ukraine isn’t any more dangerous now than Israel. Sometimes I dream about receiving an Israeli passport and visiting Ukraine as an Israeli.”

Despite the adversity they have faced, with the help and nurturing of Kfar Silver’s dedicated staff, these students have thrived. “They supported each other through their relocation to Israel, and now, during the war in Israel, they continue to support one another,” Monique Zahavi observes. “It’s a privilege to watch these young people grow in confidence and develop a sense of self-assuredness and self-awareness. They are true heroes.” 

This article was written in cooperation with World ORT.

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