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Building Bridges of Humanity At the Ukraine- Moldova Border
By Liad Ohana
After landing in Bucharest, Romania early in the morning on February 27th, we made our way to Chisinau (Kishinev) in Moldova where we were greeted by the local Jewish community led by the Chief Rabbi of the town Rabbi Pinchas Saltzman.
We were given a situational overview of what had been taking place in the country since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and were given a brief introduction to some of the Jewish refugees who had fled Ukraine. We ate dinner together and began to organize equipment and establish ourselves knowing that we had a long road ahead of us.
With the assistance of David, a refugee from Ukraine, I went out to buy local SIM cards for all the communication devices we would be using. David told me that he was born in Israel but his family moved back to Ukraine because they could not make a living in Israel. Growing up all his life in Ukraine, he came to Israel to do his IDF service, serving in the air force in the field of technology. After his army service, he returned to Ukraine and started a business in the field of high-tech. When the fighting started last week, he picked himself up, took no personal effects at all, and drove to Moldova. David left his grandmother in Ukraine because she was unable to make the trip.
We returned to our base at the synagogue and from there continued with the division of tasks and planned the missions for the coming days. It was decided that we would divide into three teams, one would travel to travel to the northern border crossing of Mogilev while a second team would head south to the border crossing of Palanca. A third team would be stationed in Chisinau to treat the refugees who have gathered in the city and open a field hospital where all medical services would be provided for free.
During the evening we were informed that the hotel booked for us was filled with refugees, so now we found ourselves without a place to stay. After a while, we learned that a ‘hotel’ that had been closed because of the coronavirus outbreak had been reopened especially for the benefit of the refugees and our delegation.
An impromptu double wedding took place and involved two different refugee couples. We were invited and honored by the couples with reciting blessings under the canopy. It was a moving and joyful, if modest, celebration and shone a ray of light on an otherwise dire situation.
After the wedding, we reported back and updated the senior staff at United Hatzalah headquarters in Israel with regard to our progress and plans, we went to the hotel to rest. The ‘hotel’ was rather primitive without amenities such as heating, but under the circumstance, we do not complain. Exhaustion helps us fall asleep quickly.
On Monday morning, I got up early to prepare for the challenges that await us. After a little wake-up coffee that we brought from Israel, we went to the synagogue for prayers, preparations, and equipment checks. We made a quick breakfast and then met with the mayor of Chisinau to discuss operational matters.
We then loaded the equipment onto the vehicle of a local resident, Oleg who would be driving us to the border. We brought along medical supplies, food, blankets, and toys to pass out to the refugees. We also brought larger medical equipment to allow us to help treat any serious medical cases that came up. I was in the team that headed to the border crossing near Mogilev.
Oleg, a Moldovan citizen who in the process of converting to Judaism, volunteered to help the delegation and drive us in his private vehicle wherever we needed to go.
The journey to Mogilev is long and difficult with part of the trip along winding unpaved roads.
Oleg stopped along the way to buy many toys for the children that we were expecting to meet. At the checkout counter, Oleg wanted to pay for the gifts but we insisted that we pay. With a wink, he then said to the saleswoman in Russian “You see, they say that Jews only want money, here they are giving it away”. His generosity, good cheer, and pride warmed our hearts.
As we continued along, Oleg invited us for coffee at one of the branches of the convenience store chain where he works.
After about 3 and a half hours we arrived at our destination in Mogilev. It was not a large complex, rather a small number of shops near the border crossing. On scene were representatives of many local agencies but little international presence other than ourselves. We liaised with a local ambulance team and heard about their experiences and the assistance they had been giving. We coordinated our efforts with the regional Moldovan police and border control officers who gave their approval for us being allowed to access the crossing itself in order to greet the arriving refugees.
Many of the refugees are very young families. Mostly women and children as military-aged men were not permitted to leave Ukraine. The families came with a suitcase and a backpack and that’s it. Almost no supplies at all.
We met these people with a smile, a sympathetic ear, and an open hand. We gave them a bottle of water and something small to eat. Some of the refugees needed triage and treatment at the scene as the journey had been too much for them physically and emotionally.
The stories we hear from the refugees are not easy at all – the things they went through along the way to get here were harrowing, to say the least.
The long wait while they were stuck in traffic jams, often under bombardment, the long distances that some of them walked. Friends, family, and belongings left behind. The people we met were tired and sore. Many of them were worn out and a lot looked almost hopeless. We were able to give them something back, something to make them smile.
We kicked a soccer ball around with a number of kids in order to help them relieve some tension. We met some Ukrainian medical students who are from Jordan and Gaza. We talked about a lot of things with them, things in common and things we share. We helped them as much as we could and built a sense of camaraderie. We talked about their life in Ukraine, about their hopes and aspirations for the future. We did not talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, on the border of Ukraine with a war taking place, it was just irrelevant ….Bridges of humanity are stronger than the divisiveness of politics.
Back on the road outside the crossing we turned to the local volunteer teams and offered our help. They are well-organized and distribute hot drinks, hot food, and blankets, to anyone who requires, warmth for the body and soul.
We met some Jews who managed to cross the border and they told us about their escape. They were at a loss, without any plans for the future. We provided them with directions and guidance to the Jewish community in Chisinau and also told them of a convoy of Israelis who were still in Ukraine on their way to the border so that they might join up with them. When the convoy arrived, they too were at a loss until we helped them find their way.
Late on Monday night, we heard air raid sirens coming from the Ukrainian side of the border. We didn’t know if it was because of bombings or simply a curfew being imposed. Everyone was worried but we managed to calm many people down. Over the course of the day we had treated dozens if not hundreds of people for cold-related injuries, emotional shock, and other minor injuries. One person thought he might be suffering a heart attack. We hooked him up to a heart monitor that we had brought with us and ran a full vitals check. He was okay, just suffering from an elongated panic attack.
Later that evening we returned to our base of operations in Chisinau where we met Joel Leon, the Israeli ambassador to the region. Joel introduced us to his and the Foreign Ministry’s activities in Moldova. He presented us with the current challenges and where he needed our assistance. We are still at it after 11 PM, listening to Joel as we finally eat some dinner.
In light of the information we received from the Israeli Foreign Ministry we decided to head out to Palanca this morning to rendezvous with a convoy of yeshiva students from Dnipro.
We prepared equipment for the next day and returned to the ‘Hotel’.We sent a brief recap back to United Hatzalah and took a little bit more time for self-care to ensure our own emotional wellbeing and operational readiness. While I went to bed, another team stayed up until three in the morning to bring warm meals to busloads of refugees who had come to Chisinau directly from the border. The work here doesn’t stop and we all knew that Tuesday would be another long day.
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