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April 14, 2022 11:35 am
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‘There Is a Big Need for Us Here’: As Passover Approaches, Jewish Aid Worker Reflects on War in Ukraine

avatar by Ben Cohen

Ana Sazonov of the Jewish Federations of North America with Ukrainian refugee children in Poland. Photo: Jewish Agency for Israel

Ahead of the Passover holiday that begins on Friday, Jewish volunteers in Ukraine are stepping up their efforts to assist both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from the ongoing Russian onslaught.

In the two months that have elapsed since Russian forces invaded, Jewish organizations in the US, Europe and Israel have sent funds and volunteers to run field hospitals, reception centers, food banks and other vital services. Of the more than $43 million raised by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), over 90 percent has already been distributed to 35 NGOs working on the ground in Ukraine and neighboring frontline states.

Among the hundreds of Jewish volunteers who have traveled to Ukraine are nearly two dozen dispatched by the JFNA, who are currently based on the Polish side of the border with Ukraine. “I speak Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew and English, so I am a perfect fit for this,” one of the volunteers, Ana Sazonov, told The Algemeiner in an interview on Wednesday.

Born into a Jewish family in Ukraine when the republic was part of the Soviet Union, Sazonov grew up in an environment where most Jews knew little about their traditions, while at the same time suffering from systemic discrimination. “My father was called names like ‘zhid’ (‘yid’) so he kept his identity a secret,” Sazonov recalled. It was only once Sazonov made Aliyah to Israel in the 1990s that she learned that the population in her hometown of Bereznyi had been 95 percent Jewish on the eve of World War II, she added.

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Now the executive director of the Jewish Federation in Columbia, South Carolina, Sazonov has spent the last week in the Polish village of Medyka, a few miles from the Ukrainian border. “There is a big need for our presence because we’re seeing another wave of refugees coming from Dnipro and other cities,” she said. “Even when there are no humanitarian corridors, they find a way to escape, carrying whatever belongings they can take with them.”

Many of the refugees arrive at the Polish border traumatized and disoriented, Sazonov observed. “People have no clue what happens next,” she said. “Their cities have been bombed, their homes have been destroyed.” Volunteers arrange hot meals and shelter for the refugees before assisting with travel to their next destination. For many Jewish refugees, that means Aliyah to Israel; according to Sazonov, around 200,000 Ukrainians qualify for Israeli citizenship in the framework of the Law of Return.

Concern for relatives and friends who stayed behind in the cities and towns obliterated by Russian shelling is widespread, said Sazonov. One of the refugees she assisted with relocation to Israel — a 23-year-old woman from the southern port city of Mykolaiv — told Sazonov that her parents had remained behind so as not to abandon her grandparents. Communication with her family is sporadic at best, and in recent days the city has suffered an escalation in Russian attacks, as the Kremlin shifts its military focus to the east and south of Ukraine.

The bleak stories of suffering relayed by the refugees have bolstered Sazonov’s conviction that Jewish organizations have a natural place in the provision of relief efforts. “At the border, you will see lots of different signs and symbols, for the Jewish Agency, for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other agencies,” she said. “There are so many Israeli flags and Israeli volunteers. It really warms my heart to see the flag of Israel flying there.”

On Friday, Sazonov will drive to Warsaw for a Seder celebration that will bring together 200 refugees and aid volunteers. “I’m really looking forward to it, I think it will be very powerful,” Sazonov said. “They are sharing the real story of Passover, their escape, just as back then, we escaped from Egypt.”

Included in the thousands of tons of medical equipment and food sent by Jewish organizations to Ukraine are the necessary supplies for the Passover holiday. On Wednesday, the Orthodox Union (OU) announced that its “Shuls United for Ukrainian Jews” campaign had raised over $4.5 million to fund an aid package that includes 70,000 pounds of matzah and 14,500 gallons of grape juice. The OU has also supplied kosher meat, canned tuna and candies for the holiday.

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