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March 29, 2022 10:59 am
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US Jewish Community Gears Up to Assist Absorption of 100,000 Refugees from Russian Invasion of Ukraine

avatar by Ben Cohen

Ukrainian refugees eat at a welcome center upon their arrival by train at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof central station. Photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

The US Jewish community is primed and ready to assist with the absorption of 100,000 refugees from the Russian invasion of Ukraine around the country, a senior official at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has said.

“Refugees from Ukraine will be going to places all over the country,” Elana Broitman, a senior vice-president at the JFNA, told The Algemeiner on Monday. “Our federations are everywhere, along with various agencies, synagogues and individual lay people as well.”

President Joe Biden announced last Thursday that the US would welcome 100,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian onslaught, now in its fifth week. Nearly 4 million Ukrainians have fled across the country’s borders since the invasion, with another 6.5 million displaced internally.

Biden’s announcement came on the heels of intensive advocacy by the JFNA and other humanitarian organizations for the US to open its borders to those fleeing the war in Ukraine, Broitman pointed out. In addition to accepting 100,000 refugees, the US has committed more than $1 billion for humanitarian assistance for Ukraine and an additional $320 million in funding for “democracy and human rights” projects in Ukraine and neighboring states.

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According to the White House, priority will be given to those Ukrainians with family members in the United States, as well as those whose activities or lifestyles could leave them more exposed to repression — among them journalists, human rights activists and members of the LGBTQ community. With the refugee cap set at 125,000 for fiscal year 2022, not all Ukrainians will enter the US through the refugee program, with non-immigrant and immigrant visas available in some cases.

Broitman underlined that wherever Ukrainians arrived in the US, they would find a network of organizations and individuals willing to assist with the adjustment to a new life on the other side of the world. “People are going to need housing, jobs and schools for their kids,” she said. “They will also need trauma support and help with learning the language. We need to meet people where they are and help them whatever circumstances they are in.”

Broitman feels a deeply personal connection to the conflict, having been born in Ukraine when the republic was still part of the now defunct USSR. Hailing from a Jewish family in the city of Odessa, she arrived with her parents and siblings in the US as a fifth-grader in the mid-1970s, assisted by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Leaving the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for Broitman, whose grandparents were enlisted to persuade her not to speak to anyone about the family’s plans to leave. “We left with nothing, a few books, some silverware, a few photos,” she recalled. “I remember that my sister’s teddy bear was taken apart at the border, so they could look inside.”

Once in the US, Broitman’s family settled in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. “There were less than 100,000 people in the town, but the Jewish community wasn’t insignificant — there was more than one synagogue,” Broitman joked.

For those fleeing the Russian invasion now, the needs are more immediate and urgent, Broitman said. “You have a much greater need for childcare, and children are fleeing from all this trauma,” she said. “We also have to remember those who are left behind, older parents or people who can’t physically make the trek.”

A friend of Broitman’s who fled the beleaguered city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, which has been heavily bombed by Russian forces, was in exactly this agonizing position, she said, as her mother had remained there.

“Her mother has cancer that is too far gone, she couldn’t handle the trip,” Broitman said. “When people are able to reach their relatives in Kharkiv on the phone and ask them how they are, they will answer, ‘we are alive.'” In Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities encircled by the invading Russians, freezing temperatures and lack of water has driven people into underground basements, where they increasingly confront unsanitary conditions, Broitman said.

“I don’t see this as a war of the Russian people against Ukrainians,” she added. “This is the impetus of a particular government and a single ruler, wreaking havoc in the region.”

The swift response of US Jews to the Russian invasion had been heartening, she continued. “I will say that I am incredibly proud of our community, which has stepped up for Jewish Ukrainians and all Ukrainians,” she said. “I would love for the war to stop, so that there wouldn’t be a need for all these open hearts, but we are here.”

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