On the first day of our mission, a mission so emotional and tragic, we were stationed in the Romanian airport of Iasi with the Ukrainian refugees who were flying to Israel and waiting to board their flights. My daughter Lynn, who is also a volunteer EMT, came with me on the mission which made the experience so much more emotional for me because I was able to watch her grow from what we encountered.
As we were standing in the airport, a fellow United Hatzalah volunteer approached me and engulfed me in a hug as she started to cry. The emotions of the mission got through to her and she felt overwhelmed. We are in a very difficult situation and so it is understandable that we too, as volunteers, feel empathetic for these refugees and what they are going through and need to vent sometimes, as well.
The first thing that broke my heart was that there was a weight limit on the bags that the refugees were able to bring on the plane. As a result, if their bags were too heavy they had to remove some of their precious items as not to exceed the limit. It was so hard watching these people leave their possessions behind so they can continue on their journey to safety. Some people even left full carry-ons that they brought with them in order to take their beloved pet. The rule was either a carry-on bag or a pet, and the decision is like asking someone to choose a bag over their own child. These possessions the families had brought with them through Ukraine and Moldova, just to be forced to leave them at the airport in Romania. It was so sad.
The next day my heart broke again as I was stationed at the border between Ukraine and Moldova at the southern Palanca crossing. We welcomed the refugees who came fresh off of buses and taxis, running away from their homes and the war. We helped those who needed medical care and provided toys, food, and humanitarian aid to many others. The scene was incredibly tragic and reminded me so much of the Holocaust. It was frightening to see these scenes happening in our time. Mothers and their children running away, leaving their husbands and other family members behind. Life, as they had known it just a few days earlier, had changed forever.
Many families had arrived at the border in Ukraine without their husbands and fathers because the men who are eligible to fight in the army are not being allowed out of the country. I wanted to hug each and every refugee I saw, both in this specific situation and in general, and to comfort them because of what they are going through. At the same time, I felt somewhat uplifted in the knowledge that I was here with my fellow volunteers and responders from United Hatzalah to offer our help wherever we could. It was exhausting, but I took some pride in that and in seeing all of the local assistance being provided by local Moldovan people who came to assist as well.
When I was at the Northern border crossing of Moligev between Ukraine and Moldova, I met a family on their way to Israel. The mother ran away with two of her sons, a 13-year-old and a 5-year-old. The toddler was so excited to get candies and bubbles to play with. His mother confided in me and told me that they had left her husband and her 18-year-old son back home in Ukraine. It was one of the hardest decisions of her life. She had to choose whether to stay in Ukraine together with her family and take the risk of losing them all in the war or try to escape with the younger boys to Israel, saving their lives but leaving her son and husband behind. No mother should ever have to make a decision like that. I gave her a big hug and we cried together, and in that delicate, emotional moment, my heart broke once again for this family.
Once again, I met a family who left behind a male family member in Ukraine. It was a small family of mother and daughter, (the daughter had cerebral palsy). The mother told me that they ran away from Odessa without her husband. He wasn’t allowed to cross over the border because of the draft. They had even tried to get him special permission to leave the country and make Aliyah with the family, but because he isn’t Jewish like they are, he was denied permission. The mother and daughter had arrived at the Chabad house in Moldova, freezing, hungry, and tired. I spoke with the mother to alleviate the stress and trauma that she was experiencing due to the situation.
Both of these women are strong and I was able to comfort them by utilizing some of the psychotrauma techniques that our unit employs. These are just two of the many many people I have been able to help during my time on this mission so far. Our team worked with them and their families, as well as many other families, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to make sure that all of their immediate needs were met, physically and emotionally. This trip has not been easy at all, and my heart broke many more times for many more people. But it’s so important to be here and try to repair the hearts of the refugees, whose heartbreak is far far greater than mine. I am truly honored to be here helping the refugees, empathizing with them, sharing their pain, and providing them with comfort. The tragedy that they are facing is too much to bear for any person, being here shows them that they don’t have to face this tragedy alone because they are not alone, and that alleviates some of the heartbreak and will hopefully allow for repairing their heart once all the tragedy is over.
Einat Kauffman is one of the directors of United Hatzalah’s Psychotruama and Crisis Response Unit, she has a PhD. in Psychology and works as a psychotherapist, who specializes in the treatment of acute emotional stress and stabilization in emergencies and disaster zones.
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