I asked Nastya what she needs. She looked at me and said, “I just want to go home.”
Last week, an article ran on Israel’s Walla news site written by Yana Kogan, one of the volunteers from Dror Israel’s first day care delegation to the Ukrainian refugees in Poland. We translated the article, in which she tells the moving story of her journey and her connection to 14-year-old Nastya.
Yana Kogan, a 25-year-old Israeli, was born in Ukraine. As soon as the war broke out in her home country, she knew that she wanted to help. So, with a delegation from Dror Israel, she took care of children who fled their homes. In the kids’ room, among the ruins and camp beds, a special connection has developed between Yana and a 14-year-old refugee girl.
I remember my flight to Israel when I made Aliyah from Ukraine. I left a country I really loved and a city I was happy to call home – the beautiful neighborhood with the most gorgeous central square in the country. We had a yard full of fruit trees that my mom would send me to to pick fruit and eat some cherries and apples. I loved my childhood home in Kharkiv.
Up until now, the city hasn’t been very well known around the world, but today it probably sounds familiar to you – and not as the beautiful city I know, but rather as bombed out and injured. “Barbaric attack,” says one news site. “Humanitarian disaster,” says another. My mother and I stare at the screen and read the news, and our hearts – like the city – are broken. The beautiful square in the center of the city was wiped out. Boom. A neighbor told us that the house I was born in suffered a direct hit. Boom. The garden was destroyed and with it, all of the fruit trees. Boom. All of my childhood memories simply erased. Boom, boom, boom.
Very soon I realized that I needed to do something. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far. As a member of Dror Israel, I knew exactly where to turn. This organization, made up of graduates of the Hanoar Haoved youth movement, has extensive experience in providing aid in war zones. They were in Kosovo, have helped Syrian refugees, and of course residents of northern Israel during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Just a few days after the current war broke out, a small delegation from Dror Israel went to visit the countries bordering Ukraine to understand to needs in the field and how we could help. The need quickly identified was to help mothers crossing the border with their children, without the fathers who have been instructed to stay in Ukraine and fight. Four million children.
And so, I set out for my birth country – or rather, to its people if not its land. I didn’t know what to expect. What would I see? Would I see anyone I know? Would anyone recognize me? We went to the Expo Center in Warsaw, an enormous convention center that has been packed with refugees on folding cots – but not in black and while like we are used to seeing, but in color, people just like us. They have clothes just like mine, shoes like mine, haircuts like mine and faces like mine.
But their bags are small and their expressions are sad. Those not actively crying are clearly hurting. Those not being hugged are clearly lonely. And the sounds are the hardest for me to think about – a kind of scared silence with occasional sobs from the sides of the room. Every once in while, I would hear a horrified cry, apparently in response to news from her home country. From my home country.
I walked between the folding camp beds in the dark Expo Center at the end of which is a small, colorful and well-lit room which draws the eye like an oasis in the desert. The kids’ room is the polar opposite of the rows of black beds, and it reminds me why I’m here with its vivid toys and children’s drawings. Some radiated hope, others were full of pain. Once again, I shook myself to get it together, as did the other members of the delegation.
We unpacked the toys that we had brought, put on our blue Dror Israel vests, and reminded ourselves that we didn’t come here to cry with them, but rather to help. And so, like the familiar transition from Israel’s Memorial Day to Independence Day – we started getting happy. We put on music and we danced. At first we were alone, but then a girl joined, and then another, and then a few more kids. We were amazed at how quickly kids go back to being kids.
My heart, which was burning from pain, suddenly beat with happiness. In this little room we managed to create a world of happiness, love, music, laughter and singing – and lots of hugs.
There were quiet children who didn’t want to dance or even talk, and sad children wearing only long underwear who had a hard time trusting, but underwent a transformation in just a few short hours. It wasn’t because of the conversations, the care or the games. It was because of the home-like atmosphere of love and safety in the kids’ room. Each educator gave their all to each child no matter if they were blond, Roma, cute or a bit violent, and every child was greeted with attentive and loving eyes and a warm hug. We healed trauma with love.
As the hours and days went on, we made personal connections. With the little kids, we did silly things and craft projects, and with the bigger kids we watched TV series and talked about the war and what they would do when it was over. Each one of us fell in love with a few of the kids. I was drawn to 14-year-old Nastya, who has three siblings, black hair and the saddest eyes I have ever seen.
She told me about her life in Ukraine, about her best friends who she fears she will never see again, about the home that she knows she will not return to anytime soon.
She is very mature for her age, takes care of her siblings, and any time I try to convince her to come to the kids’ room, she acts like a kid for a few short moments before going back to help her mom. The second-to-last day we were there, I asked her what she needs. Did she want me to send her anything from Israel? A toy? Chocolate? Anything? She looked at me with her sad eyes and said, “I just want to go home.”
Such a legitimate request, which should be so simple to accept. A tired 14-year-old girl who wants to go home, but it hurts to hear and to realize that it’s the only thing she has asked for during our time together. The next day, a few moments before I left and was replaced by a second delegation of educators from Dror Israel, we got news that Nastya and her family found an apartment in Poland and would leave the Expo Center along with us. I can’t describe the relief I felt.
On the way home, my heart was beating as loudly as it ever has. I felt the same as I did the day we made Aliyah to Israel – thinking about the home I left behind, and about Nastya and all of the kids and their mothers. Long before we landed, it was clear to me that I need to keep working to help them. Fortunately, Dror Israel didn’t disappoint and had already announced a plan to help the olim and refugees staying in hotels in Israel. Of course I signed up immediately.
If only I hadn’t needed to go. If only I hadn’t needed to see the sights and hear the cries and sobs of loss. But I am so glad that I had the privilege of being there for them and I am so proud of Dror Israel and of my country for all we are doing to help. May we always be in position to help.
Nastya and I are still in touch. This week we video-chatted. She asked me to say thank you to everyone, and that her new home is wonderful. My heart filled with joy.