by: Ilse Strauss
Thursday, 14 July 2022 | Natalia’s eyes grew wide as a line of Bridges for Peace volunteers filed into her bare apartment. For a moment, she sat in stunned silence, unshed tears clinging to her lashes. Then she smiled—and for good reason. Each pair of volunteer arms was piled high with boxes, parcels and bags overflowing with all the things she would need to rebuild a life after war ripped her world apart and left her with nothing.
The rooms that were starkly empty moments ago began filling fast with Natalia’s new possessions. The new kitchen table and chairs were stacked with towels, cheerful bed linens and the décor to turn the simple apartment into a cozy home. Pots and pans, appliances, cutlery and crockery, a microwave, toaster oven and a refrigerator fought for space in the kitchen. In the bedrooms, our team set to work assembling two single beds and one double to stand alongside matching bedside tables. Groceries and cleaning supplies spilled from the line of bags stacked against the living room wall.
“Mama!” exclaimed 6-year-old Dima, as he raced between kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom, peeking into plastic bags and cardboard boxes and whipping out the ordinary, everyday objects that beckoned him like treasures. “A trashcan!” he would exclaim, hoisting his newest find high for his mother to admire before racing onward to the next item.
Artem was slightly more subdued, hovering close to his mother and brother like a guardian. At 17, he was now the man of the house, a responsibility he carried with all the authority teenage shoulders can muster. Every now and then, he would ruffle little Dima’s hair and share in his excitement before returning to his mother’s side.
As the foundations of a life in the process of being rebuilt took shape around her, Natalia remained rooted in place, her hands wringing uselessly in her lap. She wasn’t motionless by choice though. Months of war, shock and unspeakable suffering have left her body ravaged. Severe PTSD had caused the muscles in her hands and feet to contract and pull inward under the strain until she could no longer walk without support; until she could no longer hold an object between her fingers.
As she watched our team unpack her new home and little Dima race around excitedly, I wondered if Natalia remembered the apartment she had to leave behind, the life she led with her family before the Russians came.
Seven short months ago, Natalia was happy and healthy. Mother to sons Artem and Dima. Wife to Artemas. Small business owner selling fruit and vegetables to friends and neighbors in Mariupol. That changed on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Within days, Mariupol was besieged. Water and electricity were cut off. Russian bombs obliterated 95% of the once-thriving city, reportedly killing 22,000 civilians. Unburied bodies lined the streets. Life became unbearable, a living nightmare. Soon, Russian forces embarked on a reign of terror, roaming from house to house, slaughtering innocent civilians for something as trifle as pro-Ukrainian correspondence on a personal phone.
Natalia and her family weren’t spared. One night, she awoke to Russian soldiers breaking into her home. They grabbed Artem and Dima, pressing the muzzles of their automatic weapons against her beloved boys’ heads. The trauma and helplessness were indescribable. Thankfully, the Russian soldiers left Artem and Dima physically unharmed, but Natalia has never been the same after that terrible night.
When a humanitarian corridor opened, Natalia and her family decided to leave Mariupol. Since the family is Jewish, the Jewish Agency came to their aid, helping the family as they set out from what was once their home to the land God promised would be theirs forever. But before they could reach the safety of Europe, Artemas’s passport was seized and he was forced to remain behind while sending his wife and sons to safety in Israel. Saying goodbye to her husband for what might be the last time added yet another layer of trauma for Natalia. “But when you are a mother,” she explained, “you think of your children first.”
It took Natalia and her sons a month to travel the nearly 3,000 kilometers (1,864 mi.) from Mariupol to Tel Aviv. By the time they arrived, Natalia’s PTSD had morphed to a level where she was no longer able to walk without assistance or complete everyday tasks like button a shirt or make a meal.
For their first month in Israel, Natalia, Artem and Dima lived in a hotel in Jerusalem as refugees, completing their immigration process and trying to figure out how to start rebuilding their shattered lives. They decided to settle in Dimona, a tiny desert town in the Negev where rent and utilities are a fraction of the cost of that in bigger cities. Besides, Artemas’s brother and his family had immigrated to Israel a few years ago and also settled in Dimona, which means that Natalia and her sons will have family close by.
When we heard Natalia’s story from an Israeli aid organization we partner with, we knew we wanted to help this precious Jewish family rebuild their new lives in Israel. We asked for a list of things she would need for her new apartment. Her list was short: a kitchen table, chairs, beds, a refrigerator and, if possible, new phones. The Russians had taken theirs, she said.
Thanks to the generous gift of a Bridges for Peace donor in Japan, we were not only able to tick off the items on Natalia’s list, but we could go well above and beyond. As we carried in the gifts she didn’t ask for—a flat screen television; two smartphones, one for her and one for Artem; a generous gift voucher; a brand new laptop; and two state-of-the-art bikes, one for Artem and one for Dima—the entire family rejoiced. “Spasiba, spasiba. Thank you! Thank you!” Natalia murmured over and over again, the laptop cradled in her lap.
After all the gifts had been handed out, we had one final finishing touch to the now overflowing home: a beautiful potted plant. “I love flowers,” Natalia beamed, her eyes instead of her fingers caressing the delicate green leaves. “These are the first flowers I’ve received in Israel. A good sign, no?”
I nodded. A good sign, indeed.
“What are you most excited about,” I asked, imagining an answer like the television, the phones, the laptop or the bikes for the boys.
“The smiles,” she answered. “You came in here today carrying all of this. And it is more wonderful than I can say. But what made my heart so happy is the smiles I see on your faces. It makes me want to smile. And for the first time, I see my children smiling. Thank you for making my children smile.”
I swallowed at the lump in my throat, and watched little Dima pull yet another treasure from a bag: this time a can of baked beans. “Mama!” he exclaimed, his face a picture of ecstatic delight. “My favorite! Beans in red sauce!”
Natalia beamed tenderly at her little boy, the one she had to see in the clutches of a Russian soldier with the muzzle of a gun pressed against his temple a mere month before.
“I felt like I lost all hope,” she admits, shaking her head. “But now, today, I have hope again. You have given me back hope.”
As we made our way back to Jerusalem from Dimona, I pondered what Natalia had said. Yesterday, thanks to the generous gift of a Christian donor, we had the privilege of being the hands and feet carrying boxes, parcels and bags overflowing with all the things a desperate Jewish refugee family would need to rebuild their lives after war had ripped their world apart and left them with nothing. But it wasn’t the laptop, phones, bikes, television or new beds that served as the biggest blessing. Natalia and her family will remember for the rest of their lives that it was Christians who made them smile, who gave them hope.
There are an estimated 30,000 families like Natalia’s who fled Ukraine for Israel with nothing, and now need to start rebuilding their lives. You can be part of that rebuilding. Your gift to our New Immigrant Fund will help us fill their empty apartments. But above all, it will help us to bring smiles and hope to those who have lived through the unimaginable.
Posted on July 14, 2022
Source: (Bridges for Peace, July 14, 2022)
Photo Credit: Michio Nagata/bridgesforpeace.com
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