Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Volunteers Help Ukrainian Refugee Resettlement in Hungary

Celebrating Passover, fleeing Putin instead of Pharaoh

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It looks like a group seder, the kind you might find at your local synagogue’s social room, with rows of tables and place settings. This night in Budapest is different, however, from all other nights in one significant way: the participants are Ukrainian refugees. They are in Hungary now, on their way to Israel, the United States, or other parts of Europe.

Yakov Shapiro flew from his job in New York City to help the refugee resettlement effort, working for Israel’s Jewish Agency. Speaking through Zoom on Friday, I asked him about the obvious parallels between the Passover story of Jews fleeing from Pharaoh and Ukrainian Jews fleeing from Putin.

“Totally, everything is very, very symbolic, yesterday we had tour of Hungary, the synagogue, and we saw the memorial of World War II, and it’s sad how history is coming back and repeat itself,” Shapiro said.

In Budapest, he’s keeping busy making sure the refugees get where they need to go. Most of them are moving to Israel, but others prefer other countries.

“There’s a whole operation together with a lot of locals who are willing to help and doing their best to take care of them and send them to their right destinations,” Shapiro said. “For them, we are the power of knowledge and it’s very emotional, exhausting, but more than all I think satisfying and fulfilling.”

Among the volunteers, there’s a familiar face from South Florida.

Larisa Svechin is the former mayor of Sunny Isles Beach. She’s been in Budapest for a week now, shepherding the refugees through the process of filling out forms, answering questions and just listening. I asked her what this experience has done to her emotionally.

“Well we’ve done a lot of crying here,” Svechin said. “You picture what it must be like for them, just sitting on a plane, wondering where it is they’re going to land, who’s going to greet them?”

Svechin volunteered through the Jewish Federation of North America, which has raised $50 million to help Ukraine and its refugee citizens. She told us the flow of people moving through Budapest to points beyond has gone from the thousands last week to hundreds this week, but she’s constantly busy and finds it all extremely rewarding.

“Sometimes I wonder if I get more out of it than I give,” Svechin said.

Sometimes, the stories she hears are infuriating. One woman, Yana, who did not want her last name used, said she wants the world to know the reality on the ground is worse than the physical destruction we see on the news, that Russian soldiers raped kids in front of their parents when they occupied her city.

“It is our obligation as a human race to help each other and not just sit back and watch these things happen and expect someone else to do something,” Svechin said.

This is personal for Svechin and likewise for Shapiro.

She’s a refugee herself, from the former Soviet Union. Her family fled to the United State when she was a child. Shapiro’s parents escaped the USSR as well, moving to Israel, where he was born. So each of them see themselves in the people they are helping.

“It’s nice to be on the side of the ones who give help,” Shapiro said.

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