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Anna, Can You Help This Mother and Her Two Children?

September 11, 2022 | by Anna Brener

The pain and suffering of Ukrainians are heart wrenching. I had to do my part.

My mother was on the phone, with sadness in her voice, telling me that our town Ovruch in Ukraine was being bombed by the Russians. Katya, our neighbor's daughter-in-law, managed to escape to Poland with her two young daughters while her husband stayed behind to fight in Ukraine.

“Can you help them?”

Frantically I began to call and write to the Polish and American embassies asking for guidance and help to rescue a mother with her two children. I was determined to help, and I would not stop until I did.

Katya, with her husband and two children. “Can you help?”

I was told that it was early in the war and that it would be best to reach out to local immigration agencies.

Having immigrated from Ukraine with my family as a child 26 years ago, I never imagined, perhaps naively, that such atrocities and turmoil would happen. I have lived through antisemitism where at times I was physically hurt. As a Jewish child I was called a “Zhidovka” and was told daily to go and live in Israel.

Children and teachers made fun of me and my school experience was torture. I developed a stutter as a result of the verbal and physical abuse I endured, and my parents had to take me out of the school for my own safety. They tried to intervene and speak with the school officials, but that only made matters worse. I was now branded by my fellow students as a “tattletale” and the physical abuse continued.

I remember crying, asking myself what did I deserve to be treated in such a way? What made me so different from the other children?

The answer was that I was Jewish.

The Shadow of the Holocaust

I was born in a small town of Ovruch which was primarily a “shtetl” before WWII. The town had a large Jewish population until the Nazis destroyed it. Most of my relatives were murdered. Only a handful of Jews managed to escape by hiding in the local forest where brave partisans helped them.

The author and her family

After WWII, antisemitism continued to escalate. Jews were viewed as a threat to the livelihood of Christians. Among the remaining Jewish population in my town, Judaism had to be kept as a secret to prevent physical altercations. My grandfather Aron would bake matzah for Passover in a hidden basement to avoid persecution by the local Christian neighbors. Shabbat was observed in hiding along with the other sacred Jewish holidays.

Land of the Free

America has offered me and my family a haven. We can freely walk the streets and not be afraid of being verbally and physically attacked for the simple fact that we are Jewish. I can light Shabbat candles and celebrate holidays without any fear. I can wear my Magen David with pride and show the world that I am Jewish and proud. I don’t have to fear for the safety of my family as I know that I am protected.

I work as a legal assistant/paralegal in a law firm in New York City in the government relations group. When I began to work with refugees, Jewish and not Jewish, I was determined to provide these families a haven like the one offered to me and my family. I was able to forgive and put my pain aside after all the antisemitism I endured in Ukraine. I looked passed it all and wholeheartedly wanted to help each mother and child that I could.

I got in touch with an organization that helped mothers and children find housing in Europe. Amanda, who resides in Holland, introduced me to her circle of generous friends who were helping to find housing for the Ukrainian refugees. Over WhatsApp, I told her my story and how I was seeking help for a mother and her two children. She helped me find a safe home with all the amenities at no cost. I successfully helped Katya and her two children to enter Austria where she and her children are safe from the Russian aggression.

Helping Refugees

With the help of Amanda and her friends, along with hundreds of Europeans who generously and selflessly opened their hearts and households to Ukrainian refugees, I was able to transport over 20 families, mostly mothers and children, to safe harbors of Europe. Each family’s transport faced many obstacles, requiring meticulous timing as cities were being bombed constantly. I experienced sleepless nights and too many WhatsApp chats with families and their hosts, ensuring that they arrived safe and sound.

I can’t describe how wonderful it felt to receive photos and messages of gratitude from mothers who were crying and thanking me for saving them and their children. Amanda is a guardian angel that came into my life as a stroke of luck. Her kindness, unconditional love for people and generosity has helped so many families in need. And the tremendous kindness of the host families in Germany, Holland, France and Czech Republic who opened their homes gives me hope in humanity.

These families now have safe homes, their children go to day care centers and schools at no additional cost, and they are being helped financially by the cities where they reside.

The pain and suffering Ukrainians are enduring is heart wrenching. Every person deserves to live in peace.

Fast forward seven months and my refugee work has extended to helping newly-arrived Ukrainian refugees in New York. I, alongside a group of women, have been helping to house, clothe and feed families in need. Most of them are mothers and children as their husbands are not allowed to leave the country as they drafted to fight in the war.

As a Jewish woman I believe it is my duty to help people in need and with God’s help, I pledge to keep doing what I can as long as I am able to.

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