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Atlanta: A place of refuge for Ukrainian evacuees

The Ukrainian flag. (Image by Yehor Milohrodskyi via Unsplash.)

By Guest Columnist ERIC ROBBINS, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

I have been a Jewish community builder for decades. I have lived through countless episodes of war, famine, natural disaster and refugee crises that gripped the global Jewish community.

This past spring, I traveled to Poland’s border with Ukraine to witness the unfolding refugee tragedy. I spoke with refugees. I met many brave people risking their own lives to save lives. I thought I had seen it all.

But nothing could prepare me for the Atlanta Jewish community’s lightning response to the needs of the Ukrainian people when Russia first invaded their homeland. In a matter of weeks, Jewish Atlanta raised more than $2.7M to support the heroic work of our on-the-ground partners in Europe who were housing, feeding and counseling Ukrainian Jews and their loved ones.

Donations came in all sizes, from under $10 to thousands of dollars, and with moving declarations of intent: 

  • My family and I came to America 30 years ago from former USSR and it is painful to see the pain and suffering of people of Ukraine.
  • Ensuring the safety of Jews around the world is the obligation of every Jew living in a free society who can help.

Today, that incredible outpouring of compassion continues through a new fund called AURA — Atlanta Ukrainian Relief Assistance. Along with our community partner Jewish Family & Career Services, Jewish Atlantans are volunteering to befriend, comfort, financially support and shelter Ukrainian evacuees — Jewish and non-Jewish — who have poured into our city.

Eric Robbins is the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

A recent grant of $73,000 from the Jewish Federations of North America is amplifying AURA’s impact here. A portion of the funding comes from the Boston-based Shapiro Foundation which pioneered the concept of “volunteer circles,” — a resettlement model where local agencies partner with volunteers to help a refugee or family find and furnish housing, get jobs, learn English, enroll children in school, language help, plus cash assistance.

Zane Blechner, Program Manager, AURA at Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS) coordinates our local response. One challenge is that many Ukrainians who fled the war entered other countries in Europe and then came here through Mexico. From Mexico, the U.S. permitted entry through the southern border. Upon entry, Ukrainians received humanitarian parole status and moved across the U.S. including to Georgia.

According to Zane, Ukrainians are eligible to apply for a work permit once entering the country. However, the work visa application comes with a fee of approximately $500 and an average wait time of 8 to 10 months. While Ukrainians do have access to apply for local government and public benefits such as food, medical and temporary cash assistance, they are not eligible for government assistance such as housing or case management through the refugee resettlement program.

Again, Jewish Atlanta came through, and quickly. The Lotner family, members of Congregation Or Hadash, and Renee Videlefsky who chairs the congregation’s Ukrainian relief work, became a volunteer circle.

They “adopted” a large Ukrainian evacuee family from Kharkiv through JF&CS’s AURA fund. The family has multiple generations and includes 17 people and 6 small children. JF&CS found them a rental home and was providing funding for the family to live there, but the house still needed furniture. They were arriving in just days.

While Videlefsky bought necessities from Costco, Lotner set up an Amazon Wishlist which was filled within a day. The Lotners secured furniture and seven extra beds for the large family. They rented a U-Haul truck, and the family delivered furniture to the home. When the evacuees arrived, the whole porch was covered with Amazon boxes.”

Videlefsky learned that the family included a young baby born as they were entering Germany and leaving Ukraine. During their journey, they spent three days at the Mexican-U.S. border, sleeping on the ground. “They have been through so much. And they do not speak English, but JF&CS provided an interpreter. When the family found out that our synagogue had been the one helping with their needs, they burst out singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. They were so appreciative and lovely,” Videlefsky said.

Videlefsky added: “When I first met them, they were in shock. Their experience in Tijuana was horrible. We put their beds together and got the house in order. Later that evening, when everything was calmer, they started singing Oseh Shalom in 12-part harmony. And that is when we saw huge smiles on their faces. We are really invested in this family. They are friends now. I feel blessed to know them.”

Jewish tradition says you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. Confronted with crisis, Jewish Atlanta did not flinch. Our community’s extraordinary willingness to rise up personally and philanthropically for Ukrainians exemplifies this teaching and fills me with pride. Our collaborative humanitarian work continues, and we are meeting this moment of need with passion and purpose.

If you want to get involved, here’s how to help Ukrainian evacuees in Atlanta:

  • Donate to Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s Ukraine Emergency Response Fund and the AURA Fund here.
  • “Adopt” a family. Several synagogues and groups are working with JF&CS to assist families. For more information on how your synagogue or group can participate, please contact zblechner@jfcsatl.org or click here.

JF&CS intends to utilize individual volunteers who have expressed interest and may not be affiliated with a partnering group by connecting them to special assignments or one-time projects as needs arise. Individual volunteers must complete volunteer registration before they can participate, including creating a volunteer profile, providing requested documents and passing a basic criminal background check.

Would you like to write a guest column for SaportaReport? The SR team strives to uplift and amplify the diverse perspectives in our community, and we want to hear from you! Email Editor Derek Prall to discuss the specifics.


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