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'It was like a flashback to the first day of the invasion'

For Ukrainian refugees in Israel, Gaza operation rekindles still-smoldering trauma

Many fleeing the Russian invasion already have difficulty accessing child care and medicine while facing an uncertain future in the Jewish state. And then add falling rockets

  • Liudmyla Matrenin and Lev visit the Mediterranean Sea on their first full day in Israel on March 25, 2022. (Courtesy/Liudmyla Matrenin)
    Liudmyla Matrenin and Lev visit the Mediterranean Sea on their first full day in Israel on March 25, 2022. (Courtesy/Liudmyla Matrenin)
  • Liudmyla Matrenin and Lev at the Polish border on March 8, 2022. (Courtesy/Liudmyla Matrenin)
    Liudmyla Matrenin and Lev at the Polish border on March 8, 2022. (Courtesy/Liudmyla Matrenin)
  • A Ukrainian Holocaust survivor and refugee, Sofia Trizna, is helped into an ambulance after she disembarked a special medical transport plane that landed at Ben Gurion Airport on April 27, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
    A Ukrainian Holocaust survivor and refugee, Sofia Trizna, is helped into an ambulance after she disembarked a special medical transport plane that landed at Ben Gurion Airport on April 27, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
  • Israelis survey damage caused to a house and the surrounding area by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in a town near the Gaza border on August 7, 2022. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Israelis survey damage caused to a house and the surrounding area by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in a town near the Gaza border on August 7, 2022. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • Ukrainian Jewish refugee Olga Chudnaya from Hostomel sits inside the Agudath Israel synagogue in Moldova's capital Chisinau on March 15, 2022, before heading to the airport to board a plane to Israel (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
    Ukrainian Jewish refugee Olga Chudnaya from Hostomel sits inside the Agudath Israel synagogue in Moldova's capital Chisinau on March 15, 2022, before heading to the airport to board a plane to Israel (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

On Friday, August 5, Liudmyla Matrenin walked down the street in Ashdod to borrow some eggs from her friend. Both women are Ukrainian refugees, living in the coastal southern Israeli city for the last few months after escaping the fighting that broke out back home in February.

“I was walking to her house, and I remember I looked up into the sky, and I saw something that looked like a firework,” Matrenin recalled. “But then I thought, why would there be fireworks during the day?”

It was the start of Operation Breaking Dawn, a 66-hour operation in Gaza during which more than 1,100 rockets were fired toward Israel. The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip said 49 people were killed there, though Israel claims at least 16 of those deaths resulted from failed rockets fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group that fell inside the Strip.

After realizing she was watching an attack in progress, not a celebratory firework, Matrenin rushed to her friend’s house, not quite sure what else to do.

“It was like a flashback, being back on February 24,” said Matrenin, referring to the day that Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

For Matrenin, all of the fear of that first month during the war in Ukraine came rushing back, she told The Times of Israel. She started hearing booms from incoming rockets being intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system and felt herself being transported back in time. “It was just like déjà vu,” she said.

Her friend told her to hurry back home, but Matrenin, who is newly pregnant, was terrified.

“I was so scared, but I also wanted to go slowly, because I was worried about my baby — adrenaline can be really bad and I was worried about miscarrying,” she said.

For the approximately 20,000 Ukrainian refugees and new immigrants currently in Israel, the 66-hour operation brought back difficult memories and trauma that they are just beginning to address as they navigate a new life here.

“There’s a feeling of, what, I have to do this all again? Where can I put down roots?” explained Regina Spektor, a clinical psychologist who oversees programs fostering community resilience at the “Mashabim” Center in the nearby coastal city of Ashkelon.

Liudmyla Matrenin and Lev visit the Mediterranean Sea on their first full day in Israel on March 25, 2022. (Courtesy/Liudmyla Matrenin)

Mashabim has a number of programs across the country. It is mainly funded by the New York Jewish Federation and works with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry to provide psychosocial support for Ukrainians in Haifa, Netanya, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, and Rishon Lezion. The organization offers group therapy for different ages, including art therapy and play or drama therapy for kids, and a series of free one-on-one sessions for people referred to the organization by community partners.

Mashabim and the Immigration and Absorption Ministry provided an emergency two-day session at a hotel where many refugees are being housed in Ashkelon, and Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata visited the project to lend support.

“We did exercises that restore control,” said Spektor, who is originally from Ukraine but has been in Israel for years. “What can I control in my life? What can I control partially? What can I not control? We tried to help people understand and see what they can control and what they can do to make decisions to help people feel like they have control.”

Israelis gather at Ben Gurion Airport to welcome a group of Ukrainian refugees arriving on a rescue flight organized by United Hatzalah, on March 3, 2022. (The Times of Israel)

She noted that many people cited measures such as the Code Red warning system, bomb shelters, and Iron Dome, which were not available in Ukraine, as helping them feel safer.

But many new arrivals struggled to get information about where public shelters are located and what to do when they heard a siren. At least 40,000 people in Ashkelon do not have access to adequate shelters.

Some of the people were out on the beaches in the mornings, saying, we lived through much worse in Ukraine

Making sure that accurate information is available in Ukrainian is an important step to helping people feel they have the tools to protect themselves or to make the kinds of decisions that help them gain a small amount of control, Spektor said.

Anna Shapira, a psychologist who works with Mashabim in Beersheba, said that there was a wide spectrum of reactions from new Ukrainian arrivals to the Gaza operation.

Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Some of the people were out on the beaches in the mornings, saying, we lived through much worse in Ukraine,” Shapira said. “But one [Ukrainian] woman, who’s living in Arad, was in Tel Aviv when there was a siren. From that boom she was in total shock, she couldn’t speak. It took her a while to understand this is the way that people live in Israel.

“It took her days to return to herself. She understood that if she wants to live here, there’s danger, but there’s also a very high level of protection,” Shapira said.

With no status, no feeling of safety

One thing that exacerbates the trauma of another conflict for new arrivals is the question of their legal status, Spektor said.

The Labor and Welfare Committee reported in June that there were 14,528 Ukrainian refugees in Israel who are not eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, while around another 5,000 are eligible for citizenship. Under the Law of Return, anyone with one Jewish grandparent can obtain Israeli citizenship.

Mashabim has multiple therapy programs and serves both new immigrants from Ukraine and refugees, though some programs run through the Immigration and Absorption Ministry are aimed at new immigrants only. The program in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of New York is intended for both groups and even prioritizes refugees.

But Spektor said many people who are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return are waiting months for their documents to be accepted and processed, so they still aren’t sure if they will be able to stay. This uncertainty severely exacerbates the trauma they have suffered, she said.

Illustrative: Ukrainian refugees receive their entry papers to Israel, at an emergency shelter in Chisinau, Moldova, March 15, 2022. (Flash90)

“There are lots of issues with paperwork, so even with [the Ukrainians who are undergoing the immigration process] there’s so much uncertainty,” Spektor said. “If you have no documents, you have no identity and you don’t know what to do. The war just adds to that. I think this is the real problem.”

If you have no documents, you have no identity and you don’t know what to do. The war just adds to that

It’s an issue that Matrenin, the woman from Ashdod who is also getting support from Mashabim, knows well. She met Sergei, her Russian-Israeli husband, in 2015 while staying in Israel for two months with her son Lev, who has severe asthma.

After Matrenin’s first husband died in 2014, Lev’s condition was affected by seasonal allergies in their hometown of Kyiv, and doctors recommended they move to a Mediterranean climate for the spring months. She decided on Israel, where she had some friends, and met Sergei on that first trip. In subsequent years, Sergei invited Matrenin and Lev to stay with him each spring, and a romance blossomed.

The Matrenin family celebrates Passover in a Bedouin tent in the Israeli desert on April 15, 2022. (Courtesy/Liudmyla Matrenin)

Though Sergei’s grandfather was Jewish, it took him years to obtain citizenship in Israel. Finally, in 2018, after Sergei’s immigration paperwork was approved, he flew to Ukraine, where he and Matrenin got married. Since then, Sergei has been fighting for Matrenin, 36, and Lev, 11, to join him in Ashdod.

Their initial appointment at the Israeli embassy in Ukraine for a spousal visa kept getting delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, although they were able to complete some interviews before the war broke out in February.

On the first day of the war, Matrenin and Lev fled from Kyiv to Cherkasy, a city in central Ukraine that was considered slightly safer.

“When I saw what Russia was doing in Mariupol, I knew we had to leave,” she said.

I saw people were dying, not just from bombs but because people were without medicine

“I saw people were dying, not just from bombs but because people were without medicine. March is the start of spring, and Lev really needs to have access to his medicine. What do you do with a kid like this?” she asked. “That’s when I decided with my friend that we had to leave.”

Although Cherkasy was quieter than other parts of Ukraine, Matrenin watched Lev’s anxiety rise with each passing day. When the local government passed an ordinance to black out all the lights at night to avoid being targets for Russian bombings, Lev took it upon himself to be personally responsible for making sure not a single beam of light was leaving their apartment.

“He was running around to make sure everything was closed, so the Russians couldn’t see us,” she said. “He kept asking over and over, ‘Why is this happening? We didn’t do anything!’”

A safe haven, full of bureaucratic uncertainty

Meanwhile, Sergei was pleading with every government office he could find in Israel to approve a visa for his wife and stepchild. After two weeks in Cherkasy, Matrenin and Lev set out for the Polish border. The ride was terrifying, Matrenin recalled, starting to cry as she shared the story.

In order to confuse the Russians, all of the road signs had been removed, so Matrenin and Lev had no idea where they were. There were tanks on fire and military planes flying above, but they weren’t able to tell which ones were Ukrainian and which were Russian.

Eventually, Matrenin and Lev made it to the Polish border and then to Warsaw, where they boarded a special train to the Czech Republic for Ukrainian refugees. It was so crowded they couldn’t sit. They stayed with Matrenin’s twin brother in the Czech Republic until finally, on March 24, Sergei was able to obtain visas for them to come to Israel.

Liudmyla Matrenin and Lev at the Polish border on March 8, 2022. (Courtesy/Liudmyla Matrenin)

Although Matrenin was thrilled to be finally reunited with her husband, there was a new set of challenges. Neither she nor Lev are currently eligible for public health insurance in Israel. While still in Europe, she purchased enough asthma drugs to fill a suitcase. She hopes it will tide them over. Additionally, Lev wasn’t able to attend school for the remainder of the year, though he will enroll in a local public fifth-grade class in September.

Matrenin, who was a school psychologist in Kyiv, hasn’t worked in months. In the past, she moonlighted as a nail artist and Ukrainians are permitted to work after three months in Israel, but she abstains from doing so now out of concern that it could hurt her chances when she has an interview with the Interior Ministry in September for permanent status.

A few weeks after arriving in Israel, Matrenin discovered she was pregnant. Lev, who had been begging for a sibling for years, was overjoyed. But Matrenin, who lives around the corner from the Maccabi and Meuhedet national health clinics in Ashdod, can’t see a doctor there, since she has no insurance.

And then, in early August, the rockets started flying.

Israelis survey damage caused to a house and the surrounding area by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in a town near the Gaza border on August 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It’s not the same sirens, but it’s still the same feeling in my brain even though I know it’s not the same situation,” she said. “There’s defenses, there’s a warning siren, but still…”

“Lev kept asking, ‘Why is there also a war here?’ I tried explaining to him it’s not the same war,” Matrenin said.

It’s not the same sirens, but it’s still the same feeling in my brain even though I know it’s not the same situation

After weeks of trying to find prenatal care, Matrenin finally got an appointment with a doctor 85 kilometers (53 miles) away in Beersheba through the *5130 Refugee Call Center, the government hotline set up for Ukrainian refugees. But the appointment was on August 7, when Operation Breaking Dawn was still in full force.

Friends begged Matrenin not to go, saying it was dangerous to be on the road for over an hour each way, that she needed to stay close to a bomb shelter. But Matrenin was worried that she might not get another chance to see a doctor for weeks, and she wanted to make sure everything was ok.

She and Sergei ended up making it to and from Beersheba safely. That evening, the ceasefire went into effect at 11:30 p.m.

Since then, Matrenin has tried to get back a feeling of calm, despite the memories of the bombings and the uncertainty about her future and status. It’s not just for herself, she said, but also for her baby.

In Beersheba, the doctors said mother and fetus looked good and healthy. And for Lev, a flicker of good news in the midst of all the challenges of the past few months: He’s getting a baby sister.

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