- By: Raphael Poch
I landed in Chisinau early this morning, as part of United Hatzalah’s 3rd wave of volunteer medical personnel who came to offer medical and humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees crossing the border. After receiving a hot meal in Irish Pub which the organization commandeered and converted into an industrial kitchen and cafeteria (serving more than 6,000 kosher meals per day to volunteers and refugees in the city and refugee camps nearby) I headed to bed, together with the other 28 volunteers who were on my flight.
We woke up early in the morning and were divided into work teams for the day. One team staffed the field hospital that was set up in the heart of Kishinev near the Agudath Yisrael synagogue under the leadership of Rabbi Pinchas Saltzman, another went to various hotels and other locations in the city where refugees have taken refuge.
I was assigned to a team that headed to the Palanca border crossing in the south of the country where we greeted nearly a thousand refugees who crossed the border into Moldova. I brought with me from Israel three shopping bags filled with stuffed animals that my own children, one aged 5 and one aged 2-and-a-half, gave me to bring to the children here who lost everything when they left their home behind. The idea was my wife’s, and my children went along with it. They didn’t quite understand who the stuffed animals and toys were for when we explained it, but we explained that the toys were going to help others who didn’t have any toys and that I would bring them to children to make them happy. My sons helped us gather up the stuffed animals that they no longer use and gave them to me with a smile and a hug. I packed the stuffed animals into my suitcase and brought them with me to Moldova. They took up half of my suitcase. Three shopping bags worth of space.
As our team was heading out this morning to the border crossing I packed the three bags into the van, and I saw another volunteer do the same. Chezy Rosenbaum, our team leader for the day, also brought with him stuffed animals and toys that his children no longer played with. We looked at each other and smiled.
At the crossing itself, we provided humanitarian aid to those in need of some food, a smile, gloves, blankets, hand-warmers, or even a hug. In a few cases, we assisted disabled refugees to cross the border. We worked together with border personnel and local law enforcement to make sure that everyone who crossed had what they needed and were able to board special shuttles that would take them to their first stop, a refugee camp set up a few kilometers away from the border, where the refugees could recuperate from their journey through war-torn Ukraine to the border, before deciding where they wished to head inside the country.
But before they left, as the mothers walked past us with their young children in tow, we handed them a stuffed animal. Some of the children had been so frightened by the journey that they were glued to their mothers’ legs. When we offered them the toy, they looked reassuringly at their mothers, and once they received permission they released a hand and took the toy. Sometimes that small gesture allowed the children to open up and let go, reasserting a sense of playfulness where only fear existed before. For a short moment, they became children again. Some of the mothers appreciated the act of kindness so much that they broke down and cried, letting out all of the emotion that had been pent up over the course of their journey, a journey that has not yet ended. We cried too.
As I write this, we are bringing six refugees, including a mother and young child, back with us to Chisinau from the border. Our minibus, which came to the border with ten volunteers and six empty seats, is now full, we will help these people continue their journey, even flying some of them to Israel tomorrow on our rescue flight as part of Operation Orange Wings. The child is carrying an old-new stuffed animal, and my heart is full.”
Raphael Poch is a volunteer EMT and member of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit with United Hatzalah and is currently stationed in Moldova as part of Operation Orange Wings which has thus far brought to Israel more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees
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