Living Through Trauma: The Plight of Ukrainian Refugees in Israel
The ongoing conflict in Israel has brought back painful memories for thousands of Ukrainian refugees who sought safety in the country after fleeing the war in Ukraine. Tatyana Prima, a 38-year-old refugee, thought she had left the bombs behind when she arrived in southern Israel with her injured husband and young daughter. However, the recent attacks by Hamas militants have shattered the calm she was slowly regaining, triggering memories of the devastation they experienced in Mariupol.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, over 45,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in Israel. These refugees were slowly rebuilding their lives and finding ways to cope with their trauma when the war in Israel erupted. Now, they find themselves reliving their past trauma, with some even considering leaving Israel. Many have lost their support systems due to restrictions on gatherings, and others have lost hope of reuniting with loved ones left behind.
For Tatyana Prima, who lives in the coastal city of Ashkelon near the Gaza Strip, the sound of airstrikes and shelling is a constant reminder of the horrors she experienced in Mariupol. During the war in Ukraine, she cooked over an outdoor fire, used snow for drinking water, and sheltered with relatives on the outskirts of the city. The intensity of the shelling and rockets falling around them eventually forced her to make the difficult decision to leave.
Arriving in Israel, Prima and her family settled in Ashkelon, where her husband’s relatives lived. While occasional rocket attacks from Gaza were not uncommon in Ashkelon, the frequency and intensity of the attacks during the current war have intensified feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Community support groups have moved online, as in-person gatherings are restricted to buildings with bomb shelters. This isolation can worsen the mental health of individuals who have not fully recovered from their previous trauma, leading to increased risk of depression and anxiety.
Refugee organizations have adapted their programs to provide financial assistance and deliver food to those who feel unsafe leaving their homes. However, the scale of the crisis makes it challenging to reach everyone in need. Rabbi Olya Weinstein of The Project Kesher, which supports thousands of Ukrainian refugees, acknowledges the concerns for the future among the refugees. They worry about the stability of Israel, their own safety, and the future of their children.
Some Ukrainian refugees have been forced to move within Israel since the war began. For example, around 100 children sheltering in Ashkelon had to flee to the center of the country after Hamas attacked. These children had already experienced displacement when they fled a city near Ukraine’s capital during the early weeks of the war in Ukraine. The constant upheaval has left them struggling to process their experiences and questioning why they cannot return to Ukraine.
Tragically, some Ukrainians remain trapped in Gaza, with 160 evacuated so far, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The exact number of Ukrainians still in Hamas-ruled Gaza is unknown. The toll of the conflict on Palestinians has been devastating, with over 12,700 deaths reported by the Gaza Health Ministry.
The conflict has also taken a toll on family relationships. Veronika Chotari, another Ukrainian refugee, had hoped to spend the holidays with her 18-year-old daughter, Tereza. However, they now find themselves communicating from bomb shelters, fearing for each other’s safety. The constant threat of war has taken a toll on their mental well-being, with Tereza expressing her exhaustion and hatred for these wars.
The plight of Ukrainian refugees in Israel highlights the long-lasting impact of war and displacement on individuals and families. The ongoing conflict in Israel has retraumatized these refugees, forcing them to relive their past trauma. While organizations are providing some support, the scale of the crisis makes it challenging to meet all the needs of the refugees. As the conflict continues, it is crucial to prioritize the mental health and well-being of these individuals and provide them with the necessary support to heal and rebuild their lives.