At Israel's Airport, Ukrainian Immigrants Prepare to Start Their Lives Again

Worn out but hopeful, Ukrainians fleeing war in Russia arrive at a frantic makeshift absorption center at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Israel, too, spies an economic opportunity in the immigrants

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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The Russian and Ukrainian migrants' absorption hall in Ben-Gurion airport, on Monday.
The Russian and Ukrainian migrants' absorption hall in Ben-Gurion airport, on Monday.Credit: Gil Tanamy\Aliyah and Integration Ministry spokesperson
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Kate Sohorokova stood red-faced from weeping near Terminal 1 at Ben-Gurion International Airport, oblivious to the dozens of Orthodox high-school girls who had come to give a happy welcome to the immigrants. “I’m just a bit tired,” she explained, flanked by her baby son and young daughter, just as the days-long journey from Ukraine to Israel was ending.

Since the war started in Ukraine, Terminal 1 at Ben-Gurion International Airport has been turned into a preliminary absorption center for olim – those eligible to migrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

In one room, soldiers from the Home Front Command keep track of the flight board. In another, they assign hotel rooms. Eight hundred immigrants from Ukraine are already living in hotels, out of 12,000 beds allocated for this purpose.

On Monday, two dozen new arrivals were seen in the absorption hall, along with plastic chairs, sandwiches, a coffee corner, and a play area for children. Aliyah and Integration Ministry staff and Home Front Command personnel ran around among those waiting and tried to help, a kind of mirror image of what happened at the airport on the first days when letting in non-Jewish refugees. The immigrants sat waiting to have their names called, and begin the process of receiving citizenship. Most of them were exhausted, and one needed help after he almost fainted.

“I came to find a new place for my son, he’s a musician,” Sohorokova, from the area of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, told Haaretz. “I’m full of life and young. I want to start over,” she added. A single parent to 17-year-old Misha, she said he plays the drums and dreams of becoming a DJ. “We both only started to stand on our own two feet financially over the past year. It will take time to rebuild everything,” she said.

In Ukraine, Sohorokova was a fashion designer with a small independent brand, and she hopes she can find similar work in Israel. Her family stayed behind in Ukraine.

“My father said he’d rather die in his own home rather than on the way to the border. He feels that he’s not healthy enough to make the trip. The bombings there began over the last few days and yesterday he told me it was hard for him to understand how until two weeks ago he had hopes and dreams and now he’s preoccupied with finding food and surviving,” she added.

This week, the number of immigrants from Ukraine and Russia who have arrived since the war began is expected to reach a new high. Some 400 immigrants came through the absorption hall on Monday, and more than 2,000 are expected to arrive this week. According to the Aliyah Ministry, 4,110 immigrants arrived as of Monday morning, 2,460 of them from Ukraine and the rest from Russia and other countries in the region.

The government views the newcomers from Ukraine and Russia as an opportunity to spur economic growth. A senior official in one of the ministries overseeing the integration of the immigrants told Haaretz that 93 percent of the women and 84 percent of the men are in the workforce. “This is a crazy number in terms of productivity. If we’ll know how to integrate them, it will be a miracle for the country.”

But to ensure the expectations don’t end in disappointment, the government has to prepare appropriately.

On Monday, the cabinet approved a national plan for housing the immigrants from Ukraine and Russia, and it plans to take in between 30,000 to 50,000 immigrants. The plan includes rent assistance and renovating apartments owned by the Construction and Housing Ministry. A team of director generals of various government ministries will be established to move ahead with housing solutions for the immigrants.

The Housing Ministry wants as few as possible new immigrants to remain in temporary housing and to be able to assist them in moving to cities. The intention is therefore to put together a plan for rental assistance for immigrants living with relatives and those who move to their own apartments.

A month ago, when the Russian forces geared up for the invasion, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry asked the Housing Ministry to take stock of its available properties in which the new arrivals could be housed – a decision that saved precious time.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who realizes that integrating the olim is the greatest challenge of her term, is trying not to repeat the mistakes made in integrating the immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. According to Tamano-Shata, one thing that will prevent this is the desire of many local authorities to help integrate the newcomers.

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