With Street Signs in Russian, an Israeli Town Wins Over Ukrainian Refugees

Families that escaped the horrors of the war find a safe haven in Nof Hagalil, where the mayor has declared an ‘open arms’ policy. But despite the warm welcome, many miss their old home and worry for those left behind

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Ukrainian refugees at the Plaza Hotel in Nof Hagalil, Israel.
Ukrainian refugees at the Plaza Hotel in Nof Hagalil, Israel.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Flora Bonzela sat exhausted, balancing her 9-day-old infant on her lap, in the dining room of a Moldovan refugee center in early March. Alongside her husband and three older children, they had managed to flee the bombs near their home in Vinnytsia, west-central Ukraine, into relative safety south of the border.

A month later, Bonzela’s reality was transformed. Located on a hilltop in the northern Israeli city of Nof Hagalil, the family’s new apartment is well organized. The bathroom and kitchen are completely stocked, every appliance in its place and working,and the children’s toys are stored on the balcony.

Each day, her children head off to school – in first, fifth and 11th grade – and her husband Francisco heads to his factory job. Flora plans to look for a job herself once the baby is old enough for subsidized day care. While she feels fortunate compared to the many Ukrainians stuck in overcrowded refugee camps in Poland, Moldova and Romania, she still doesn’t smile much.

The Bonzela family. Flora Bonzela is there with her 9-day-old baby.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv, IFCJ

“Mentally and emotionally, it’s still just really hard,” she says. “Yes, everyone here in Israel is incredibly nice to us. We have everything: food, clothes, and six months’ worth of diapers for the baby. But at the same time, it’s difficult for me to accept the fact that I’m living on donations.

“In Ukraine, I wasn’t the person who needed help,” she explains. “I helped others. I had a $1,000 stroller for this baby; I gave birth in a private clinic. We left Ukraine with nothing, and with almost no money. We took $300 in cash with us and spent $100 while we were in Moldova. We left our whole life behind.”

When the bombs began to fall in late-February, they hid in their basement thinking they would wait out the war – something they believed “would surely only last a few days.” That’s not what happened.

Ukrainian refugees waiting to be processed at the ad hoc immigration center in Nof Hagalil.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

On March 3, the Bonzelas crowded into the car that would take them to Moldova for a short respite, and then to Romania where they boarded one of the first flights to Israel.

“The whole thing felt unreal, like I was in a movie,” she reflects.

Israel officially designates Jews like the Bonzelas as “new immigrants” with the right to immediate citizenship and benefits from the state, distinguishing them from non-Jewish “refugees.” But they are in fact refugees. They left Ukraine in a state of fear and panic, with no chance to pack their belongings. In their new home, they struggle to focus on building their lives in a new country while their hearts and minds remain thousands of miles away.

Bonzela still grapples with the effects of the war on her children: her 6-year-old daughter, playing happily on the balcony, interrupts and says she misses her home and friends. “She gets upset every time she hears an ambulance pass by because of the siren, and she is afraid of getting out of bed at night to use the bathroom,” her mother says.

The conversation is once again interrupted, this time by the doorbell. Movers arrive to replace one of the family’s two donated refrigerators, small and used, with a new one being offered to them by the municipality “because our family is so large,” she explains.

Speaking in Russian, she guides the movers holding the long box up the stairs and onto the balcony.

A different experience

The moving company is owned by Alex Miuta, 32, a blond, tattooed man who said he had been hired by the Nof Hagalil municipality to deliver furniture and appliances to new immigrants’ apartments.

New immigrants picking out items at Nof Hagalil's "free supermarket."Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Miuta came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, when he was a child. Back then, he recounts, as Israel struggled to cope with the sudden wave of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the fallen Soviet empire, there was no donated furniture and food waiting for them in rented apartments, or a cadre of Russian-speaking veteran immigrants to offer help and guidance as the freshly arrived navigated a new country.

“We had nothing like this. When my family arrived, we children had to sleep on the floor, and – I’m not ashamed to say it – we were so poor we sometimes ate food we found in the garbage,” says Miuta as he pulls the plastic off of the brand new refrigerator.

“But I don’t resent the help they are getting,” he adds. “Israel is a richer country now.”

Since then, the massive wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union has made an indelible mark on Nof Hagalil, and they account for more than half of the city’s residents. The influence of such a large number of Russian-speaking immigrants is felt on every corner, where street signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian.

Ten minutes away, another Russian immigrant, Svetlana Yakubovich, is glued to her phone in a downtown Nazareth hotel. As head of Nof Hagalil’s municipal immigration department, her team copes with the needs of hundreds of new families who have made their way to Israel. She tells Haaretz that more than 1,000 new immigrants have arrived at Nof Hagalil since the start of the war, and more than half of them have chosen to stay there (the rest spent several weeks there before moving to other cities or towns in northern Israel.) So far, her department has rented more than 140 apartments for new immigrants.

Ukrainian refugees picking out items at Nof Hagalil's "free supermarket."Credit: Gil Eliyahu

For Ukrainians fleeing war, the city isn’t a popular destination by chance. Shortly after the Russian invasion began, Mayor Ronen Plot took to Facebook to invite Ukrainian Jews fleeing the war to his city. He took advantage of the plentiful living space, including hundreds of hotel rooms in neighboring Nazareth, usually filled with Christian pilgrims but made vacant by the COVID-19 pandemic. Plot rallied his community to donate whatever they could in order to open a “free supermarket” for the immigrants in the parking lot under the municipality building.

In the background is an issue that is barely spoken about, but is always present: Nof Hagalil's history as a town that was established decades ago with the aim of 'Judeaizing' the Lower Galilee area, in which the majority of the population are Arab citizens of Israel. Over the years, however, Nof Hagalil itself turned into a 'mixed city' where close to a third of the population is Arab. The new immigrants from Ukraine, and lately also from Russia, present an opportunity to impact the demographic balance.

Yakubovich feels a special responsibility to the Ukrainian immigrants because she remembers what it felt like to be one herself. She is an experienced professional with an advanced degree. However, memories of her immigration from Russia in 1991, when she was 7 years old, influence her policymaking as much as her professional training.

“No new immigrant here will ever enter a house where there aren’t enough beds for the children and they have to sleep on the floor. And none of them will experience hunger,” she declares. “Not on my watch.”

She also urges newcomers to learn from the mistakes of the ’90s wave and prioritize learning Hebrew. “Immigrants come and are eager for an income and take any job. We had doctors and engineers who did not learn Hebrew and were stuck for decades in factories and other menial jobs because they didn’t have the language.”

In order to facilitate faster language acquisition, Yakubovich is trying to sway factories, like the one employing Bonzela’s husband, to allow the opening of on-site language-learning centers.

While assisting the growing number of Ukrainians to find refuge in her city at this historic moment has been “really fulfilling,” Yakubovich confesses that implementing her mayor’s “open arms” policy over the past month has been draining for her and other municipal workers.

Volunteers entertaining children while their parents are processed at an ad hoc immigration center at Nof Hagalil.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Until now, she says, “we worked regular hours, eight to four, doing what we could to encourage new immigrants to come here, competing with more attractively located cities. We didn’t expect anything like this. Immigration is never easy, but we’re used to working with immigrants who arrived with their belongings packed and prepared for what was ahead. Now we’re getting people here who arrive without a change of underwear.

“These are not people in a normal situation – they’re in survival mode,” she adds. “They have seen their neighborhoods bombed, and in many cases their elderly parents are back in Ukraine and they are desperately worried about them. There are often tears, both theirs and ours. You try to help them take care of their practical needs, but then you hear their stories and you have to stop and hug them. We’re all acting as psychologists right now, whether or not we have the training.”

Complete reconfiguration

On a practical level, she explains, the flood of hundreds of immigrants required a complete reconfiguration of the typical immigration process. The usual procedure in which municipal workers guide immigrants to a list of government offices, banks and postal offices in different locations quickly became logistically impossible with the sheer volume of people arriving at once.

A second-floor conference room in Nof Hagalil’s Plaza Hotel has been recast into an extended “situation room” manned by Russian-speaking representatives of the Interior Ministry, the health system and banks, ready to help the immigrants waiting their turn on chairs lining the corridor.

In the hotel’s courtyard two floors below, groups of small children play with Israeli volunteers in scout uniforms as tired-looking mothers and grandmothers look on in deck chairs. While they don’t share a language, the kids seem pleased to toss a ball back and forth, play a board game or do a crafts project with an attentive adult.

New immigrants waiting to be processed at an ad hoc immigration center in Nof Hagalil, northern Israel, last month.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

One of the deck chair moms, Vera, easily looks as if she could be a Russian tourist on holiday as she sits next to her mother. The 33-year-old marketing executive and divorced mother of three hails from Kyiv. When complimented on their outfits, they laugh out loud that they were apparently able to choose well from the donated clothes at the municipal “supermarket.”

“The situation is horrible and very, very sad. My 82-year-old granny lived in occupied Kyiv in 1942 and she lost her mother in the Babi Yar massacre. She used to tell me that the ‘only thing that matters is there should be no war.’ I never really understood what that meant – until now.”

She spent the first five days of the war in an underground shelter with her children, listening to explosions and praying.

“We had been warned as early as December that something might happen and were told to have a ‘go bag’ with our things ready. But we didn’t believe it. When the war started in February, I had nothing packed.”

As the days passed and the danger grew, she heard of more and more friends who were fleeing Ukraine and decided it was time for her to leave, too. With her children – aged 15, 8 and 3 – and her grandmother, she wasn’t sure how she was going to manage it, but a Kyiv rabbi, Baruch Mendelson, made the arrangements for the family to leave for Moldova.

“It was such a difficult and long trip out of Ukraine,” Vera recalls. “My daughter got carsick. My grandmother needed the bathroom frequently and the driver wouldn’t stop because it was too dangerous. We were cold and wet, and we were all crying. It was horrible.”

Not all of the immigrants at the Plaza Hotel are from Ukraine. Computer programmer Vitali Kanievsky, 30, and his 66-year-old mother Alla, an English teacher, made their decision to leave Moscow nearly as quickly as their Ukranian counterparts.

The Kanievskys represent a trend expected to grow: Jews who, along with others in Russia’s educated class, finally decided there is no place for them in Putin’s Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. According to Israel’s Aliyah and Intergration Ministry, some 3,200 Russians and 150 Belarusians have arrived since the beginning of the war.

It was Vitali who made the decision to get out. “I decided to do it quickly because I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to do it later,” he explains. “I believe, at some point, the Russians would close the borders. The situation is so unpredictable. My mother has diabetes and needs medical treatment, and I wasn’t sure she would continue to be able to get it when international sanctions really hit.”

Driving their decision to leave was their opposition to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine coupled with the realization that theirs were minority views.

“It was like pulling a trigger.” Vitali says. “I don’t like Putin and I saw so many people supporting him, I just didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I was ready to go.”

Unlike most of his Ukrainian counterparts, he does not plan to settle in Nof Hagalil. As soon as he and his mother are processed, he wants to move closer to Haifa or Netanya in order to find a job in high-tech. It will take time, as the programming language he currently works in is not in use outside of Russia, but he is ready to learn. “I am totally happy with our decision,” he says.

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