More than 660,000 people in Ukraine have fled since Russian forces invaded last week, according to the United Nations. Many are waiting hours to cross into neighboring countries. Others are still trapped in their home country, surrounded by bombed-out roads and bridges. Churches, synagogues, and community centers across Ukraine have now become places of refuge.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is helping Ukrainians now by funding transportation to get people out of conflict zones, paying for hotel rooms in Poland, and sending food plus medical supplies to Ukraine for those who can’t get out.
Anastasia Shostak, the federation’s program coordinator, was born and raised in Moscow, and still has family in both Ukraine and Russia. She tells KCRW that it’s complicated to have family on both sides, and she worries for everyone in different ways.
“I'm mostly worried about the part of the family that is trapped in the [northeastern Ukrainian] town of Sumy, which is on the border with Russia, and they couldn't escape. They had planned to when the invasion started, and they just didn't make it. Their roads were blocked, and they have remained blocked, and now they're being bombed, and they're hiding in their neighbor's basement,” she explains.
Those family members have internet and can send updates, but they’re running out of water and can’t get to a grocery store, she says.
Meanwhile, Shostak’s mother and siblings aren’t in immediate danger in Russia. But she predicts, “This could be a real scenario where Russia just shuts down all of its borders and doesn't let anyone in or out. And they're going to be trapped there, and I'm never going to see them again. That's my worst fear. And that's my number one concern, and I'm trying to get them out of there.”
She notes that thankfully, she flew her dad from Russia to Israel. He’s under age 60 and thus eligible for a war draft.
Even if military actions don’t become widespread, she explains, economic sanctions are now paralyzing businesses in Russia, and making it difficult for regular citizens to withdraw cash from ATMs and get enough food.
“But the most concerning part is that the majority … they’re not doing anything because they watch the Russian TV, they are brainwashed with propaganda, and they don't think that there is something wrong going on. So they are not even preparing right now,” she emphasizes. “So all of those things together, I just don't want my family to stay there anymore.”
A humanitarian crisis is already happening in Russia, and restrictions are affecting regular citizens on a much larger scale than the powers-that-be, she says.
“There is a new law that restricts regular Russian citizens from sending money to their overseas bank accounts. … You’re not allowed to send any foreign currency outside of Russia because they're running out of cash. … Even if you're able to leave at this point, it's a huge question of how you get all of your life savings with you.”
She adds that prices have spiked dramatically for coffee, tea, electronics, and overall imported goods that comprise most of the market.
Evacuating Jews from Ukraine and Russia: It’s complicated
In Ukraine, Jews eligible for the Aliyah (an immigration policy that allows foreign Jews to move to Israel) can show up to the consulate in Lviv, which is on the Polish-Ukrainian border, provide their documentation, and get an immigration visa within 24 hours, Shostak explains. They’re shuttled to Poland, and from there can fly to Israel.
“However, just getting out of the most affected areas, there are road blockages, it's dangerous to drive in Ukraine at this point because you can be bombed, you can be stopped. … So there's this logistical problem.”
In Russia, it’s even more complicated, she says, and there’s a two-year wait for eligible people to apply for Aliyah and get an immigrant visa. She’s been trying — unsuccessfully — to get an appointment for her grandparents. She adds, “I have literally a line of 10 people that personally reached out to me to get help with that. And there's nothing I can do.”
You can donate supplies, but will they reach those in need?
Shostak says LA has donation centers where you can drop off medical supplies, food, clothing, and a whole list of other things that Ukrainians need. The items get shipped to Poland and Romania, then transferred to Ukraine.
However, she acknowledges, “As much as we work to supply them with the basic needs, we cannot provide them with a peaceful sky above their heads. And that's the number one prerequisite for them to get the help that they need. So it's complicated. It's really, really hard. The logistical chain all over the country is really disrupted.”