CRIF interview with Raya Kalenova on coordinating the humanitarian response of European Jewish communities

EJC Executive Vice-President & CEO Raya Kalenova gave an interview to the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) on the actions by the EJC and its affiliated communities to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Crif – Since the beginning of Ukraine crisis, the European Jewish Congress has been very active in helping the civilian population. Tell us about the main initiatives implemented.

Raya Kalenova – It was indeed very important for the European Jewish Congress and its President Dr. Moshe Kantor to mobilise as soon as possible to help the refugees fleeing Ukraine. As in all times of crisis, representatives of our communal security wing, SACC by EJC, immediately went to work on the ground alongside our affiliated Jewish communities.

As CEO Ophir Revach has stated, this enormous humanitarian challenge is exactly the kind of mission for which SACC by EJC was created for.

In collaboration with SACC by EJC, Crisis Management Teams were put in place as early as 2014 in order to manage the consequences of a possible terrorist attack. They were activated swiftly in all Jewish communities of the countries bordering Ukraine in order to provide assistance to all refugees and facilitate their travel to safe locations. The solidarity and mobilisation shown by the Jewish communities in these countries is exemplary and a source of great pride.

The European Jewish Congress has provided financial means and staff members.

The first country to receive a very large number of refugees was Poland. Our teams went there with the aim of assisting the Jewish community of Poland to provide a dignified welcome to all those in need of help. These efforts are also carried out in cooperation with local churches.

Moreover, we brought together all Polish Jewish community leaders in Warsaw to coordinate the operations. The president of the Warsaw Jewish community, Lesław Pizsewski, has taken this heavy burden upon himself and shared his experience with other local communities. I would like to salute his immense work as well as the warm welcome he has given all refugees in the three centres he manages. He makes every effort to save lives and provide them with a measure of comfort and security.

In the subsequent days, the EJC started delivering trucks to the Slovak and Polish borders and to Budapest where a large number of refugees had been arriving to. Of course, we can count on the valuable logistical support of our communities to deliver basic necessities, including food, medicine and sanitary products.

I myself supervised the first shipment of trucks leaving Bratislava together with Dr. Ariel Muzicant, EJC Vice-President, and Richard Duda, President of the Jewish community of Slovakia (ÚZŽNO). These trucks are continuously replenished and sent to other locations according to the needs on the ground.

Finally, a few days ago, a training course was held at the initiative of SACC by EJC in cooperation with Leslaw Piszewski, in which a delegation of Jewish community leaders from Estonia, Latvia and the Czech Republic participated. They visited a refugee camp at the border and helped deliver humanitarian aid provided by the EJC.

We hope to be able to organise such training for other communities again.

The aim of the EJC is, in accordance with our Jewish values, to help as many refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as possible in this urgent humanitarian situation, and to bring them some relief and security.

Crif – How are the rescue operations on the ground? How are the families contacted and what is the repatriation process in Europe?

Raya Kalenova – In all crisis management centers, there are hotlines that are open 24/7. As soon as a call is registered, the information is communicated to the head of the team. For example, in Poland, Leslaw Piszewski makes the appropriate decision for each individual case.

It is very difficult to assess in advance when the refugees will physically cross the border. Constant contact is made with each family during their journey. If they arrive at night, they are taken care of by a reception network that brings them to a house that is closest to the border. They are usually very tired and need to recover before continuing their journey. In the morning, they are transferred to one of the refugee centers, hotels or even privately owned homes. Jewish refugees who need kosher meals are directed to the places that have been set aside for this purpose.

The vast majority of Jewish refugees want to go to Israel. They are put in contact with the Jewish Agency and receive the necessary assistance until the time of their departure.

Those who have a specific destination in mind receive logistical support to get there. We run a WhatsApp group where community leaders share their reception capacities so that we can organize the transfer of refugees.

Others are more undecided and are waiting to see how the situation develops. Families are separated and many prefer to wait until they are reunited before continuing their journey. Those who arrive at the Romanian border have a possibility to take a plane directly because the airport is very close. This is also true for those who have a defined plan and know in advance where they want to go.

Crif – Beyond the actions of the EJC, Europe’s Jewish communities have also organised themselves to help the Ukrainian Jewish population. Do you have some examples to share with us?

Raya Kalenova – Of course.

It is difficult not to mention all the generous actions organised by our affiliates in the countries bordering Ukraine. They are all extraordinary and each one is carried out according to the means available.

I was fortunate enough to visit the Jewish community of Vienna (IKG Wien) when the first Ukrainian refugees arrived there.

IKG President Oskar Deutsch and his entire team organised an exceptionally warm welcome for the refugees. Accommodation and basic necessities were provided in three hotels, as well as access to doctors and psychologists. Kosher meals are also provided. It should be remembered that a large proportion of the Jewish refugees from Ukraine are religious and have special needs. In addition, two Russian language classes and a kindergarten have been opened for young children, as well as cultural programs to boost the refugees’ morale.

Among other things, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FCER), organised a wonderful Purim party for the children who had just arrived from Ukraine, with the participation of our SACC by EJC team. They tried to bring back some joy and cheerfulness to these little ones.

The Federation of Jewish community in Slovakia (ÚZŽNO) is also doing a wonderful job. An entire hotel has been made available to the refugees with a chef from Israel to prepare kosher meals for them. Some leave and others stay. There are still many places available.

In Hungary, our affiliate, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ), received a very large number of refugees and a whole program has been set up to take care of them as long as necessary.

It would take too long to name every country, but in each community, refugees are being welcomed with a lot of love and solidarity from everyone.

Le Crif – Concretely, what else can be done to help?

Raya Kalenova – We can be inspired by the remarkable work that has been done by the communities I mentioned. But beyond this, we must be ready and receive adequate training. The EJC is co-organising with HIAS, ECJC and the FSJU and the JDC, a training seminar in Paris from March 29 to 31 dedicated to European Jewish welfare services, communities and organizations interested in welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

Participants will be able to listen to experts from HIAS and other speakers who will explain how all this help works in practice.

For example, how to set up reception plans and budgets, how to access government benefits, how to connect refugees with host families, how to help them get housing and access health care.

All of this is new to many of our communities and organizations. They want to make a difference and we will be there to guide them in this endeavour.


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