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Fleeing their country's civil war, Ukrainian Jews head for Israel

Yulia, Kostiantyn and their daughter, Valerie, don't look like a typical refugee family. All well-dressed -- even the Chihuahua, Micky, donning a chic dog jacket -- they might not seem out of place mingling with Kiev's oligarchs.

But the truth is that the family, Ukrainians of Jewish heritage who arrived here five months ago from the eastern city of Luhansk, has lost almost everything since clashes among pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian nationalists forced them to flee their home.

So on Monday, parents, daughter and dog -- together with 226 other Ukrainian Jews -- left Kiev on a charter flight funded by a Christian-Jewish charity for Israel, where a government agency awaited to help them start a new life. The new arrivals joined more than 5,000 Ukrainian Jews who have already moved to Israel over the past year, about 1,310 of them from eastern areas claimed by separatists.

The number of Ukrainians that arrived in Israel in 2014 is more than double that of the previous year. The Ukrainian government, which is now facing an economic crisis, has little means to help those internally displaced by the war, now numbering 1 million, according to the United Nations.

But organizations such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which has spent more than $2 million on resettlement flights this past year, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit that supports Jewish communities around the world, have stepped in to aid those with Jewish heritage. Together with the Israeli government, they are also offered the option to resettle in Israel.

That assistance has meant that 70 years after the Holocaust wiped out some 900,000 Jews in Ukraine and 20 years after 1 million Jews -- forced to hide their religious identities under Soviet rule -- left the former Soviet Union for Israel, today the Jews that remained are among the luckier Ukrainians.

"Since I was small, my grandmother always told me to hide the fact I was Jewish," said Kostiantyn, 33, who asked that his family's surname be withheld out of concern for relatives he left behind in the conflict zone. "Now I don't care what people say about me being Jewish. The only people who have helped here have been the Jews."

The family had just reached its goals, Yulia said -- her husband had recently invested $14,000 in a new private dental practice, they finally owned a home and their daughter had gotten the puppy -- when the conflict erupted last spring. Weeks of rocket fire and no electricity, water or communication soon coupled with a growing sense of insecurity as armed militia roamed the streets. It left them no choice but to leave, she said.

"We had just started fulfilling our life's dreams," said Yulia, 32, whose own family is not Jewish. The family left for Kiev on Aug. 2, hoping the unrest would soon pass and they could return home. But as the fighting continued, they realized going back to Luhansk was impossible. By October, they had used up much of their savings escaping the war zone and paying rent in Kiev. So when they discovered that Kostiantyn's Jewish heritage made the family eligible for Israeli citizenship, they opted for stability in Israel over uncertainty in Ukraine.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident from Donetsk who moved to Israel in the 1980s, recalled a recent conversation with non-Jews who also fled eastern Ukraine.

"They told me it was not fair that Jews had such special privileges," said Sharansky, who has visited Ukraine several times in recent months. "They said, 'We, too, lost our properties and are refugees, but they have help and can go to Israel.' It was weird for me to hear, because when I grew up in Donetsk, being Jewish was like having a mortal disease."

Israel, which sees itself as a safe haven for Jews under duress, has deemed the situation in Ukraine a crisis. In recent months, the immigration process has been eased for Ukrainian Jews.

"We recognize that the situation is very hard, people have lost their homes, their property, everything that they built in their lives," said Israel's Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who accompanied the immigrants from Kiev to Tel Aviv on Monday.

With an additional $8 million to $10 million in donations, the IFCJ together with the Israeli government plans to bring additional flights of Ukrainian Jews to Israel, at least one a month for the next year.

"Christians supporting immigration of Jews to Israel is nothing new," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the IFCJ, whose donors are mainly U.S.-based Christians. "Now there are humanitarian reasons to support these people, too."

Alexander Gayduk, a doctor who also fled Luhansk, arrived with his wife, Anna, and 11-month-old son, Kirill, in Israel on Monday. "I feel lucky that I have the option to leave and start again," said Gayduk, 32. "I have many friends who are not Jewish and do not have this opportunity to leave like we do."

But not all Jews are choosing to leave. The Jewish Agency estimates at least 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible to immigrate to Israel under its "Law of Return," which allows people with at least one Jewish grandparent to receive citizenship. For Yana Erovteva, 48, who escaped Luhansk in August, the decision to leave Ukraine is painful, and is one she is not quite ready to make. Her visa for Israel is ready. But her son, Roman, 30, went missing in Luhansk after a fierce battle there one day last summer.

"We've looked for him everywhere, on lists of dead people, but his name was not there. We think one of the militia groups took him," said Erovteva, who is now living in Kiev. "If that is true, perhaps they will let him go." For now, she said she can't give up hope until she knows what happened to him.

This leaves a question mark hanging over her decision to leave for Israel. In the meantime, several Jewish organizations are helping, providing money to replace winter clothing left behind when she fled last summer, and paying her rent on an apartment.

For those who have already chosen to start over in Israel, the move comes with a mixture of emotions. "Of course we are sad to leave Ukraine. We have all our family and friends there," said Anna Gayduk, 29, who worked as a financial advisor in Luhansk, as she waited for the plane to take off from Kiev for Tel Aviv. "But we are also excited to start a new life in Israel."

Ten-year-old Valerie held on tightly to Micky the Chihuahua as she disembarked from the plane a little more than three hours later. She said moving to a new place for the second time in four months is scary. "I only know a little bit about Israel," she said. "But I know that I can get a good education here."

[Source: By Ruth Eglash, The Washingon Post, Kiev, 25Dec14]

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small logoThis document has been published on 29Dec14 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.