Israeli Friends of Ukraine

In this episode of the podcast “Encounters” we talk about the work of the “Israeli Friends of Ukraine.” The project “Encounters” is produced with the support of the Canadian fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Iryna Slavinska: You are listening to “Hromadske Radio.” Iryna Slavinska is working in the studio, and this is the next episode of the project “Encounters.” I would like to remind you that “Encounters” is a podcast that is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the very broad meaning of this notion: common history, cultural exchange, and so on. My companion today is Anna Zharova, one of the leaders of the “Israeli Friends of Ukraine” initiative. Besides being active in public activities, she is professionally involved with informal education and organizational development, and helps young entrepreneurs to implement their ideas into practice. In her volunteer life Anna Zharova, along with her colleagues, packs parcels for the ATO (anti-terrorism operation in eastern Ukraine, editor’s note), helps to send wounded soldiers and people from the Maidan to hospitals, and conducts successful fairs, auctions, and public events. In this episode of the “Encounters” podcast we talk about the work of the “Israeli Friends of Ukraine,” the support from the Ukrainian embassy, and whether Israeli streets hear the voice of Ukraine. My first question to Anna Zharova is a request to tell us what the organization “Israeli Friends of Ukraine” is doing on a regular basis. Anna Zharova: Our NGO is called “Israeli Friends of Ukraine.” I think I will talk a little about the history of the organization and how it appeared. There is a group on Facebook, a group formed over a year ago. Peter Bertzner created it last December and the group was called “Israel Supports Ukraine.” This is our Facebook community, our home, where like-minded people come to talk and where all the communication with our friends from Ukraine and all the other people from around the world who support Ukraine now takes place.

This group some time ago organized several meetings. Thus, in March activists gathered by the Russian Embassy for a meeting. These were people who met the airplane with the ten wounded people from the Maidan. The volunteer movement in Israel started the moment the plane landed, and included visits to the hospitals and everything that was connected with accompanying the families of the wounded people and other help for the families.

After this we started to receive requests from volunteers from Ukraine, who asked to help with transporting injured people from the ATO. And we started to manage the organization and negotiated with hospitals. I mean, we just acted as mediators, but everything was on a voluntary basis. People did not have to go to any medical company; people came directly to us, and we were doing everything. More than 25 people have been treated in Israel, including eleven from the Maidan, and then 23… not 23, but 13 from ATO. There are still two people in the hospital today in Israel. And it is like this every time...I mean, at first it was…this is how the volunteer movement was born.

After this we understood that the situation in Ukraine was getting worse and worse, and the anti-terrorist operation started to develop into a war. We thus addressed the issues of humanitarian aid. We started to collect money for Israeli bandages. We know from the volunteers and the guys who are fighting out there on the front lines that these bandages really save lives, and that they help to save people’s hands and feet. Besides, there is such an amazing person—Julian Oyfa—who is also one of our volunteers, who started to be in charge of this, checked everything, and started to order. Of course, it is clear that at this moment the entire group started to support this project. About twelve thousand bandages have been sent to Ukraine.

We also worked with Celox (a first aid temporary traumatic wound treatment, editor’s note). We checked where and how Israel could help. We therefore came up with the theme of charity events. We organized several charity events where we collected money, bought bandages here, and sent them there. The next step was a charity event “Eat the dumpling – dress up a soldier.” We started to raise money for uniforms. We found guys in the Czech Republic who were amazing volunteers. We contacted them, and through them we transferred money, and they sent uniforms that they bought for small amounts of money.

As a result, every day we grew and grew. At some point it became clear that we needed to move this volunteer movement from online to offline. We thus had an active group of people who registered an NGO, which is called “Israeli Friends of Ukraine.” We cooperate with the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel. They support us very much, and there are many projects that we implement together.

We are looking for partners and we are finding them. The Rotary Club here in Israel is one of these partners. They heard about our activities and offered to implement projects together. The Canadian organization “Ukrainian Jewish Encounter” is one more important partner for us today.

When we were thinking about our vision in general, we were always running and doing something. But at some point we had to reflect on and answer the question “What for?” It is understandable that every one of us…what makes our group unique is that we all are from different professional spheres. We have journalists, designers, photographers, people who understand social entrepreneurship, and managers. Thus, our experience is extremely professional. I think this gives us strength. I think that the speed with which we are getting things done is the indicator that every one of us is giving the most important source—time and professionalism.

When we were thinking about the vision, we understood that our aim is to support Ukraine. There are different ways of support however. We want to create the connection, the dialogue between two countries because there are many things in common. There is history. If we look at the history of Israel, people from Ukraine played a very important role here…Jewish emigrants from Ukraine…just like us—Jews who came from Ukraine.

I.S.: I just wanted to ask about this. Does it mean that this group only has natives from Ukraine?

A.Z.: No, not at all. I think this is a delusion that Ukraine is supported only by people who come from Ukraine. Not at all! We have people from the Baltic States, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Russia. We are a one hundred percent international group because we do not distinguish ourselves as Ukrainians, Byelorussians, or Russians. We are Israelis who speak Russian, who have some relations with Jewry, chose to live in this country and live here, but we cannot be indifferent to what is going on in Ukraine at this moment.

Because at the very least when we talk about this in our group, we understand there is some misunderstanding when people think that today they can sleep peacefully because this conflict does not apply to them. What is going on in Ukraine now can tomorrow come to our country in any form: with worries, war, rockets, weapons, and so on.

That is why we are beating the tambourine, so to say, because I do not know how else to talk about this. We are always trying to attract the attention of the Israeli street, to raise public awareness, and to attract the world’s attention.

I.S.: Earlier you said something important, when we were discussing the important parallel with the history of Israel, which lets you feel the solidarity. What is this parallel?

A.Z.: This parallel is terrorism and everything that is connected to the aggression of one country against the other one that involves using weapons. I think, when in the summer in Israel there was the Tsuk Eitan operation, “Unbreakable Rock”, people in Ukraine then came out to support Israel. They came out in Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv. They did not only come out…I mean, there were people who were saying: “Jews came out to support.” But this is not true because there are recordings of people, Ukrainians, who are saying that okay, you are very strongly supporting us and now we more than ever understand you, so thank you for this contact and this connection. I think this is important. In the history of Jews in Ukraine there are some moments that are very hard, let us say, to accept and for something new…for the creation of this new dialogue. I think, things are changing however and one of the things is the change in consciousness.

Part of our idea is to explain. We have more things in common than things that divide us. As I said the history…in general Israel was built by the natives of Ukraine, like Golda Meier, who played a very important role in the development of Israel. There were many famous names. I think this is what makes this history our common history.

Now when we are talking about the spheres that we chose and that we are working with, one of the spheres is humanitarian aid.

The second sphere is everything that is connected with culture and intercultural dialogue. This is about organizing festivals here. One of the projects that we are developing together with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter is “Voices.” These are people who we want…who come from Ukraine. They meet people here who are interested in what is going on there. They are journalists, politicians, writers, and painters. We try to see as much as possible the different faces and voices from Ukraine. Therefore, the second sphere is the intercultural dialogue.

The third sphere is everything that is connected with education. We are thinking about projects and maybe even about bringing children here to camps. I think Ukraine has Jewish schools. We could think about some projects with youth. We have lots of ideas. This sphere is only developing now. If we are talking about education, then it is not only Ukraine and the dialogue with Ukraine, but also what is going on in Israel. Today there are many repatriates who came to Israel. They are young families. We are thinking what structure to create. There is the “The first house in the Motherland” project. There is Zina Nevzina who is a very active member, and her idea is the “First friends in the Motherland” project. We are working on this project now. This is the third sphere.

The forth sphere is connected to media. These are our activities online, on Facebook, in social media, our participation in meetings. Again, it is the prerogative of the “Israeli Friends of Ukraine” group that exists on Facebook. This is really the development and support of this active position that people have, and it should have some platform. The idea is to provide a platform for this active position.

And the fifth thing we want to start thinking about is some interdisciplinary sphere. These are different projects and initiatives that can exist between our countries. We are now developing and trying to find different ways. The project is to bring Ukrainian doctors here to Israel. Not to raise qualifications, as I think it is called. But indeed to provide that basis that Israeli doctors have: everything that is connected with gunshot wounds, everything that is connected with the area in which the Ukrainian doctors had no chance before…we are now working on this and we are looking for sponsors. There is an idea, there are volunteers there and there are volunteers here. There is the Rotary Club that helped us to negotiate with one of the clinics. Thus, we hope that at the time when this project will start, it will open up some completely new area in which the different initiatives will be possible, and there will be cooperation on another level.

I.S.: Now I would like to ask you about how it works. Different spheres is beautiful, but there are lively people who do important certain things with their hands and heads. For example, if we are talking about fundraising. Let us take the event “Eat the dumpling – dress up a Ukrainian soldier.” How does it work? How was it? Where was it? Were there a lot of people there? Did you raise a lot?

A.Z.: A lot. We raised a lot and there were a lot of people. And it works, as well as our other communication, on Facebook and on the phone. We create the working group for every event. There is a leading group. This group always attracts other people. We are happy with anyone who comes and says that he or she wants to help. Or if they have some ideas, we will help to make them come true. We have… it all started that there was a group that was called the “Coordinating Council.” It included all the active people who initiated different things. For instance, there is some idea. Then there was a working group created on Facebook, but one of the disadvantages that demands reorganization all the time is the large number of Facebook groups. The platform allows creating a closed Facebook group, so we did something there, and then switched to the next one. This is because we have a big list of them. Then we shared responsibilities, who is responsible for what, who opens the event, who writes, who invites people. Basically it is always based on the motivation and interest, on the willingness of each person to give some time – how much he can give of his personal time to a project.

I.S.: Who made the dumplings?

A.Z: There were lots of people there. If we are talking about the origin of the idea, then I should mention that in “Israel Supports Ukraine” there was an ad for the “Tavern in Petah Tikva” Ukrainian restaurant. One of the administrators—Diana—saw this. She created the group and chat right away and said: “Okay, we are right there.” We also have a girl named Lyuba and we talked with her about this. “What a fun idea to create the festival of dumplings. We can also do fundraising there.”

Then we started to develop it. We gathered a working group and decided what we are doing this fundraiser for. It was for warm clothes. Back then we raised 8.5 thousand shekels. This is very serious money. We could buy 100 military uniforms for this money. And this included tunics, pants, underpants, and jackets. We were able to buy a hundred fleeces, which were sewed in Ukraine, and we also went further. We also bought, I think, a hundred pairs of socks. In total, we had a very good package. We distributed that among different teams, different volunteer groups.

In principle we define the roles there. There was a girl who opened the event, and she was responsible for managing everybody. Then we had the idea: “Let’s have the auction there.” It is important that we do not say “No” to all the ideas that are presented. But this is also a drawback. It is very difficult. Sometimes there is an idea, and the discussion may take a few days. But the good thing is the fact that different people have lots of ideas and we discuss it together, and we think together how to implement them later on.

I.S.: And all the things that you gather--they have to come to Ukraine somehow. Do you communicate with someone in Ukraine?

A.Z: We do not send money there. Money we gather here, we present reports. We had a few moments where we realized that it would be better if the money we raise and for which we are responsible would stay here and we buy things here. We transfer money specifically to the pharmacy, make a list of medications, and these medications go to the hospital that we specify. Somehow it works.

We have a few groups, even several levels, so to speak. There are people here in Israel who are responsible for a specific area. Let’s say, as I have already mentioned, there is Julian Oyfa who is responsible for bandages. We have Vyacheslav Feldman, who is responsible for children’s homes, and for ordering medicine and products. We have Mila, who is responsible for communication. I mean we do have different people.

Now, let’s say we have a list of volunteer groups and volunteers with whom we communicate—from Mariupol to Odessa. They come to us. These are people whom we know in one way or another. They can be my friends or acquaintances or friends of other people in our group, or someone’s relatives, or friends of friends. But, in fact, they always come to us through someone. We did not have... I mean, there were a few times when they just came out of nowhere and said: “Okay, let’s work together.” There have been attempts and they have failed. It always works when there is some kind of personal contact through someone else.

And now we collect some parcels or there are lists of what is needed that come to us from them. Then we look at how we can ship. For example we had five teams to whom we had to send five boxes of bandages. We found someone who was flying to Ukraine. We did the documentation through Ukrainian Airlines, and the embassy was helping us a lot. The idea was that a person who was flying privately was taking more than he was supposed to—let us say, up to 100 kilograms. Thus, we could send up to ten boxes of humanitarian aid to Ukraine immediately, and we contacted the volunteers for whom it was meant. They came to the airport and picked everything up.

We have a project here that is called “The good relay race.” You can read about it on our Facebook page. There are a lot of reports there since it goes through many hands. I mean, every time there are more and more new people. Someone took the packages, someone drove them and repacked, someone had to take the packages to the airport, and someone had to negotiate with volunteers who meet these packages there. Someone out there...I do not know...decided to send jackets and patches. The patches, for example, are in Haifa. These are the “Come back alive” patches. These patches had to be sent somehow from Haifa here. That is, each person is taking some very small step or some action, which then turns into a huge result—a result that has its own resonance, and we are really seen and heard.

If before we had been working for our reputation, today our reputation now works for us. I know that there are people who are more skeptical about our activities. And there are people who have been with us as volunteers and at some point legitimately decided to leave for one reason or another. Something did not suit them. Let’s just say everything is clear, but this is due to the fact that there are so many people, and people come to us themselves, and they recommend their friends. They offer their contacts. Thus we grow every time.

I.S.: I also wanted to ask about the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel. You mentioned more than once that it helps. How does it help? What can the embassy do for the volunteers?

A.Z.: The main support is for the projects we are doing. They provide absolutely free of charge the premises of the Ukrainian Cultural Center for meetings. I think this is the most important place, a center where everyone comes and where things happen.

Gennady Nadolenko himself supports the wounded. That is, if there are any problems, I know that at any moment I can address him personally. His wife, Yulia Nadolenko, initiated the “Flowering Ukraine” charity fair. There were a lot of embroidered items with beads. There was an auction, I mean not an auction, but a fair and a serious amount of money was collected. We also were able to buy bandages and Celox for this money. This help is very tangible. For example, on Hanukkah we invited Israeli children from Russian-speaking families. They drew pictures there, which then we sent away.

Also the representatives of the diplomatic corps…they go to the hospital to visit the wounded, and they volunteer at the same level...I cannot even put this into words. I really have not seen this before. I mean, I am not saying this because you just need to say “thank you.” I am saying this from my personal experience dealing with people. I have not met before any of the diplomatic corps that would have been involved so personally at this level. The entire Ukrainian embassy staff joined us when we were making the “Peace Chain” on Tel Aviv’s seafront. There were 400 people there. They stood with us, holding posters. They came with their families, with children. This is what is performed at our level, looking into our eyes. Every time I am amazed by this every time. I have no words, however, and I am very grateful to them. Not even for supporting us as volunteers, but for the fact that they are people like that.

I.S.: How do Ukrainian soldiers come to Israel for treatment? How do you find and choose them?

A.Z: No, we do not find and select. It works the other way. Knowing our experience with people from the Maidan, the volunteers, who were there in the hospitals and who were working with the soldiers, and who were looking for treatment abroad, knew that in Israel they could contact us and we would do everything required.

That is, when we receive a critical medical evaluation we pass it along to the hospitals. We know the hospitals. We have experience, and we had a negative experience as well, but a negative experience is an experience also. We know with which hospitals we would advise to cooperate, and with which hospitals we would advise not to cooperate. We provide the medical evaluations to the hospitals, and we get a price quote for them. Later, if it is decided that yes, a person is flying in or a volunteer is sending someone, there is the question of how they can be sent, or if a person is badly wounded, as for example Igor, who today is in “Kaplan,” we then order the plane.

We provide all this administrative and operational support here, in Israel, so that this person can fly in. And then there is the moral support in the hospital. That is, support for family members, and assistance in dealing with the hospital, if there are no Russian-speaking people there. Let’s just say volunteers who go to the hospitals do it all.

I.S.: I am also curious about the story with the number of “Voice” events that gather important opinion-makers here, those who have voices. Does Israel want to listen to Ukrainian voices? I am not talking about the volunteers; I am talking about the street.

A.Z: To be honest, I think today we do not know how much the Israeli street wants to or not. Because right now it is still difficult even to reach it. At the meetings...I must say that during the first month or two there was not a single Israeli person there. Today, when we hold meetings, three of them come. There are some participants in the group now. These are individual cases, but these are the small steps we are taking to get there, and it is a matter of the lack of time. It is hard to get to the Israeli street because there are so many urgent things that need to be addressed today. But in general if we talk about short-term goals, this is a long-term goal among all our goals. I do not think it is easy to get there quickly, but it is possible to get there.

I.S.: I would like to remind you that you were listening to a talk with Anna Zharova. She is one of the leaders of the “Israeli Friends of Ukraine” initiative that helps Ukraine as much as it can. “Israeli Friends of Ukraine” is able to send wounded people from the Maidan and injured Ukrainian soldiers to hospitals; they conduct successful fairs, auctions, and public events, and are doing fundraising and other important things to support Ukraine. You were listening to the project “Encounters.” This project is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the very broad meaning of this notion: cultural exchange, historical exchange, the common historical heritage and common current events, and the joint ability to come together and overcome difficulties. Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio. I would also like to remind you with great pleasure that the project “Encounters” is supported by the Canadian fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. You were listening to “Hromadske Radio.” Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger