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Reporter's notebook

Israel’s last three emissaries in Ukraine rush to grant immigration visas

Two Nativ consuls and a Jewish Agency official are working around the clock in Lviv to help Jewish and qualified Ukrainians emigrate to Israel, before they leave on Thursday

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Jewish Agency emissary Rafi Heltzer (grey sweatshirt, top right) handles calls in the doorway to the lobby Israel's honorary consulate in Lviv, Ukraine, March 15, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
Jewish Agency emissary Rafi Heltzer (grey sweatshirt, top right) handles calls in the doorway to the lobby Israel's honorary consulate in Lviv, Ukraine, March 15, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

LVIV, Ukraine – Sitting in a cramped office in the corner of Israel’s honorary consulate in Lviv, two Nativ consuls are working furiously to process and physically produce immigration visas for Ukrainians with the right to immigrate to Israel. One of them hits print on a file, and pulling the document from the printer, removes its sticky backing and opens a Ukrainian passport.

In a fluid motion, he rolls the visa onto an empty page and presses down to smooth it. With a stamp, a new Israeli is made. From the second that this young girl – the passport’s owner – touches down in Ben Gurion Airport, she will be an Israeli citizen.

Ludmila, 34, the 2-year-old’s mother, described the moment that she and her daughter received their Israeli immigration visas as a relief.

“We meant to do this for a while, but we had a daughter and life got away from us,” said Ludmila, who declined to share her last name. While she and her husband live in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, her in-laws live in Hadera.

Ludmila couldn’t hold back her tears when she said that her husband, as a male Ukrainian citizen of military age, is subject to an emergency order and is staying behind.

“I can’t,” she choked out, as her daughter pulled at her shirt for attention.

Ludmila and her daughter, from Dnipro, Ukraine, after receiving their immigration visas to Israel at the honorary Israeli consulate in Lviv, March 15, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

The two Nativ consuls, accompanied by Rafi Heltzer, a Jewish Agency for Israel emissary who is supporting the mission — and a substantial security detail — are the only Israeli government officials remaining in Ukraine.

They arrived on Sunday for a special mission to determine, expedite and physically deliver Israeli immigration visas to Ukrainians who qualify under Israel’s Law of Return. Before they leave on Thursday, they hope to process the hundreds of Ukrainians who are expected to walk through their office doors. As of Tuesday afternoon, they had already approved 200 visas.

When they leave, the building will shutter its doors and Israel’s formal presence in Ukraine will close, with its embassy decamped over the border to Pzremysl, Poland and missions stationed in bordering Romania, Slovakia and Moldova.

Jewish Agency emissary Rafi Heltzer manages calls and questions in his makeshift office, the front desk of Israel’s honorary consulate in Lviv, Ukraine, March 15, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Nativ, housed under the Prime Minister’s Office, is responsible for determining whether applicants for Israeli citizenship from the former Soviet Union qualify under the Law of Return. It is extremely rare for their consuls – who have the power to grant immigration visas – to leave Israeli territory in an operational capacity. Aside from a three-day trip in February immediately prior to the Russian invasion on February 24, this five-day trip to Lviv is one of the only extraordinary circumstances which Heltzer – the Jewish Agency’s emissary to Dnipro – remembers.

“It’s very irregular,” he said.

Heltzer’s makeshift office is the front reception desk of the consulate, crammed with cords, bags and ongoing Zoom conferences, and never-ending questions from the dozens of Ukrainians waiting in the building’s small lobby.

Outside the building, a similar number wait in an hours-long line just to enter.

“We’ll process as many as we can until curfew,” which comes at 10 p.m. in Lviv, Heltzer said.

“It’s a very tragic period, but there’s a feeling that we’re doing something important, we’re actually saving Jews.”

In the corner of the lobby, Katerina Blizhnikova, 24, waits with her mother, sister and grandmother. The family came from shell-shocked Kyiv on Monday, making the journey when they heard that the consulate was open. Like countless other Ukrainian men, Katerina’s father remains behind.

Katerina Blizhnikova (L) and her family, from Kyiv, wait for their immigration visas in the lobby of Israel’s honorary consulate to Lviv, Ukraine, March 15, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

While the Blizhnikovas have family in Israel and have visited before, immigration was not in their plans before the outbreak of war.

Katerina knows she’ll have to leave her job as a stewardess when she arrives in Israel, and is “worried about finding work” and integrating in the unexpected new environment, an issue facing many Ukrainians who are still feeling whiplash from having their lives flipped upside down in the past three weeks since Russia invaded.

Heltzer, who as the Jewish Agency representative helps get prospective immigrants in the doors, passes them off to Nativ for processing and then takes them back to coordinate evacuation. He was particularly moved by the story of Arkady, a 92-year-old Ukrainian who arrived at the consulate this week.

“He was born in 1930 in Belarus and when he was 11, the [Second World] War started. He lived in conquered territory and became a partisan,” Heltzer shared.

His friends drove him 1,000 kilometers to Lviv, where Nativ and Heltzer processed him and arranged for his travel onwards to Ashkelon, where he plans to be reunited with his daughter. On Wednesday, he’ll begin that journey.

Heltzer, who was born in Israel a month after his Lithuanian parents left the Soviet Union, has integrated his life with the Russian-speaking Jewish Diaspora. He met his wife while a Jewish Agency emissary in eastern Russia, and until Israel evacuated its diplomatic families in mid-February, lived with his wife and child in Dnipro.

He expects that “thousands” might emigrate from Russia as well, in light of the ongoing conflict and rising tensions.

“Today, I’m sad also about Russia, not just Ukraine,” he said.

Ukraine has about 43,300 self-identified Jews and about 200,000 people eligible for Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, and Russia has an estimated 800,000 people who qualify.

About 6,000 Ukrainians have been processed for Israeli citizenship since the outbreak of violence, according to a Jewish Agency spokeswoman.

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