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Reporter's notebook

Passengers on El Al flight to Bucharest carry boxes of aid for influx of refugees

Many on their way from Israel to rescue family members in Ukraine take part in initiative to transport humanitarian support to refugees who have arrived in Romania

Sue Surkes

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

Passengers bound for Bucharest, Romania, volunteer to take boxes of humanitarian aid on board for Jews fleeing from Ukraine to Romania, March 14, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Passengers bound for Bucharest, Romania, volunteer to take boxes of humanitarian aid on board for Jews fleeing from Ukraine to Romania, March 14, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

BUCHAREST, Romania — These are unusual times, and an El Al flight on Monday from Tel Aviv to the Romanian capital of Bucharest reflected today’s current situation.

On Sunday, an email from El Al, followed up on Monday morning with a phone call, asked passengers if they would be willing to carry a package of humanitarian aid on board — a box containing items from medicine to baby food and diapers that could be delivered to Ukrainian refugees arriving in Romania within hours of the plane’s arrival.

The joint initiative between El Al, the Sasa Setton organization — which supports education for hospitalized children in Israel — and the Center for Jewish Impact was kicked off for the first time on Monday.

Many passengers aboard the flight agreed to serve as couriers.

The flight was packed. It included a delegation from Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva made up of two doctors and two Russian-speaking nurses planning to spend the week giving medical checkups to Ukrainians bound for Israel.

Also on board were Israelis of Ukrainian descent traveling to help bring their loved ones out of the war-torn country.

Boxes of humanitarian aid for passengers to take as they boarded an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Bucharest, Romania, March 14, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Ukrainian-born Vladimir Gomon, who immigrated to Israel from Moscow four years ago, lives in the northern city of Haifa and works as an electrical engineer in Yokne’am. He was bound for Chernivtsi (Cernowitz) in southwestern Ukraine to meet his parents, who were on the way from their hometown of Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region in the east of the country.

The three of them plan to fly together to Bucharest and on to Paris, where Gomon’s brother has lived for the past few years.

Vladimir Gomon from Haifa in northern Israel on his way to meet his parents and take them to Paris, March 14, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“My father is Jewish but doesn’t have all the documents needed to immigrate. We have to try to find them,” said Gomon, who managed to immigrate himself because his wife is Jewish.

“My parents moved in with friends in their town and after they left, their house was bombed,” he added. “A lot of people there are now sheltering in basements. Every day, the mayor announces on WhatsApp whether buses are running to western Ukraine. My parents were so frightened to leave, but yesterday they agreed that I could come to get them and my employers just said go!”

Gomon added: “They always supported Russia, even after 2014″ — when Russia invaded the Crimea peninsula and Russian-backed separatists declared the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to be independent republics — “but this morning they told me that they’ve changed their minds. They say the whole town has turned anti-Russian.”

Katrin Polit, 30, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine five years ago and works as a computer programmer in the central city of Holon, was traveling to Bucharest to meet her parents, who were on their way from the city of Dnipro with around 28 others in a minivan provided by the city’s Hesed social services office.

Russia’s assault on Dnipro started just days ago.

Katrin Polit of Holon in central Israel on her way to meet her parents, who fled from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, March 14, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Many of Ukraine’s 18 Hesed offices, run by the Joint Distribution Committee, have been forced to close since Russia invaded, but are trying to continue providing social services particularly to the elderly and housebound.

Polit was one of many Ukrainian-speaking Israelis who volunteered with the JDC to call elderly people throughout Ukraine to ask if they needed anything and to advise if they were interested in immigrating to Israel.

“In Kyiv, they answered the phone, but few did in Kharkiv [which has suffered sustained Russian bombing]. They were in the basements,” she said.

Polit added: “Some of the Hesed social workers are continuing to provide care, despite the danger, which is amazing.”

She plans to meet her parents on Tuesday evening and bring them to Israel on tourist visas. An only child, she said, “I very much want them to immigrate but they’re not prepared to talk about it at this point. Uprooting themselves has been too stressful.”

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