Svetlana fled the war in Ukraine in March, crammed into the back of a truck with her 6-year-old child and other refugees under bombardment by Russian forces. Invited to Israel by a close family friend, she hoped to recover and begin a new life in the Holy Land.
A few months after arriving, she said, she was raped by the man who wrote the letter of invitation that had gotten her out of the war zone.
“She was sleeping and he woke her up and roughly dragged her into his room,” says Olga Udovichenko, whom Svetlana later approached for help at the Volunteer Help Center for Refugees from Ukraine in Haifa. “She suffered deeply from both the war and the rape — but here she could barely get any assistance from the authorities. Instead of help she encountered a maze of bureaucracy and lost any motivation she had to hold the man to account and seek justice.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is estimated to have killed more than 40,000 civilians and displaced up to 30 million more. As the war surpasses 300 days, 17.7 million Ukrainians around the world need humanitarian help and protection, according to the United Nations.
Svetlana is one of over 47,000 Ukrainians — the vast majority of them women — who traveled to Israel since the start of the invasion but who are not eligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, according to Israel’s Welfare Ministry. Of these, only approximately 15,000 currently remain in Israel, with the rest having chosen to leave. Not a single Ukrainian fleeing the war has been accorded refugee status by Israel.
A Times of Israel investigation has documented cases of rape, sexual harassment, workplace exploitation and other abuses faced in Israel by these women, many of whom have had their homes destroyed and lost their livelihoods. At least one of the women’s lives ended in death by suicide.
Many of these abuses remain at best under the radar of the authorities or at worst willfully ignored, leaving the victims in a cycle of violence and poverty that only deepens the trauma they have endured to date. The perpetrators remain free to commit further crimes.
When the war began, volunteer Udovichenko — originally from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — was determined to do something to help her fellow Ukrainians.
“My heart was torn into pieces for my motherland,” Udovichenko explains. A graduate student in criminology, Udovichenko decided to help those who are dealing with cases of sexual abuse and harassment. She saw that social services were not easily accessible for Ukrainians arriving in Israel — “at least, not as far as anyone was aware,” she adds.
“The refugees told us that even if they contact the police, they speak only Hebrew. The same thing with social services — it’s a closed circle,” says Udovichenko.
When Svetlana approached her, Udovichenko was shocked to hear what she had endured.
“That man [who hosted Svetlana and her child] would threaten her constantly that he could throw them out on the street, that he would deport her, tell all her friends and relatives that she was a bad person and that she was seeing many men,” says Udovichenko.
According to Udovichenko, the man “would denigrate her, emphasizing that she is worth nothing, that she is a nobody.” In a further attempt to isolate her, he telephoned her friends and relatives, spreading rumors about her.
“In this way, I think he tried to make sure she had no support and make her feel isolated, helpless, so that she would rely on him completely and tell no one,” Udovichenko says.
The alleged rape happened at night, after weeks of lewd remarks, hints and overt suggestions of sex.
“She was stunned, felt helpless, and was afraid both for herself and for her child sleeping in the room next door. She did not fully take in everything that was happening. She told me that it was as if everything was happening in some kind of a nightmare, like she was passively watching it happen to herself,” says Udovichenko.
It took a long time for Svetlana to even admit to herself that she had been raped. “She felt dissonance. She tried to rationalize the rape,” says Udovichenko. “She did not want to feel herself to be a victim. She tried to make herself believe his insistence that this was just a payment for his hospitality and that this was entirely justified.”
Svetlana moved out to stay with a friend. Udovichenko helped her access medical help and advised her to go to the police. Lengthy questioning followed. For weeks, she heard nothing. Later, she received a text message telling her the file had been closed as the police found the evidence insubstantial.
When Svetlana followed up with the help of former MK Ibtisam Mara’ana as to why, the police said she was welcome to appeal the decision by providing further evidence. By then, Svetlana, severely traumatized, said she had no strength to continue with the investigation. She has since left Israel for “a country that accepts refugees,” according to Udovichenko.
“The man turned many people against her,” says Udovichenko. “When she tried to tell a mutual friend what happened, she told her, ‘What is this you are imagining?’”
Today, Svetlana’s alleged rapist is free — and the case is not an isolated one.
Rape and harassment
Statistics on crimes against Ukrainian refugees are hard to come by. One report earlier this year by the Tel Aviv Center for Ukrainian Refugees noted that between March and August 2022, there were three other rape cases involving Ukrainian refugees reported to the police. There were also 18 cases of sexual harassment under police investigation and 12 other cases of sexual harassment reported to volunteers but not filed with the police, noted the report.
Some details of the alleged crimes have been reported in the local media. In May, an Ashdod resident in his fifties was arrested and indicted for the alleged rape of a 19-year-old Ukrainian woman who had fled the war. The man was reported to have offered to help the woman find a cleaning job (Russian language), and under the pretext of offering her a ride to work, took her instead to a hotel where he is accused of raping her.
In March, an Israeli man was arrested on suspicion of breaking into the apartment of a Ukrainian woman in Jaffa, raping her and robbing her (Russian language).
Activists say the real numbers are likely to be much higher, as many Ukrainians would never report alleged abuse to the police in the first place.
One of the biggest barriers preventing Ukrainian women from seeking legal redress and justice for such abuses is “the lack of accessible information regarding their rights, and the difficulty of realizing these rights on their own,” says Liora Turlevsky, a lawyer who handles many cases for foreign women pro bono alongside her practice on immigration law.
“The authorities in Israel show no understanding toward Ukrainian women’s plight and treat their claims with great suspicion. Even when there is clear evidence for their claims, reality shows that there is no desire to move the wheels of justice and ‘waste’ public resources for the benefit of a foreign woman,” she says.
Another factor is money. “Naturally, these women are in financial distress, and since they are foreigners in Israel they are not entitled to free legal aid, and therefore they are required to pay thousands of shekels to private lawyers for the fulfillment of the most basic rights,” Turlevsky says.
‘The authorities in Israel show no understanding toward Ukrainian women’s plight and treat their claims with great suspicion’
In some cases, the women’s dire economic situation, coupled with the trauma of war, snowballs into the worst possible outcomes.
This summer, a Ukrainian woman who had fled the war died by suicide. According to those familiar with the case who did not wish to be named, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and economic anxiety in Israel, and had a preexisting medical condition. She spoke to a psychologist several times through the government hotline *5130. (The Welfare Ministry says it cannot comment on this specific case.)
In a separate case, a Ukrainian in northern Israel who had fled the war attempted suicide earlier this year when Interior Ministry officials accused him of selling the documents that verified his Jewish roots to someone else who used them to gain the right to immigrate, says Leah Aharoni, founder of Our People, an organization assisting in the absorption of recently-arrived Russian and Ukrainian Jews in Israel.
“There are so many vulnerable people who survive in desperate situations and do not get any help,” one NGO worker who does not wish to be identified told The Times of Israel.
Briskly walking the short distance from her bus stop to the house where she works, Marina enters the building as quickly as possible, closes the door and peeks through the curtains for signs of anyone lurking outside.
“Whenever I talk about him, I get panic attacks,” she tells The Times of Israel, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity about the man who helped her come to Israel in June and who she says has been exploiting her since.
Earlier this year, desperate to flee the war in Ukraine, Marina, whose late father was Jewish, tried to officially immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which stipulates that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent can receive citizenship. In the chaos of the Russian bombardments, she was unable to find the relevant documents and qualify. Already in the process of searching for the right proof and filling out paperwork, she decided to come to Israel regardless.
At the time, the Israeli government prohibited Ukrainians from working in Israel — a situation that she knew was untenable for her.
“I was coming alone, with zero savings. I knew Israel is an expensive country, so I needed to find work somehow,” Marina says.
A friend told her about Amir, an Israeli who had strong business links in Ukraine, and who could, he said, help her.
“I talked to him, and he said he would arrange an invitation for me to come, give me work, an apartment, health insurance, everything, and that I would be able to live a decent life,” she says, referring to the requirement for Ukrainians ineligible for immigration to have a letter of invitation from an Israeli citizen.
Instead, upon arrival, Amir placed Marina in a room shared with another woman in a cramped apartment covered with mold and fungus that also housed two other families. He told her she would work two five-hour cleaning shifts per day, every day. At the end of each shift, Marina would hand over her wages and Amir would take almost half, paying her the rest at the end of the month or “whenever it suited him,” she says bitterly.
The cleaning work was hard physical labor which Marina, in her 50s, found too strenuous.
“We would travel to work in a minibus with no air conditioning in the summer heat. When we arrived, we had to race through the apartment, cleaning, mopping, scrubbing everything as quickly as possible,” Marina says. “I would be drenched in sweat when the minibus would pick me and the others up. Several times, I nearly vomited on the way back home, I was so weak and exhausted.”
She says her health has deteriorated sharply since arriving in Israel and she now suffers from debilitating migraines and anxiety attacks.
When she told Amir she wanted to leave and find a different job, he threatened her.
“He became furious and told me, ‘I’m a nice guy but I turn into a devil to anyone who turns their back on me.’” He said that if she left him, he would report her to the authorities and she would be deported “within 48 hours.”
Marina tried to run away once and seek help from a lawyer, ‘but he charged me NIS 1,000 ($285) and then disappeared’
All Ukrainians living in Israel, including those who arrived before the war, are protected from expulsion — a right that has been renewed on a month-by-month basis by the interior minister.
Marina tried to run away once and seek help from a lawyer, “but he charged me NIS 1,000 ($285) and then disappeared.” She had no choice but to go back to Amir, who she says provides such jobs for dozens of other Ukrainian refugees.
While exploitative individuals are not new, “the real problem is the policy,” says lawyer Anat Ben-Dor, clinical instructor at the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University.
Non-Jews fleeing the war in Ukraine receive tourist status in Israel — a visa category that ordinarily does not allow them to work. In May 2022, Israel adjusted this policy, enabling Ukrainians to work without any enforcement measures against them or their employers while still not providing them with an official work permit.
“The ministry has put an announcement on their website that if an employer employs a Ukrainian, they won’t be penalized for this. But this is too ambiguous. I’m speaking to employers, and they find it very difficult; they become suspicious and end up offering the job to someone else,” says Ben-Dor. As a result, many of the jobs are undocumented, giving the employees minimal wages and no rights should their employer choose to take advantage of them.
In July, Israel introduced yet another obstacle to earning a living for those from Ukraine — a geographical limitation on where they can work. Unless they work in construction, agriculture, institutional nursing or the hotel industry, they are now banned from working in 17 cities, including major centers such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Given that most Ukrainians find housing close to family, relatives or friends, this is a serious problem, says Ben-Dor.
“I find it very abusive. It’s like having a double-faced policy — yes, you can work, but at the same time it’s doing its best to prevent them from doing so. I feel the blame should be first pointed at the Interior Ministry for leaving these people vulnerable,” says Ben-Dor.
In response, the Interior Ministry confirmed that people who stay in Israel on a tourist visa are not allowed to work by law. Yet, due to the war in Ukraine, “the minister allowed whoever entered Israel by 30.9.2022 and had to stay here to work,” Sabin Hadad, the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority spokesperson, told The Times of Israel. “Many of them [Ukrainians] came from another country in Europe and some even had a working visa in other countries but chose to come to Israel. The decision to let them work is official and published. So they can work.”
In a further blow, Israel’s outgoing interior minister Ayelet Shaked announced that, as of January 1, 2023, Ukrainians who arrived in Israel since October will not have the right to work at all.
The Times of Israel heard numerous stories of how, as a result of the ambiguous rules and geographical restrictions, workplace exploitation is common. Olga, who fled Kharkhiv and now lives in Petah Tikva, says many Ukrainians find jobs through a third party, who often takes a hefty percentage of already meager wages.
“You have to fight with your teeth to get the money you earned,” Olga says. “Living as a Ukrainian in Israel is not sugar and honey. In Ukraine, I kept trying to lose weight. Here in Israel, through all the stress, I’ve lost 12 kilograms [26 pounds] without even trying,” she laughs bitterly.
Vika, a single mother with a 9-year-old daughter, escaped Kharkhiv with one suitcase and is currently living in Ashdod.
“It’s very hard with work and not knowing the language. I was offered some work in a factory warehouse — with no contracts because they said we don’t have any rights — and then they did not pay us,” she says, adding that back home in Ukraine she worked as a lawyer.
In the meantime, she is unable to afford medical insurance, which leaves her with high expenses for basic procedures. “Last month my daughter had a toothache and needed a filling. This cost over NIS 450 [$130],” she says.
“I really want to go home, my parents are there. But Russia is bombing our electricity stations, everyone is without light, without power. So — maybe in the spring,” says Vika.
Yulia, from eastern Ukraine, works as a 24/7 caregiver. Her 8-year-old daughter accompanies her to work every day, sometimes attending classes at her Ukrainian school online.
‘There are some strange jobs being advertised, such as “come and work in my massage parlor” — but I try to avoid those’
“I feel like Israeli authorities hate us here. It’s as if we smell bad or something,” Yulia says, describing her interactions with Interior Ministry officials.
Her jobs are temporary, all undocumented, and last only a couple of weeks at a time. “One time, a passerby saw me and my daughter on the street with a suitcase and offered us a job cleaning a house for a few weeks. This is how we get by,” says Yulia.
There are also many WhatsApp and Telegram groups offering work, often without a paper trail, she says. “There are some strange jobs being advertised, such as ‘come and work in my massage parlor’ — but I try to avoid those.”
Israeli government officials say they have done what they can for Ukrainians in Israel, with then-Welfare Minister Meir Cohen saying in August that they have received “a big hug from us, and governmental and civilian assistance as is appropriate and right.”
“Israel will continue to assist the citizens of Ukraine until the war ends, whether with assistance here in Israel or with humanitarian assistance that we send to Europe,” he says.
Since the beginning of operations in March 2022, the Welfare Ministry’s humanitarian aid program Tzav Hashaa has spent NIS 110 million (over $31 million) in aid relief to Ukrainians in Israel, such as providing approximately 12,000 people with food vouchers, as well as offering psycho-social support to those who request it, full medical health insurance for those over the age of 60, as well as emergency medical assistance. It has also provided temporary housing for approximately 120 Ukrainians who had nowhere else to go.
In the case of one Jerusalem hotel, however, this initiative took a risky turn.
Refuge in a ‘brothel’
Katya Chehova came to Israel in the spring of 2022 in a desperate bid to save her left leg after shrapnel from a Russian missile strike left her unable to walk. Back home, doctors had told her that amputation was her only option. In Israel, doctors managed to not only save her leg but also get her walking again, with Chehova’s evacuation and arrival broadcast on Israel’s Channel 12 news.
But after the hospital stay, along with approximately 15 other Ukrainians, Chehova was placed by Tzav Hashaa to recover in a Jerusalem hotel. She quickly discovered it rented rooms by the hour and held wild parties almost every night, with sounds of people having loud sex all too clear through the thin walls of the windowless guest rooms. Unable to walk and with no other option, Chehova spent almost two months living there.
One night, amid thumping music, shouts and groans from the swimming pool next door Chehova heard someone banging and trying to break into her room. “It was very frightening,” she tells The Times of Israel, explaining that, wheelchair-bound at the time, she felt completely helpless. “There was no one in reception, no one to call for help.”
“At night I would lock my room as best I could from the inside,” she says, describing the hotel as located on a dead-end street behind warehouses and next to a construction site. “It was impossible to rest. I complained to the management and all I got was money to buy earplugs.”
The drunken parties and attempts to break in were only some of the problems there.
“At that time, the ministry would bring over refugees and house them wherever they could,” says Aharoni. “We went to see it, and it was literally a brothel. There was a jacuzzi that people would close off for a few hours and have a wild-time party — and now there were kids [from Ukraine] there.”
Alongside the parties, the hotel offered jobs to the Ukrainians staying there.
“One Ukrainian refugee became a masseuse,” says former resident Chehova, adding that she did not know what kind of massages the woman had been asked to provide. “I remember one time, there was a meeting of refugees and this woman was asked to do a massage for a couple. She told them no, the refugee meeting was more important. So the hotel held back some of the wages from her previous jobs.”
It took almost two months to move the refugees to a safer and more suitable location.
“We made a lot of noise,” says Aharoni. “A social worker from the Welfare Ministry showed up. She said, ‘Yes, we knew [that this hotel was like this], but we didn’t have another choice.’ This was the only place that would answer the tender.”
Just a few days after the story came out in the Israeli press, the authorities found another hotel and moved everyone.
The Welfare Ministry says that it helps find accommodation for Ukrainian war refugees in emergencies when they have nowhere else to stay.
“As soon as we saw that it wasn’t a fit place, we took people out and found them a better solution,” says the Welfare Ministry’s Naftali Yawitz, confirming that moving the refugees took “one and a half to two months max.” Yawitz is the director of the Public Affairs Department at the Welfare Ministry and a former director of Tzav Hashaa.
“Of course, no one knew what kind of hotel this was,” says Gil Horev, a Welfare Ministry spokesman, referring to the fact that several Ukrainian refugees in wheelchairs were housed in the hotel, which had no provisions for people with disabilities.
Responding to allegations that the hotel was a brothel, the Welfare Ministry says it still did not know if this was the case. “This is what people say but we don’t know it for sure,” says Horev.
“It was a short episode, but I think it was telling: The system is not working well,” says Aharoni.
The hotel is now under new management. The Times of Israel visited twice in December and was prevented from seeing the rooms on both occasions. A number of flashy cars were parked outside, in a part of Jerusalem ordinarily populated by construction workers and wholesalers.
Local women working nearby exchanged wary looks when asked about the hotel. “There are always ‘those’ kinds of girls going inside,” one says, while the others nodded when asked if the place still rented rooms by the hour.
The vulnerability of dependency
Unlike in Europe, where Ukrainians who have escaped the war are commonly accorded refugee status, language classes, free access to public transportation and social assistance, Israel rarely even acknowledged them as refugees. That being the case, those who come to Israel arrive only because they have no other option or because they may have family or friends here, says Zoya Levitin Pushnikov, Ukraine Response Coordinator of HIAS Israel, a nonprofit organization.
“In the past several months, this has become a vulnerability issue,” she adds, explaining that women are often at risk particularly because they are so dependent on others for survival.
“Once a woman is so completely dependent, it’s always a bad idea, it always can end badly,” she says, adding that in some of the volunteer centers HIAS is in contact with, one out of every three women who appeal for help talk about sexual harassment and/or exploitation they have experienced, often at the hands of those they are dependent upon for accommodation and/or subsistence.
Valerya Tregubenko, a psychologist who works privately and for public health provider Clalit, and who has also been providing therapy to Ukrainians in Israel, says that seeking out help is far from a priority for the majority of those who have fled war.
“I think the state needs to understand that right now, and over the next few years, they need psychological help because their entire lives are broken. They need support. It’s not enough to let them arrive here. We need to find them psychological help, information about health services,” Tregubenko says.
Their entire lives are broken. They need support. It’s not enough to let them arrive here
The Welfare Ministry says that the government’s Tzav Hashaa program includes psychological therapy and that since the beginning of operations in March 2022, 428 Ukrainians have received such assistance, with 1,728 hours of private in-person therapy provided.
“The therapy is offered to everyone, but not everyone is eager to take it up,” says the Welfare Ministry’s Yawitz.
“We even tried sending text messages to our whole database, offering mental health assistance free of charge in their language — but it was not very successful,” he says.
Some women are forced to turn to selling sex for survival.
Naama Sabato from the non-governmental organization Lo Omdot Me’negged works at Ben Gurion Airport as a social worker for women suspected of being trafficked to Israel for prostitution. Her main goal is to support these women and to offer them rehabilitation and shelter in Israel. Since starting her job in October 2022, she gets called out for such interviews several times a week.
“Since the war [in Ukraine] began it has become easier to get to Israel and women are more desperate,” she says. “The women tell me, ‘There are a lot of Israeli men on Instagram, it’s so easy.’”
‘Most of the time, the women know it is sexual work — but even when they know, they don’t really know’
“The women hear about these jobs mostly from Israeli men posting in Telegram and other social media channels, jobs that sound glamorous with fantastic salaries. Most of the time, the women know it is sexual work — but even when they know, they don’t really know,” Sabato says, explaining that for the most part, the women she talks to are 19 or 20 years old.
“Often, their mother is involved [in trafficking them],” she says. “Prostitution means you’re coming from trauma, and you are creating fresh trauma.”
She shares with the Ukrainians she meets some of the stories of women who have been trafficked and are now in shelters: “The reality is that you are locked in some room in the center of Israel and you need to work — a lot. You’re illegal here, your work is illegal, your stay is illegal, and your owner remains fully in control. You can’t do anything.”
According to a section on Israel in the 2022 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, “the [Israeli] government’s efforts to investigate and hold labor traffickers criminally accountable remained inadequate.” In 2021, police opened just three sex trafficking files and investigated 118 sex trafficking-related crimes. All were determined to be “prostitution-related” offenses.
The resources made available for supporting women who have been trafficked upon arrival in Israel are scarce.
Sabato is the sole person doing this job in the whole of Israel. While she is based in Ben Gurion Airport, another airport — Ramon in southern Israel — operates many low-cost flights from Eastern Europe and is located close to the coastal town of Eilat, which is a known hub for sex workers.
“We don’t yet know what to do about it — the authorities are not so focused on it,” Sabato says.
Today, some of the Ukrainians in Israel are holding out hope that the new incoming government will do more to help them.
Back at her cleaning job, Marina is now once again determined to cut all ties with her employer Amir. She is saving money and is looking for her own cleaning clients, changing her SIM card, blocking numbers and moving apartments.
“I need to do everything in my power to make sure he won’t find me,” she says. “I can’t go on working for him like this, but I also can’t go back home to Ukraine — there is nothing there left for me.”
Many others have simply given up and are leaving Israel.
After deciding not to appeal the police’s decision to close her file, Svetlana felt she could no longer stay in Israel and raise her child close to the man who had raped her, says Udovichenko.
She told Udovichenko: “God will be his judge.”
(Some names in this article have been changed for the individuals’ protection.)