Apr 12, 2022  Category: General,

Leave the Dirty Dishes: My Journey out of Ukraine

My life changed on the morning of February 24, 2022.

But let’s back up. I am Anat Bondarenko, aged 26, born in Israel in 1995 and my family moved to  Poltava, Ukraine when I was 9 years old.  I am proud to work as the Project Coordinator for the Lauder Employment Center’s Emergency Employment Program for Ukrainian Refugees. But I didn’t expect to find myself here in Israel, changing my life’s trajectory just a few short weeks ago.

After the fall of the USSR, my parents made Aliyah to Israel, looking for a more stable life. They came with my older brother, Shimon, and I was born a year after they arrived in Ashkelon, where my grandmother and many childhood friends still live today. When my paternal grandfather passed away and my father went back to Ukraine for his funeral, he saw a Ukraine that he didn’t recognize, one that was stronger and safer, and he decided to bring our family back and started a marble factory.

I grew up with a very strong Ukrainian identity, but I held on to my ties to Israel, keeping in touch with friends, visiting family every year, and continuing to speak Hebrew.

Fast forward a few years to when the Covid-19 pandemic began. I was studying genetics at the University of Vienna, but as things started closing down, I felt that it was time for a change. I had been presented the opportunity to run a philanthropic organization in my hometown of Poltava to help at-risk kids living in boarding schools. It turned out to be perfect timing: I could keep studying for my degree online (since everything was online!), and I could start working for an organization that was doing so much good in Ukraine. I had an apartment, a car, and my dream job. Life was great.

In December 2021, we started to feel a change in Ukraine. There were reports of Russian tanks on the border. And my brother, who is always with his finger on the pulse of world events, started telling us, “I think we need to move back to Israel for a while.”  He understood that things were about to get bad.

Then, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs got in touch with all Israeli citizens, asking them to let them know where we live. It was weird, but we didn’t think much of it. At first, it was a letter. Then, an email, and then, Whatsapp messages, each time the message getting clearer – Yalla, you have to leave.

On February 23, I was in Kiev, celebrating the birth of my cousin’s first son. I was enjoying a few days away from Poltava and planned to stay on in Kiev to meet friends. At 7am the next morning, I was woken up by air raid sirens. I knew about war only from life in Israel – there, we have shelters, people know what to do. I tried to call my parents, but there was no cell phone service. I turned on the TV and saw the reports that the war had started. I had no idea what to do, so I started doing dishes from the night before. I kept telling myself that, even if I go away for a few days, I don’t want to come back to a dirty kitchen

My journey from Kiev to Poltava to the border with Romania to the border with Moldova across Europe to Austria and then on to Israel took two weeks. Hours of driving, waiting in traffic, luck helping us along the way here and there.

It took me a couple of weeks to process my emotions and the enormity of what I had been through. And for it to sink in that there wasn’t any going back to Ukraine now and that life has to continue here in Israel. I started thinking about finding a job, and almost immediately, I heard about this job at the Lauder Employment Center in Be’er Sheva. I was immediately drawn to being able to help other Ukrainians in a similar situation to my own. I spent my first three days of work sitting at the Leonardo Hotel here in Be’er Sheva where other refugees were being housed and just crying with everyone about what was happening to us and to our country. I even helped connect neighbors to each other who didn’t know that they had ended up together in Be’er Sheva. 

And now? The real work has begun. I am continuing to map the employment needs of refugees in the Negev. The people coming are so skilled, and we know that we must help them find good jobs so that they won’t be underemployed. In just a few days, we will start connecting the 100’s of refugees who have signed up for our services to the over 2,000 jobs that are waiting for them in the Negev and helping them settle into this new employment world. Together, I know that we are going to make a difference in these people’s lives, just like the Lauder Center has already helped to make a difference in my new life here in Israel.

To support Jewish National Fund-USA’s important work with the new Olim from Ukraine, click here jnf.org/Ukraine