Op-Ed: When It Comes to War I Thought I Had Seen It All - Ukraine Proved I Was Very Wrong
When the invasion of Ukraine began, we all got to work.
As head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, I have organized and led humanitarian aid distributions during war before. We have a proven protocol. My mantra as the calls began pouring in was simple: We are prepared for this. We know what to do. We are here to save lives and we will succeed.
Before the first day of war ended, we were already in our all-too-familiar emergency mode. Our team opened up communication channels with partners and staff in the war zone, along with leaders of fellow global humanitarian organizations mobilizing to help. We were receiving a report from the field every few hours. We were keeping up with the rising needs, delivering food to Jewish community centers where hundreds of people found shelter, providing medicine to the elderly and evacuating those who were in distress.
Everything was under control. Until it wasn’t.
It was Day Three of the war when things started to change. A three-day closure in Kyiv. No supermarkets open, no medicine available, no one able to step outside without likely getting shot.
Immediately, my mind went to Svetlana, an elderly Holocaust survivor I had met in Kyiv when I was in the field delivering aid just a week before the war began. She had broken her hip, was bedridden and relied on outside aid to deliver food. What would happen to her during the closure? What will happen to the tens of thousands of elderly people throughout Ukraine who won’t have food or medicine if humanitarian groups can’t bring it to their bedside?
That day, my prayers were extra heartfelt.
As I pushed through a 20-hour workday barely eating or drinking, I thought about Svetlana. My mind was on the hundreds of orphans in eastern Ukraine whom I have visited many times in the past few years. I prayed for one of our Fellowship staff members in Kharkiv who had been hiding in the underground metro with thousands of others for over three days, with bombs landing overhead. And I cried for another Fellowship staff member in Kyiv who sent her husband to war, only to find out a few hours later — painfully alone, with bombs falling all around — that she was pregnant.
At the Fellowship, we are experts in strategic planning. We have emergency contingency plans for how to continue our operations during war. They have always worked in the past. We have placed over 20 bomb shelters during rocket attacks in southern Israel. We have distributed hundreds of bulletproof vests to Israeli border towns under fire. And when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Fellowship was on the ground, participating in evacuation efforts and distributing humanitarian relief.
I thought we had seen it all. But I was wrong. Heart-wrenchingly wrong.
In the past two days, all humanitarian organizations operating in Ukraine have had to ditch the contingency plans, dive into the deep water of spontaneity and deal with needs as they arise. We have opened up emergency hotlines and answered thousands of frantic calls. Some people beg for water, others cry for food, many plead for evacuation — all of them are desperate. Humanitarian services are their final hope as government and emergency services have collapsed overnight.
In less than a week, we have transitioned from making emergency plans for the entire country to assessing each city on its own. In Kharkiv they need evacuation. In Kyiv they need food. In Odessa they need medicine.
No operation is simple. We had an orphanage of more than 100 children switch buses 15 times before they arrived to safety. We had food delivery to a sick elderly person take over five hours to travel less than two miles. We had a pregnant woman travel for days in order to cross the border, with bombs literally landing all around her car. When she was finally out of Ukraine she collapsed from exhaustion and, in inconsolable tears, she said, “My house might be destroyed, but I’m alive.”
It’s Day Seven of the war as I write this from Jerusalem. Truthfully, the past week has been a blur. I am not the only one who can count the hours of sleep I have gotten this week on my fingers. I’m broken for the refugees, broken for those still in Ukraine, and broken for the world.
But I’m also inspired.
I am inspired by the unified beating heart of the world praying for our brethren in Ukraine. I’m inspired by the aid workers in the field dodging bullets and bombs in order to save others. And I’m inspired by my heroic colleagues.
Together, Jewish organizations have rallied as one to meet the enormous needs of Ukraine’s 200,000-strong Jewish community, as well as the needs of non-Jews. There is no focus on individual brands or logos. The petty organizational ego is dead. Together, we are simply focused on saving precious lives.
It took a war to draw the world together. I pray that peace will come and tie the knot.
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