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Anna, with Vadik, 6, and Dasha, 3, at the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Anna, with Vadik, 6, and Dasha, 3, at the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Inside story

From chaos to cooperation: Moldova learns to cope with Ukrainian refugees

‘We’ve become crisis experts in 3 weeks,’ says head of Joint Distribution Committee in Chisinau, one of a dizzying number of groups trying to care for those fleeing the war

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

Anna, with Vadik, 6, and Dasha, 3, at the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Anna left her village in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine, near the Black Sea, on March 6, with her children Vadik, 6, and Dasha, 3, her mother Nadejda, and her younger sister Vika, aged 13.

A Christian organization, Ezra, brought the family to a Christians for Israel shelter in the Vinnytsia region of western Ukraine, and the latter bused them to a summer camp complex outside of Chisinau (Kishinev) in Moldova. There, they sat and waited nearly a week to visit the Israeli Consulate.

With a grandmother, aunts, cousins, and a sister already in Israel, Anna and her mother will most likely be found eligible to immigrate.

This reporter met the family at the head of a long queue at the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau as they waited to present their papers. They had been on the road for 11 days and looked tired out.

Last Monday, a new system to reduce the bottleneck at the consulate came into effect. It provides for a two-step process, and for teams to go out to the refugee centers, rather than require the refugees to come to the consulate.

Those wanting to go to Israel now present their documents for an initial check by Nativ, the organization within the Prime Minister’s Office that judges whether applicants from the former Soviet Union are eligible for immigration.

Ukrainian refugees bound for Israel at Chisinau Airport, Moldova, March 18, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

If they look kosher, they are put on planes to Israel organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and then continue the process with Nativ in the Jewish state.

At the beginning of the war, most aid organizations on the ground in Ukraine and Moldova agreed, there was total chaos.

Ukrainian refugees queue outside the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Sureks/Times of Israel)

There were cases where a harried Jewish community would contact four organizations to get them out, and four buses would turn up.

Many different groups were trying to help, but there was no coordination.

Now, more than three weeks into the war, the system appears to be working smoothly, with an impressive level of cooperation between Jewish organizations not usually known for working together.

Alla Bolboceanu, the Joint Jewish Distribution Committee’s representative in Moldova (right) with Violetta Labunskaia, who does the JDC’s public relations, at the Jewish Community Center’s gymnasium, which has been converted into a dormitory, Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Alla Bolboceanu, the JDC–Joint Jewish Distribution Committee’s Moldova representative, said, “We are not experts in crisis management, but we’ve become experts in three weeks.”

A dizzying number of organizations are involved in rescuing Jews — and many non-Jews who hitch a lift on the buses — out of Ukraine, with each running its own hotline, among them the Jewish Agency, the JDC, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), the local Jewish community, and Chabad.

Some of the cases are particularly challenging.

Daniel Pitchonko, 23, a Jewish Agency representative, has been overseeing the case of three elderly people — a father in his late 80s who is blind and suffering from dementia, a daughter on crutches, and a son who is intellectually disabled.

Jewish Agency representative Daniel Pitchonko in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In another case, Chabad provided a special ambulance for a severely autistic boy and his parents from Mykolaiv. The boy had developed a leg infection which, due to the difficulty of obtaining drugs, had become septic. Israeli doctors in Chisinau took one look and sent him for emergency surgery, whereupon his grandmother suffered a heart attack. Both ended up in the hospital in Chisinau.

In Chisinau, this reporter ran into Georgii Logvynskyi, a Jewish lawyer and former member of the Ukrainian parliament, who said he was running buses out of some of the most dangerous parts of Ukraine to the Moldovan border, each with a police escort. He also has a hotline.

Former Ukrainian parliament member Georgii Logvynskyi (right) with the Alexandr Bilinkis, president of the Moldova Jewish Community, at the indoor tennis court that Bilinkis provided to serve as a hub for new arrivals from Ukraine, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The refugees cross the border into Moldova and are given a rest and refreshments. Both Christians for Israel and the JDC run reception centers at Otaci, a border town in which former Jewish shtetl homes adjoin mainly unfinished palaces built by Roma businessmen just before the Soviet Union collapsed.

In Chisinau, where the newcomers are bused, it is the JDC and the Jewish community that are running — and helping to fund — the show. The Jewish community’s president, Alexandr Bilinkis — a businessman with interests in food and retail — has made his indoor tennis court available to serve as a hub for the incoming buses. He has also helped, with the JDC and other Jewish organizations, to arrange for around 1,500 beds in summer camps and hotels in and around Chisinau.

At the hub, a place designed to help orient the visibly disoriented, the JDC’s head of administration, Viorelia (she didn’t want to give her surname), was ready for the latest buses, megaphone in hand. She was soon besieged with questions by many of the 400 or so daily arrivals. “When the war started, I became like a soldier,” she said.

As they flowed in from the buses, some of the refugees helped themselves to the food and drink that was on hand. Others made straight for the tennis court, where they were asked to go to the corner in which their chosen destination was written on the wall.

The Jewish Agency’s Olga Tendler (in black) organizes the new arrivals from Ukraine who want to come to Israel at the JDC/Moldova Jewish community hub in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

There are four possibilities.

One is to go to Israel. Whoever moves to the Israel corner is asked to click on a QR code (there’s help for the elderly) and immediately register with the Israeli Consulate. They are bused to facilities organized by the JDC and the Jewish community.

Another option is to get on a bus to Romania and then be picked up and hosted by Jewish families in Germany. People making this choice must send proof of their Jewishness online to a representative of the German Jewish community. If approved, they are given accommodation in Chisinau for the night and leave for Germany the following day.

Ukrainian refugees grab a bite at the JDC/Moldova Jewish community hub in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The third possibility is to get on a bus to Bucharest airport. This is for people who have bought, or been sent, airline tickets that will take them to relatives or friends elsewhere in the world.

And the fourth is to go to a fully funded hotel in Romania, for up to a month, either to decide where to go or to wait for visas to countries such as the US and the UK.

Non-Jewish arrivals who want to go to Israel can apply so long as they have Israelis willing to invite them and serve as guarantors. The rest are referred to a government center for refugees in Chisinau.

In the Israel corner, the Jewish Agency’s permanent representative, Olga Tendler, was explaining the Law of Return, which sets the criteria for immigration.

“We’ve had a grandmother aged 94 from Kyiv, who was a partisan in World War II – she’s already in Israel. Today, 14 people arrived in wheelchairs. It breaks my heart,” Tendler said.

Shoemaker Mikhail Andelman, 79, with his 1943 birth certificate, at the Joint Distribution Committee/Jewish community of Moldova hub for incoming Ukrainian refugees, in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

There are many elderly people at the hub. One is Mikhail Andelman, 79, a shoemaker, who was born in Russia but left for Ukraine with his family at the age of three. He wasn’t sure how he got here from Korosten, a city in the Zhytomyr region in northern Ukraine. Someone gave him a phone number to call and he got on a bus. Christians for Israel spotted him at the border and brought him to the hub.

Many non-Jewish women with children are in the Israel corner, hoping that their marriages to Jewish husbands will let them get on a plane.

Nadia Tkachuk, 40, an English teacher from Kharkiv with poor spoken English, wondered, “How am I going to get a job and be able to feed my kids?”

Anastasia Cherkulayeva, who had arrived with her two daughters, Yeva, 10 and Maria, 6, on a bus organized by the Odesa Jewish community, explained that the family had immigrated to Rishon Lezion, in central Israel, in 2014, only to return when Anastasia’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her father was already dead.

Anastasia Cherkulayeva from Odesa with daughters Yeva and Maria, at the Joint Distribution Committee/Jewish community of Moldova hub for incoming Ukrainian refugees, in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Anastasia’s husband, who is unable to leave because the Ukrainian authorities demand that all men aged 18 to 60 stay in the country, was at home in Odesa looking after the family dog. Her mother, a serious cat breeder, would not leave her 50 felines behind. With tears welling up in her eyes, Anastasia said, “It was a hard decision to leave.”

Igor and Ira Brodsky, from Sievierodonetsk in the eastern Luhansk region, were in their building’s basement when a shell tore through the ceiling of their fifth-floor apartment. Now heading to their son in Bat Yam, they were worried about their 11-year-old dog, Marcel, who was dressed in a pink coat. Did they have the right documents for him to get onto the plane?

The next step for those aiming to reach Israel is the Israeli consulate.

Yehor and Ira Brodsky (left) with their dog Marcel, and Nadia Tkachuk, with her daughter Sofia and son Grisha, at the JDC/Moldova Jewish community hub in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

There, Nativ’s head of mission, Dr. Boleslav Yatvetsky, told The Times of Israel that he had instituted a new, far more efficient system over the past few days, which sees teams going out to refugee locations with a one-stop shop.

The teams comprise representatives of Nativ, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the IFCJ, and the Jewish Agency.

Ukrainians refugees receive their entry papers to Israel, at an emergency shelter in Chisinau, Moldova, March 15, 2022. (Flash90). Dr Yatvetsky is on the right.

Applicants start with Nativ, to have their documents checked. If they look eligible, they go to the IFCJ station to get a plane ticket. If they have passport problems — for example if a child doesn’t have a passport — the Foreign Ministry issues a one-time pass. (Thanks to wartime flexibility, people without passports are crossing the Ukraine-Moldova border).

The new system is enabling three Nativ officials (this was due to increase to five) to process 100 families a day, rather than 60 as before, Yatvetsky said.

Dr Boleslav Yatvetsky, the Nativ representative at the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

He added that between 30% and 80% of each busload was not eligible to fly to Israel. If people insisted on doing so, they were advised to buy their own flight tickets in Romania.

Next to Yatvetsky’s office is that of Benny Haddad, a Nativ veteran now working for the IFCJ, which funds the now daily flights to Israel out of Chisinau airport, which is otherwise closed because of the war.

The organization is also sending humanitarian aid to the refugees in Moldova.

In Israel, it supplements the work of the Absorption Ministry by helping the new immigrants for their first six months.

Benny Haddad (left), representing the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, with Yonatan Feldman, who organizes refugee flights to Israel, at the Israeli Consulate in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Widely regarded as a logistics supremo, Haddad, a fluent Russian speaker despite his Tunisian roots, works with Chabad, the local Jewish community, and the JDC to help fund accommodation and food for the refugees while they are in Chisinau.

He has a dashboard on his computer showing how many people are occupying beds at any one time. The JDC provides the data.

The IFCJ splits the flight costs equally with the Jewish Agency but is taking the organizational lead in Moldova. The agency is doing so in Poland and Hungary.

Haddad noted that Jews were also fleeing from Russia and its ally Belarus, some via Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and other central Asian republics. He had heard of one family who had flown out of Russia to Dubai intending to reach Israel.

Ukrainians at the Palanca border in Moldova, March 3, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“This is an event of apocalyptic proportions,” said Haddad. “When we stand at the border, we mainly see women, alone with children. You ask them where they’re going, and they say they don’t know.

“We haven’t seen this kind of thing since 1945. Around 3.5 million people have already left Ukraine. You just can’t get your head around it.”

Anna, meanwhile, was planning to get to her sister in Afula, northern Israel. She and her non-Jewish husband got married on March 4, a condition for him to eventually follow her to the Jewish state.

What was the first thing she would do when she reached her sister?

She replied, “Have a good shower and go to bed.”

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