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Fleeing city near Belarus border, busloads of Ukraine Jewish orphans look to Israel

Now located in a currently quiet part of southeastern Ukraine, director of the Chabad-run orphanage says many of the almost 100 children are reliving trauma of 2014 war

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Jewish orphans who fled from Zhytomyr, near the Belarus border, play in southwestern Ukraine, February 2022. (Courtesy, Alumim Orphanage)
Jewish orphans who fled from Zhytomyr, near the Belarus border, play in southwestern Ukraine, February 2022. (Courtesy, Alumim Orphanage)

Busloads of Jewish orphans from the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr near the Belarus border have escaped to southwestern Ukraine, and hope to cross into Romania and from there fly to Israel.

On Sunday, missiles fired from Belarus hit an airport in Zhytomyr, according to Reuters.

Just under 100 children, ages four to 18, are in the care of Chabad’s Alumim orphanage based in Zhytomyr. In a country with serious problems of alcoholism and drug abuse, some have no parents while others are so-called “social orphans,” with one or two parents who, for a range of reasons, are unable to cope with child-rearing.

A number of the children had previously experienced war situations in Donetsk and Lugansk — areas declared independent by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 — and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine five days ago have been reliving the trauma, according to Alumim’s Israel-born director, Malka Bukiet.

All of them are now staying in a hotel in Boiany, near Chernivtsi (Czernowitz), close to the Carpathian mountains.

“They’re suffering from anxiety, all sorts of things,” Bukiet said. “Some say they don’t feel well, or can’t do something, or can’t sleep, or say they can’t get up, or talk about it all the time. I’m in touch with psychologists and we’re trying to keep everyone as occupied as possible all the time.”

Jewish orphans who fled from Zhytomyr near the Belarus border, play in southwestern Ukraine. (Courtesy, Alumim Orphanage)

“Early on Thursday morning, I woke up to a very loud bang,” Bukiet told The Times of Israel. “I thought it was perhaps a plane. I didn’t get what it was. When I opened my phone and saw that all my friends were experiencing the same noises, I understood that this was something real.

“My rabbi called and told me that there was military activity just a few kilometers away, which is why we heard such a loud explosion. He said, ‘We’re not waiting. We’ll find the places [for you to flee to], you find the buses,'” she recalled. “We just took the children and, with three Chabad families, undertook the journey to a hotel in Boiany, which took 15 hours rather than the usual seven.”

“Here it’s very quiet,” she said of their interim facilities. “You feel the war in that people from all over Ukraine are arriving here all the time. We’re now around 200 Jews, and have opened another place here.”

With refugees flooding to the southwest, Chernivtsi’s population is expected to triple, said Bukiet, who is coordinating with Chernivtsi’s Chabad rabbi.

Bukiet, who has directed the orphanage for 15 years and been in Zhytomyr for 19 years, said, “The big thing is to give the children a feeling of security.”

“They read the news all the time but don’t hear sirens and don’t have to rush to shelters,” she noted. “There are kids worried about their families and friends. It’s not simple. We don’t have the usual counselors and local people. The older children are helping the younger ones and they’re all organizing activities for one another. We wanted other people to come with us, but at that point, they thought we were mad.”

Trying to organize an exit from Ukraine is difficult, she went on. Most of the children do not have passports, and getting permission from their parents is challenging. Some are even proving difficult to find.

“I’m so happy we didn’t wait,” Bukiet added. “Our main goal is to get out of here. We brought some food and are buying whatever kosher food we can find. We brought enough food for 10 days. I hope we’ll be here for less than that.”

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