by: Ilse Strauss
Thursday, 20 October 2022 | Seventy-one-year-old Vera spent her life helping others. As a shop steward in the largest factory in Mariupol, Ukraine, she made a career of keeping the employees in her care happy and healthy. In the end, it wasn’t all for nothing. “See?” she beamed, gesturing in childlike glee at the team of Bridges for Peace volunteers filling the tiny room, their arms piled high with gifts, “After all these years, now, when I need it most, you came to help me.”
Vera’s husband, 78-year-old Nikolai, nodded in silent agreement from the kitchen. He bustled about, his blue eyes bright as he took measurements, moved appliances this way and that, opened, closed and re-opened the kitchen cupboard and then, finally, simply stood gazing at the disarray in front of him, his hands clasped together in silent satisfaction.
Half an hour before, Nikolai and Vera’s state-sponsored apartment near the port city of Haifa was starkly bare, a sad testament to their status as refugees who fled the carnage in Ukraine with nothing but the clothes on their back. Then a line of Bridges for Peace volunteers filed in, filling the tiny space to overflowing. Our team carried a brand new fridge, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, stovetop and microwave into the kitchen. Cutlery, crockery and kitchen utensils were soon piled high on the newly assembled kitchen table and chairs, while groceries overflowed from carrier bags lined against the wall. In the bedroom, two bedside tables and a sturdy wardrobe now framed a double bed decked with crisp linen, while the living room was transformed into a cozy nest complete with a couch, easy chairs, a coffee table and a television. A laptop with an extra big screen to accommodate eyes that have seen everything stood on the ledge. A potted plant here, a portrait there and a brightly colored throw pillow or two completed the picture.
Thanks to the generous gift of a Bridges for Peace donor in the US, the elderly couple who had lost everything when the Russians invaded finally had a home again—and we were privileged to be the physical hands and feet of blessing as we brought them the things needed to turn a bare apartment into a home.
The tale of Nikolai and Vera’s journey from war-torn Mariupol to a homecoming in Haifa is gut wrenching. Yet Vera speaks freely of what they had been through, the words flowing from her lips like water. Sharing isn’t easy, she assures me, but it’s necessary. People have to know about the unimaginable horror the couple escaped—and of the safe haven, the tender care and the beautiful homecoming they have found as refugees in Israel.
Back in February, a mere week before everything fell apart, Vera recalls taking stock of her life. “I remember thinking that I had everything I could ever want.” Married to the love of her life and best friend Nikolai for more than half a century. Two beautiful children, both now grown with families of their own. Settled among friends and family in beautiful Mariupol—the city of their hearts—in the spacious apartment where they had raised their children and collected a lifetime of memories. Recently retired from a fulfilling career and now looking forward to spending her days spoiling her grandchildren and gardening with Nikolai at their country home. “My life is perfect,” she remembers thinking.
And then Putin invaded Ukraine.
The couple survived weeks of near-constant bombardment, hiding out in a reinforced part of the corridor outside their front door. When the tanks and the warplanes fell silent for a breather from raining down death on civilians, the elderly couple raced from their sixth-floor apartment to the street below to hack frozen limbs off dead trees, kindle a fire on the sidewalk and cook a ration of dried buckwheat they had left in their pantry. They saw a humanitarian catastrophe unfold as people buried the bodies of loved ones in hastily dug graves in backyards and public parks, and witnessed 95% of the buildings in once-beautiful Mariupol destroyed or damaged, turning the city of their heart into something apocalyptic. Then, when a fire sparked by a Russian tank raged through their apartment building and the water to quench the flames had frozen solid in useless pipes, Nikolai and Vera frantically grabbed their documentation, bundled their beloved cat Toma into a blue shopping bag and fled into the night. Two days later, as the Russians occupied the city, the couple and their cat drove out of Mariupol with their son and his family. “My heart broke,” Vera says.
They spent the next weeks heading for the relative safety of western Ukraine, braving 21 Russian checkpoints, frozen, bomb-scarred roads and the gnawing uncertainty of what the future held. As Jews, Israel beckoned as a safe haven, but men under the age of 60 were barred from leaving Ukraine, and how could Vera leave her son behind while she, Nikolai and Toma escaped the war? “He kept telling us, ‘Mom, go to Israel. You can have a life there.’ But I didn’t want to.”
Finally, after weeks of degradation, peril and with no end to the war in sight, the bone-weary couple made the hard decision to come home to Israel. Things happened quickly after that. They made their way to the Hungarian border, where they met with Israeli officials who put the process in motion. Six months after the Russians came, Nikolai and Vera touched down in the Promised Land.
Despite the trauma, loss and heartbreaking goodbye, it was a happy homecoming. “It felt right somehow,” Vera explains. “Like perhaps everything happened for a reason, so that Nikolai and I would come to Israel.”
Still, their situation was dire, their prospects even more so. The elderly couple who thought they would spend their golden years surrounded by the places and people they had known all their life, arrived in Israel as two of the more than 40,000 Jewish Ukrainian refugees seeking safety in the land of their promise. Israel certainly goes above and beyond to help new immigrants, providing a monthly financial stipend and state-sponsored housing. But with 40,000 new immigrants—and more coming—to care for, the budget is tight, the stipend not enough to cover basic monthly expenses and the rooms of the state-sponsored apartments are bare. The simple solution is to work hard, learn Hebrew and embark on a career to raise the means of carving out a new life. But with Nikolai and Vera both in their 70s and well past retirement age, what hope was there to live out the remainder of their years in even relative comfort?
Bridges for Peace heard about the couple’s plight from Yad Le’Olim, a Jewish aid organization that assists new immigrants coming home to Israel. We immediately knew we wanted to help. And the gift from our donor in the US put us in a position to purchase and deliver the things Nikolai and Vera would need to turn their bare apartment into a home.
“What are you happiest about?” I asked Nikolai as he moved the microwave to yet another location, trying to find the perfect spot in the tiny kitchen. His eyes roamed his now overflowing apartment, resting for a moment on the state-of-the-art appliances, then on to the bed where Toma had curled into a purring ball of grey fluff and finally coming full circle to the cozy living room where his wife stood beaming.
“You,” he said finally, his voice gruff. “All of you. Every time we use the things, we will remember. We will always remember.”
We say goodbye to Nikolai and Vera on the sidewalk outside their apartment in the blinding sunlight of late summer in Israel. They lean in close for a hug, the kind you reserve for someone you treasure close to your heart.
I smile into Vera’s eyes while words continue to flow from her lips like water. Now they are words of hope though. “After we settle in, we’ll start learning Hebrew,” chirps the 71-year-old refugee who had seen it all and lost nearly everything. Yes, I thought. Vera spent her life helping others. But it wasn’t all for nothing. When she and Nikolai needed it most, Christians came to help them. What a privilege. What an honor.
The generous heart of one Christian donor changed the plight of this precious elderly couple. After their loss and devastation, they can now live out their final days in comfort, knowing that Christians treasure them close to their hearts. But there are tens of thousands just like Nikolai and Vera who face a bleak future after losing everything. Those who are elderly have no way to rebuild and no means to provide. Now, when they need it most, we as Christians have the privilege and honor to help them. Your gift to our New Immigrant Fund will help us transform bare apartments into safe havens. Your generous heart can give them a homecoming.
Posted on October 20, 2022
Source: (Bridges for Peace, October 20, 2022)
Photo Credit: Michio Nagata/bridgesforpeace.com
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