Tales from Ukraine: “The refugees keep coming. We’ll be here for them when they do”


Avi Marcus together with another EMT Yechiel Gurfein treating a refugee at the medical clinic in Chisinau

Avi Marcus , Special For the Jewish Light

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, United Hatzalah of Israel is directly helping more than 1,500 refugees a day at medical facilities and providing food and water to thousands more at the border. United Hatzalah is the largest independent, non-profit, fully volunteer Emergency Medical Service organization that provides the fastest and free emergency medical first response throughout Israel.

United Hatzalah’s service is available to all people regardless of race, religion, or national origin. United Hatzalah has more than 6,200 volunteers around the country, available around the clock – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The vast majority of Ukrainians fleeing are women, children, and grandmothers, as men ages 18 to 60 are not permitted to leave the country.

The following are first-person accounts of what UH staff are witnessing.

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The Refugees Keep Coming and We Will Be Here For Them When They Do

It is now Tuesday, the third day of our mission overseas. For over 48 hours, we have been in Moldova. We had a long 16-hour journey to get here. On Saturday night, we flew from Tel Aviv to Bucharest, Romania and drove from there to Chisinau, Moldova, where we currently are now.

As soon as we got out of the car in Moldova on Sunday afternoon, we unloaded our equipment and started our humanitarian resilience activities. We met the children and ran over to engulf them in much-needed hugs. We gifted them with toys which they were so excited to receive. It was so nice to see the parents filled with joy and relief that help has finally arrived. They thanked us profusely many times over. Our group really felt that we made a Kiddush Hashem, as Israeli citizens coming from the state of Israel to help others. It was an incredible and emotional feeling that is just so difficult to explain in words.

Afterward, we had a delegation meeting to plan out what we were going to do, now that we saw the situation and better understood what was needed from us.

In the middle of our meeting, someone came to invite us downstairs where a wedding was taking place. There were two refugee couples from Ukraine who were getting married. One of the couples was in their 60s and they hadn’t been able to get married until now. Of all nights they chose this one, now that they were safe in Moldova to tie the knot with a legal Jewish wedding. We were all so happy for them and were honored when they asked some of us to take part in the blessings. This time of pure joy during the serious relief mission was not taken for granted.

After the wedding, we continued our meetings until past midnight, when we parted for bed. We hadn’t slept since Friday night, so there was no arguing as we were totally exhausted.

On Monday morning, we started the day by finishing our planning meetings and then set out in groups to different areas. One group went to the northern border crossing near Moligev and another to the southern border crossing of Palanca. I stayed in the makeshift headquarters to finish the lists of the equipment we needed from Israel and stayed to treat any refugees in the city who required medical attention at the makeshift medical clinic that we set up. The whole time I kept thinking about how the work we are doing here is holy work and such an incredible Mitzvah (charitable deed).

EMT Vicky Tiferet providing a warm blanket to a refugee near the border crossing of Palanca

Later in the afternoon, our teams arrived at the borders and began triaging and treating refugees as well as handing out food and water. We all heard stories of families that have been traveling for days in order to flee. When they arrived at the border it took them hours before they were able to cross over to safety. They were hungry, thirsty, cold, and some required medical attention, so we treated them accordingly. We gave snacks and candies from Israel to the children and handed out toys to play with.

There was a large family with six children that had been traveling since Friday that arrived in Chisinau. We helped them settle in and provided them with anything they needed. I took the little baby from his exhausted mother’s arms to give her some time to herself and time to focus on some of her other children and their needs. She was so grateful for our help and the babysitting. We treated a young man who walked for 15 hours straight and began suffering chest pains due to exertion. We treated another woman who is six months pregnant and came across with another infant child, her husband was held at the border and was not allowed to leave Ukraine. We have been working with various diplomatic channels to try to get him released.

At 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, our teams met two busses full of refugees who had been traveling for more than 24 hours straight. We gave each of them warm meals and provided medical treatment for minor injuries.

This mission has been an uplifting and amazing experience of true kindness. We have treated hundreds of people so far, each one receiving a hug, some food, a caring shoulder, and a reminder that they are important and not forgotten. In spite of the chaos engulfing their country and having to leave everything behind, our being here serves as a reminder to these refugees that there is hope, there are people who care about them, and that they too are important. The refugees keep coming, and we will be here for them when they do.

In Chisinau, we are visiting various locations where refugees have taken shelter and providing medical treatment where needed. We are currently working with the municipality to construct a field clinic to provide humanitarian aid and free medical care for refugees in the city.

Even though it has been exhausting, both physically and mentally, I can’t wait for what tomorrow brings.

Avi Marcus is married, has five children and lives in Petach Tikvah. He is the Chief Paramedic for United Hatzalah and the head of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. He is serving Chief Medical Officer of United Hatzalah’s Medical and Humanitarian Relief Mission to the Moldova Ukraine Border.