The little boy with platinum blond curls sleeps peacefully on his mother’s lap in the last row of the plane. His mother, by contrast, cries off and on throughout the flight.
“I am so worried about my brother,” Anna Ardasheva whispers, as she wipes away her tears. “He was taken to the front line to fight the Russians, and we haven’t heard from him since.”
Five months pregnant with her second child, Anna, 31, comes from the port city of Odessa, where she owned a successful travel agency. She says she never planned to leave her husband behind, but four days ago, when they were about to cross the border from Ukraine into Moldova, he was turned back because the Ukrainian government is not letting out any men between the ages of 18 and 60 so as not to deplete its fighting forces.
The couple decided on the spot that Anna and their son would cross the border, and her husband would try to find a way to meet them on the other side in time to join them on their flight to Israel.
He crossed the border on Saturday one way or another but was then turned away at the airport because he hadn’t managed to complete all the necessary paperwork to board the flight.
Appearances aside, Anna insists she is happy to be leaving for Israel. “It is our future,” she says.
Anna and her son were among 150 new immigrants on board a special charter flight that landed in Israel on Sunday afternoon from Chisinau. It was the first of three flights that day to bring Jewish refugees from Ukraine to Israel, the other two departing from Poland and Romania. These were the first organized flights of new immigrants from Ukraine to arrive in Israel since the Russian invasion on February 24.
- Ukraine-Russia Updates: Largest Nuclear Plant in Europe Under Russian Orders
- Israeli Minister: 90% of Ukrainian Refugees Are non-Jews, Situation 'Cannot Go On'
- Eight Years On, Ukrainian Jewish Community Is Displaced Once Again
A total of 400 new immigrants arrived on the chartered flights, including 100 children who were removed from the custody of their parents or abandoned by their parents. These children, who lived in a foster care home, all arrived on the flight from Romania.
Most of the passengers on the flight from Chisinau came from Odessa, which is relatively close to the Moldovan border. They included a 94-year-old man, who required wheelchair assistance getting on and off the flight, and an 11-day-old baby born a day before the Russian army invaded Ukraine. There were seven infants on board and eight pets, and altogether, 175 pieces of luggage – barely more than one suitcase per person, and most of the luggage was quite small.
“I took these jogging pants I’m wearing and packed another pair,” says Viktor Lebedenko, 38, who is sitting next to his pregnant wife and two sons, aged 10 and eight. “My parents, who live in Israel, called us the day of the Russian invasion and ordered us to pack lightly and leave immediately. We listened to them.”
Viktor, 38, is an engineer, and his wife Iryna, 36, is a pharmacist. The couple, who come from a small town near Odessa, packed up their two boys and crossed the border into Moldova two days after the Russian invasion. “We drove straight to Chisinau, and I simply parked my car and left it there on the street,” he says.
The couple decided to move to Israel, he says, for the sake of their children. “I am well aware of Israel’s problems, but at the end of the day, it’s a normal place and a good place to raise kids,” he says.
The flight was operated by Sky Up, a low-budget Ukrainian airline, which moved most of its fleet to Moldova soon after the Russian invasion. The airspace over Moldova has been closed for the past week, out of fear of a Russian infiltration, and this was the first passenger flight to receive special permission to fly out of the Chisinau airport since then.
The flights for all the new immigrants were paid for by the Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that raises funding from evangelical Christians and has been assisting Jewish refugees from Ukraine who have fled to Moldova.
Yuriy Kvitznytsky, who is flying to Israel with his father, had been an active member of the Chabad congregation in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine and the hardest hit by Russian shelling. A self-described entrepreneur, the 27-year-old and his father left Kharkiv on the first of the war and headed west, where they had planned to sit out the war, he says. Upon the recommendation of friends, they changed course and decided instead to cross the border into Moldova and make their way to Israel from there.
“I had always thought about making aliyah, but the Russian invasion is what pushed me into doing it,” says Yuriy, whose mother and sister already live in Israel.
Asked how he was able at his age to leave Ukraine, he says: “I don’t want to get into much details, but let’s just say that it’s pretty much a miracle and against all odds that I am sitting on this plane.”
Andrei Kravchynskyi, his wife and three children had planned on moving to Israel even before the war. “We made our decision to emigrate back in November, but you could say that this definitely helped finalize the matter,” he says.
The family, who lived in Kyiv, left the capital the day the war started and moved in with relatives who live about an hour-and-a-half drive away. A week ago, they crossed the border into Moldova.
Asked to describe his mood on the flight, he says: “I’m both happy and nervous. I’m doing this mainly for my children.”