For Malka Bukiet, the Israeli principal of Alumim, a children’s home in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, the most frightening moment of her escape from the war-torn nation — with 100 children aged six months to 17 years in tow — was not the sirens or bombs, but the moment they reached the border with Romania.
“We didn’t have proper travel documents for all the children. We just couldn’t get them in time and I was so afraid they wouldn’t let us all through. What would I do if some of them could go and others couldn’t?”
Luckily, the border guards just came on the bus, asked if there were any men aged 18 or over, and let them through. Only the driver had to turn back.
“We needed a miracle and God helped us. No one even looked at our documents. It was something unnatural,” admits Bukiet.
A place to rest
I meet Bukiet at the Nes Harim Field and Forest Education Center run by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund in the Jerusalem hills.
The center, which has 48 wood cabins and five classrooms, is normally used for short courses, and weekend stays. Now it is the unexpected temporary shelter for children from the Chabad-run home in Ukraine.
Nes Harim is a beautiful spot up a long and winding road in the middle of a forest. It looks more like Europe than Israel, and at the weekends, road cyclists in bright Lycra flock to the bends, pumping calf muscles up and down the twisting route.
Bukiet, who is 40 and has eight children of her own, gives an enormous sigh as she sits down with me at a table outside the dining room. The morning is hot and the site is busy and chaotic.
It’s the holiday of Lag B’omer, and inside some of the older kids are preparing for a parade in the evening. They are trying to put balloons into huge trash bags, a job made an awful lot harder by the smaller kids who are stealing the balloons to play with.
Bukiet and the children, all Jewish, arrived at Nes Harim in April. It was supposed to be a temporary shelter for one month, but has already stretched on for more than three as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified and set in.
Now, Bukiet and others at the field school understand their stay in Israel could go on for many months more.
“I don’t think we’ll leave before September at the earliest,” Bukiet acknowledges.
Bukiet has been living in Ukraine for 19 years and is the principal of Alumim. It gives a home to children whose parents are unable to care for them, either financially or for other reasons like addiction, or to children removed from their homes by court order.
When Israel urged its citizens to leave Ukraine in March as fears of an imminent Russian invasion grew, Bukiet wanted to go, but knew she couldn’t leave the children.
“It’s a very complicated operation to take these children out of the country. It takes months of work and is very expensive,” she says. “We couldn’t leave them though. They have no one else.
“In the end, we decided to stay. We thought that even if there would be a war, it wouldn’t be in our city. There’s nothing important there and we weren’t by the border. We were sure it wouldn’t touch us, and would probably only last a few days,” she says.
Instead, on the first night of the invasion, they were woken at 5am with missile strikes on a military base just two or three kilometers away.
“The children were hysterical,” says Bukiet, whose husband was on a trip in the United States with one of their children when the war broke out.
“The bombings were so close, we were shocked. Initially we didn’t understand what had happened. It was so stressful.”
Staff at the home quickly realized the only solution was to leave to another location nearer the border, for a few days at least.
“People thought we were crazy,” says Bukiet. “No one wanted to come with us. Everyone was afraid and we couldn’t find drivers, because the men would be taken to the army.”
Once drivers had been found, kids were told to pack a few things for a weekend trip. There wasn’t room in the bus for more. The seven-hour road trip took double that as the roads were full of people fleeing, and even once they arrived at a hotel an hour from the border, the atmosphere was tense with soldiers and helicopters coming and going.
Then suddenly in the night, air-raid sirens sounded again.
“It was terrifying,” says Bukiet. “We had to get the children to what was barely a shelter outside of the hotel. It was very cold, the children were woken from bed, and we didn’t want to forget anyone.”
Bukiet quickly realized they would have to move on again. She applied both to the Ukrainian government to take the children out of the country, and to the Israeli government to get temporary passports.
Approval from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs came first, and she decided not to wait for Ukrainian approval, but to risk it.
They were met by the Israeli consulate at the Romanian border, who gave them travel documents. Volunteers gave them blankets and food. “It was already a relief,” says Bukiet. “We were surrounded by good people.”
During their time in Romania, more and more children and families from Ukraine joined them, and then a week later, once news came through that KKL-JNF were happy to host them at Nes Harim, the 150-strong group flew to Israel.
A forest school becomes a home
KKL-JNF has done everything it can to equip the forest school. The organization created a computer room, opened a kindergarten and even added jungle gyms and other equipment.
Everything is being funded by KKL-JNF. It supplies them with food and laundry facilities. The staff helps keep the children occupied, even growing vegetables with them.
“As a central Jewish Zionist organization, KKL-JNF has answered the call to provide Ukrainian Jews with humanitarian assistance in the territory of Ukraine, as well as take in the children of Zhytomyr’s children home to the Nes Harim Field School,” said Avraham Duvdevani, chairman of KKL-JNF.
“The children and staff landed in Israel more than 4 months ago and the center serves as their home ever since,” he added.
“KKL-JNF are doing a great charity, giving us this beautiful place,” says Bukiet, looking around her. “We came somewhere where no one knows us, and they gave us such an incredible response.”
When the children arrived at Nes Harim, Israelis from all over the country brought clothes, toys, textbooks, backpacks and anything else the children might need. Many stayed and volunteered to entertain the children.
Among the organizations to help was Dental Volunteers for Israel, which donates dental care to the children. Three teenage girls, suffering extreme oral pain, were the first to get help.
A difficult transition
Despite the warm welcome, the move has not been easy for the kids.
“They were confused,” admits Bukiet. “They thought they were leaving for a few days. They moved from one city to another, and then to another country altogether. Some of the children had never been on a plane before and it was a big shock.”
For the first few weeks the kids didn’t study, but after Passover, in an attempt to bring normality back into their lives, most of the children began school.
“We needed to find every child a school that fitted them. I was impressed by the schools here. They didn’t have to agree to this. It’s crazy, it’s less than two months to the end of the year, the pupils don’t speak the language, they come from a different mentality, but every principal said yes.”
While most of the children were glad to start school and meet new friends, for some it has been a painful acknowledgement that they weren’t going home anytime soon.
“This was supposed to be a temporary situation and at first it was like a vacation. While it was stressful it was also fun and happy, but now they are going to school and it’s become something more stable and real,” she said.
“Many of the children are homesick. The reality is sinking in. Now it’s real life. We’re seeing a lot of behavioral problems and have therapists working with the children. They really need support,” she said.
There are also the emotional problems of war.
Bukiet tells me about Nadia, a 15-year-old from Mariupol, who lost contact with her family when she came to Israel. It took weeks for a rabbi in the badly hit city to find them. They had been living in a basement for two months, only going out to search for food. On one of these missions, just a few days before the rabbi located them, Nadia’s uncle was killed.
They managed to evacuate Nadia’s brother and grandmother, and they arrived in Nes Harim to an emotional welcome from Nadia.
“Everyone is waiting for the war to end. Even if the children are here, they can’t be detached from what is happening there. It’s their families and friends, it’s part of them. They are worried,” says Bukiet. “All we can do is give them a positive presence.”
A five-minute decision to come
It’s not just difficult for the kids, however. Some of the adults are finding life difficult too.
I meet Irina Kabakova by chance on a path in the school. She’s pushing her 7-month-old daughter, Varvara, in a pram and wearing a bucket hat that makes her look instantly like an Israeli.
Kabakova, an English teacher at Alumim who fled with the children, has beautiful blue eyes and is smiling at the antics of Boris, her 17-year-old son, who is also here with two of her other children, but there is sadness deep within them.
“I had to make the decision to come in five minutes,” she tells me. “I’d been planning my son’s birthday and had ordered him a cake and a show, and then suddenly, overnight, two explosions changed my life. We were so scared and frightened. I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
She’d been told to bring just one suitcase for her and her four children so she packed clothes for her kids, two rompers for her daughter, and an extra pair of sneakers for herself.
The only other things she had for herself was the outfit she wore – a tracksuit, coat, and the boots she was wearing. She left everything else.
“When we reached the western part of Ukraine, I opened the suitcase and discovered that I’d brought two right shoes for myself. That just finished me. I’d been in such a state of shock,” she said.
“I’m very happy we are here, but it’s hard to be away from home. We came so suddenly and left everything.” Her car, for instance, is in West Ukraine where she had to abandon it on the border.
One thing that makes life easier for her now is that her parents, who lived in a city near Kiev that was almost completely destroyed, managed to get out of Ukraine and are now living in Netanya.
Kabakova’s father is Russian and her mother is Jewish. They lived in a basement without electricity or water, listening to sirens, bombings and tanks. He wanted to stay and fight, but eventually they were evacuated.
The kindness of strangers
One thing everyone agrees on is the kindness with which they were greeted on every part of the journey.
“Over the last two months we have met so many amazing people and organizations. Everyone has been so helpful,” says Bukiet.
In Romania, people brought Kabakova clothes for Varvara, diapers and a pram.
“In Israel people met us at the airport with songs and support. People gave us so much,” says Kabakova. “We don’t need anything. I never dreamt it would be like this. We are very calm in this place. I can take my baby out every day. It’s amazing, I’m very thankful.”
What comes next? That’s a big question without a real reply.
Some of the Ukrainians who came over with the Alumim children have already immigrated to Israel and left Nes Harim; others are waiting. There are around 80 children still there.
“No one really knows how long they will be here,” says Gili Maymon, the head of Nes Harim. “We decide on a month-by-month basis, but it doesn’t seem like any time soon.”
“It will take months at least,” admits Bukiet. “Even if the war ends soon, still the country will need to recover and rebuild. It’s not the smart thing to go back to a country after war with a group of children.”
Will she return with them? Like the children, Bukiet came to Israel as a refugee with just one suitcase. Everything else she owns is still there.
“We go where we are needed. I don’t know what will happen at the end of the war, but if we are still necessary we will go back.”
For Maymon, who usually only deals with people for a couple of nights at most, getting to know the children has been a unique experience. It’s clear she is deeply involved with them.
“They are not regular kids, they have a lot of problems, but I love them,” she says. “I’m enjoying every minute. On a personal level, it will be very hard when they go.”
“Mark, Mark,” she calls out suddenly to one of the passing kids. “Mark, go wash your face, sweetheart, you’ve got cheese on it.”
Mark, a boy of about 9 or 10, comes over and leans towards her. “There,” she says, and wipes off the cottage cheese with a tissue. “Now you are fine.”