Maria Litichevska and her son, Mark, fled Ukraine in the days following Russia's attack in February 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Litichevska).
Maria Litichevska and her son, Mark, fled Ukraine in the days following Russia's attack in February 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Litichevska).

With years of experience, local Jewish agencies assist Ukrainian refugees

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On Feb. 28, four days after Russia launched its war on Ukraine, Kyiv resident Maria Litichevska and her 10-year-old son grabbed two small suitcases she had prepared with documents, photos and a few changes of clothing, and caught one of two trains leaving the city that day for Western Ukraine. She had 40 minutes to decide whether to go, leaving her mother and stepfather behind.

After two days sleeping on the floor of a day care center in Lviv, Maria and her boy crossed the Polish border into an unknown future.

Katy Voronina managed to cross the border into Poland with her dog in March 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Voronina)
Katy Voronina managed to cross the border into Poland with her dog in March 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Voronina)

That same week, 21-year-old Kyiv resident Katy Voronina stuffed some clothes in a rucksack, gave her cat to her boyfriend, grabbed her little white dog and hopped another train heading west. She walked five hours to the Polish border, where she talked her way across without documents. It was her second escape from war in eight years, the second time she had to create a new life for herself.

Katy and Maria are among 13 million Ukrainians who have fled their homeland since Russia’s invasion seven months ago, most of them crossing the border into neighboring countries. As of Sept. 26, more than 6 million Ukrainians had crossed into Poland, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. About two-thirds continued on from Poland to other countries, including the United States, which had taken in some 100,000 Ukrainians as of July 29, according to CBS News.

Katy, Maria and her young son are among those who ended up in the Bay Area, where local aid organizations stepped forward to help them. And so did the Jewish community.

Jewish Family and Children’s Services based in San Francisco is providing aid to several hundred recently arrived Ukrainians, with more families arriving every week, according to executive director Anita Friedman. Her 172-year-old agency, which has a longstanding commitment to serving the region’s Russian-speaking, mainly Jewish emigre population, has beefed up its volunteer base and hired more staff since late February to deal with this newest crisis.

“Most of the refugees are staying in Europe,” Friedman told J. “But more and more refugees are coming here in many different ways. Many who come here have anchor relatives locally who also want to help.”

The agency is busy fundraising for these local arrivals, as well as sending money to partner organizations helping Ukrainian refugees in Ukraine, Poland and Moldova, she said. JFCS is also offering legal services to Ukrainians already living in the Bay Area who are trying to get their relatives out of the war-torn country. Most are local Jews who fled the former Soviet Union decades ago, and still have family in Ukraine.

Anita Friedman at a JFCS fundraising gala in 2019.
Anita Friedman at a JFCS fundraising gala in 2019.

“We’ve received hundreds of calls, both from Ukraine and from Jews originally from Ukraine who are now living here,” Friedman said. “As a Jewish organization, we have been dedicated to resettling immigrants for many decades, and so providing this humanitarian help is very familiar to us.”

Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay has also stepped up, helping more than 160 arrivals as of late September.

“That number is growing every day,” said Ami Dodson, volunteer services manager. “Almost everybody we have seen so far are moms and kids. The dads are still in Ukraine.”

Both agencies are handing out gift cards, hygiene kits and donated clothing, and providing food deliveries, transportation, ESL tutoring and other immediate needs to the Ukrainians who reach out to their offices.

Most of all, they are helping the new arrivals navigate the legal system, primarily surrounding work permits. Applying costs $410, which the agencies sometimes are able to cover. That “depends on donations,” Dodson said.

An important caveat is that unlike most previous clients, the Ukrainian arrivals are not considered refugees under U.S. law. That limits the kind of help they can receive, and means aid organizations don’t receive federal funding to “resettle” them. There is no money for housing, and many, especially the early arrivals, are not eligible for government-supported food and medical programs. If a volunteer takes a new arrival grocery shopping, Dodson says, the volunteer often pays for the food.

“It’s really heartwarming to see how generous people have been,” Dodson said.

Friedman says the responsibility of welcoming the new arrivals is one that the local Jewish community is rushing to fulfill. “The response has been extraordinary in terms of time and money. We have a special sensitivity to what it is to flee war,” she said.

“There are a lot of historical ironies, or course, it being Ukraine,” she added, referencing the country’s history of anti-Jewish pogroms, as well as Soviet oppression of its Jewish population. “But things have changed there. People have a different worldview regarding Jews than they had in World War II.”

Brett Snider, director of legal services at JFCS in San Francisco, explains the three ways Ukrainians fleeing the war have been able to enter the United States.

Those in the first group arrived with tourist visas, which gives them permission to stay for six months, along with another six-month extension.They are generally not permitted to work.

The second group also fled Ukraine early in the war, passed through Europe and headed to Tijuana on the U.S. border, where they asked officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to “parole” them in for humanitarian reasons. They can stay for up to a year, are eligible for some benefits and may apply for work permits.

RELATED: Former refugees in Bay Area pay it forward by helping new Ukrainian arrivals

The third group consists of those who arrived after President Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program on April 21. The program allows a U.S. resident to sponsor someone who was living in Ukraine prior to Feb. 11. The Ukrainian enters as a parolee and may stay for two years; the sponsor must agree to support the person for that entire period. A legal parolee is eligible for mainstream benefits, Snider says, including food and cash assistance and medical care. Most of the Ukrainians now in the Bay Area have come in under this program.

Unraveling the bureaucratic tangle created by these various statuses is part of the painstaking work of the JFCS legal services department, which was launched in the 1980s to resettle Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and lately has focused on the large number of arriving Ukrainians. Friedman estimates half of the new arrivals that her agency is helping are Jewish.

“The biggest demand is for legal consultation,” Snider told J. “What are the options for locals who have family in Ukraine they want to bring, and for Ukrainians in Europe and elsewhere who want to come to the United States? We were able to recruit bilingual volunteers to help us triage the calls.”

Although the department’s full-time staff has been doubled to four people since the February invasion, JFCS, like its East Bay counterpart, depends heavily on volunteers. Pro-bono immigration attorneys are on hand during the free legal clinics held most Fridays, to help the arrivals fill out paperwork for work permits and other programs. Other volunteers, many of them former immigrants from Russian-speaking countries, act as translators (see sidebar).

“We were dealing with new clients five times a day,” Snider said of the busiest days this past spring. “Our volunteers were instrumental in getting us over that hump. We spoke to clients all over the world, and could provide these services for free.”

Bilingual staff and volunteers help the Ukrainian arrivals with ordinary needs, such as applying for college, getting a driver’s license or ID, securing health insurance — “things that require a certain level of familiarity with American bureaucracy,” he said.

How do the new arrivals hear about JFCS? “We are a known resource for these people,” Snider said. “JFCS is no longer a resettlement agency, but we still help Ukrainians reunite with families. It’s made us a real stopping point for people from Ukraine.”

“I’m glad to be here,” said Katy Voronina in a Zoom interview from her new home in Martinez. “Of course, it would be much better if I were here in other circumstances. But we have what we have.”

Voronina was born in Donetsk, a major city near the Russian border. In 2014, when she was 13, Russia began occupying Donetsk, which became the capital of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two pro-Russian separatist states in the Donbas region. She and her mother moved to Kyiv.

“It was a difficult time,” she said. “My mom is a doctor and it was hard for her to find work. I changed schools, lost my old friends.” Half her family is still in Donetsk today, including her father, grandparents and half-siblings.

Two years ago her mother moved to Missouri with her stepfather, and Voronina moved in with her boyfriend in Kyiv, started college and worked for a startup.

When Russia invaded in February, explosions rocked the city. “In those first days I understood that it was not sustainable, it would just get worse and worse,” she said. She decided to leave for Europe, so she gave her cat to her boyfriend, grabbed a rucksack with warm clothes and a flashlight, and boarded a bus headed west.

Maria Litichevska and her son Mark meet with JFCS case manager Masha Kohn, Sept. 8 2022.
Maria Litichevska and her son Mark meet with JFCS case manager Masha Kohn, Sept. 8 2022.

At the end of the bus line, she continued walking for five hours to the Polish border. “I was afraid I’d be turned back,” she said. “I lost my Ukrainian passport, my international passport was expired, and I had a dog with me.”

But she was let into Poland, where her mother had flown from Missouri to be with her as she waited for a visa to the United States.

Two months later she and her dog arrived in the U.S. via Uniting for Ukraine. She stayed with her mother and stepfather for several months, and then found a host family in Martinez. JFCS East Bay gave her a welcome kit and some donated clothes, and is looking for an English tutor for her.

“In Missouri I had 10% of the opportunities I have here. My main goal is to go to college. I want to be independent, make money here and live the life I want,” she said.

“This is the second time I’m starting life over from zero. People call me a strong woman. But I didn’t choose it. I just have to accept it.”

For the agencies and volunteers trying to help the newly arrived Ukrainians, the legal distinction that denies them refugee status can be frustrating.

“They are refugees, whether they are ‘legal’ refugees based on U.S. criteria,” Friedman stated emphatically. “They fled as war refugees.”

Maria Litichevska, 38, was an art professor and ceramicist living in Kyiv with her son, Mark, when at 4 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 24 she was awakened by explosions. “It was still dark,” she recalled. “At first I was in shock. Is it really war? For real? I was just frozen.”

She got out of bed, looked out the window and saw a cloud of smoke over the city. Jumping onto social media, she learned the same thing was happening all over Ukraine.

“It was horrible,” she said. “How could this happen in the 21st century, and our kids witness it all?”

The two lived in a high-rise, which Litichevska determined would be vulnerable to bombing, so they decamped to her parents’ home where they could shelter in the basement. That’s where they spent the next four days, joined by another family, as explosions continued to rock the city.

“We heard bombs and missiles 24/7,” she said. “There we were, seven of us, with dogs and cats, even a chinchilla.”

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Mark, 10, has asthma, so one day she took him outside for some fresh air. People were being advised to walk very close to the buildings so they wouldn’t be spotted by Russian drones and shot to death.

“We were up against the wall to hide ourselves. Mark was very pale, it was terribly scary. I thought, is it fair to have my son live through this?”

On the fourth day of the war, she and Mark drove back to their apartment to get two small bags she had already packed with clothes and essential documents. The streets were filled with cars trying to escape the city. “There was no bread in the shops, no groceries. People had bought it all. Russian tanks and infantry were already in Kyiv. Tanks were running people over. It was complete chaos.”

Back at her parents’ apartment, they heard on TV that two trains would be leaving Kyiv soon, headed west. Her stepfather told her to take Mark and go.

“I decided to risk everything and leave,” she said, tears pooling in her eyes. “We had 40 minutes to say goodbye and make it to the train station.”

There it was chaos as well, as people shoved each other in desperate attempts to get onto one of the two trains.

“It was like World War II, with kids crying, people trying to get on the train. Some children fell between the cars, onto the tracks. The Territorial Defense was shooting in the air, to keep some control.”

Mother and son managed to get on the second train. People were crammed into the seats, she said, holding bags, children, pets on their laps. “Mark kept asking, where are we going? I kept saying it will be OK. But I didn’t know.”

The two got off in the western city of Lviv and spent the night in a center that was housing refugees from the east. The next morning she received a text from a Facebook contact in Krakow; he invited her and her son to come stay with his family.

“The Polish people were amazing,” she said. “They helped us so much. The bakeries gave us bread. They welcomed the Ukrainians with open arms.”

Meanwhile, Litichevska’s stepmother and Jewish father, who left the former Soviet Union in 1989 and live in San Francisco, were working on getting them to the United States. On May 11, mother and son arrived at SFO on tourist visas.

That status meant, however, that government help was limited.

“I have to say, JFCS is their No. 1 help,” said Maria’s stepmother. “When we went to get their medical and food assistance, we found out they were not eligible. JFCS gave them $900 and gift cards for Safeway and Target, so Maria could get feminine products. Not many other organizations have helped.”

Litichevska says the five months on the road, moving from place to place, has been especially hard for Mark. “He’s very emotional, it’s been tough on him,” she said.

She is waiting for the war to end so she and Mark can go home. They may leave sooner, as their visas are nearly expired.

“Of course, yes,” she said to the idea of returning to Kyiv. “Everything is there.”

Additional reporting by J. staff writer Maya Mirsky.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].