Faces of the Ukrainian Aliyah: Profiles of Ukrainian Jewish Refugees in Israel

Stukalo family; photo courtesy Jewish Agency RSJ unit
Stukalo family; photo courtesy Jewish Agency RSJ unit

By Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt
special to eJP

Young, successful, hopeful – the Stukalo family of Donetsk, Ukraine had everything that one could ask for.

Ilya (28) was working as a surgeon, Anzhelika (36) as a neurologist – and their little Veronika had just turned 3 this year. Two apartments, two cars, a nanny, daycare, weekend trips to the country.

As active members of the local Jewish community, the Stukalos joined the local Jewish Agency office often for holiday celebrations and events; Ilya had traveled to Israel on Taglit-Birthright with The Jewish Agency as well.

For a while, the family had considered making Aliyah to Israel, but didn’t plan to move in the near future, hoping to take the time to prepare for a stable future in another country and to study Hebrew in time.

But with the war erupting across eastern Ukraine, Anzhela and Veronika left Donetsk to stay with relatives in Cherkassy, away from the front lines, while Ilya – unable to leave his work – stayed behind. For months the family lived apart, and when the fighting got even worse, the couple decided it was time to leave. In the summer of 2014, they fled – Anzhela didn’t even have the time to take her medical practice documents.

The Stukalos don’t regret moving to Israel. “We like it here, though it’s difficult,” Anzhela says. “It’s challenging to begin again, to come from a full successful life and start again from nothing.”

“I’m amazed by the openness of people here, the warm wishes they offer,” Ilya says. “I still have to adjust to this country where no one works on Shabbat.”

Ilya and Anzhela hope that, within five years, they’ll both be working as doctors here in the new Ashdod hospital which is under construction. They dream of sending their little girl to a good school; of receiving their medical licenses, a comfortable apartment, good work.

“The Jews of Ukraine share the same problems as their Ukrainian neighbors,” Ilya says. “Though at the beginning of the war, we kept hearing about pogroms and murders. The entire Jewish community of Donetsk has been driven out.”

Another couple, Grigoriy (25) and Maria (24) Lavinskii made Aliyah from the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk in the end of July – from the heat of war in Ukraine to the heat of war in Israel.

Grigoriy and Maria Lavinskii; photo courtesy Jewish Agency RSJ unit
Grigoriy and Maria Lavinskii; photo courtesy Jewish Agency RSJ unit

Grigorii and Maria grew up in Lugansk, having studied in the medical institute there, and as soon as the war worsened in Ukraine, immediately made Aliyah to Israel. They were planning on making Aliyah later, but rushed to leave because of the violence. “It was dangerous to be at work,” Grigorii remembers. “It was terrifying to go outside, to simply go to the grocery to buy food. Until the war in Lugansk, we never felt anti-Semitism.”

The Lavinskiis have been planning to make Aliyah for three years already. They understood that their medical careers had limited options for them in Lugansk; with a monthly salary of 100 US dollars, they could barely pay rent. They were determined to make Aliyah as soon as they finished their studies – and for months, had devoted themselves to studying Hebrew in a local Jewish Agency ulpan and actively participating in all local Jewish Agency events.

Grigoriy’s entire extended family lives in Israel. Before Aliyah, they had visited Israel three times, and they loved everything about it. “It’s a civilized, modern world, roads, hospitals,” Maria says smiling. “And it has the temperament of a diverse country, with a high quality of life.”

They hope to work as doctors in Israel, and dream of seeing peace in Ukraine and in Israel.

“Here, there is an understanding of human rights,” Maria says. “And it’s beyond an understanding – the government protects the rights of its citizens. We felt much more safe and secure in Israel, even during a war, than we did in Ukraine.”