By: Yoni Mayer  | 

What One Week With Ukrainian Refugees Taught Me About Building a Better World

It was shrieks of joy that interrupted my Google Translate conversation. I was speaking with a 31-year-old Ukrainian refugee named Alex at dinner on the first night of Yeshiva University’s humanitarian aid mission to Vienna, Austria. Alex was recounting how he had spent the last 10 days traveling across multiple borders, until he had finally made his way to Vienna. His shoulders relaxed throughout our conversation, his body language relaxed and pleasant, as though he’d been waiting to share his story with us. I wanted to understand what Alex and the other refugees were going through, so dinner time was spent listening.

We were seated in the dining room of an old age home that had been converted to host meals for the refugees. Low-hanging Purim decorations descended from the ceiling, and hand-drawn Purim posters covered the front doors. Yeshiva University students sat with about 25 refugee families at the other tables around the room, attentive to the stories of their passage into Vienna.

Alex had been in Vienna for eight days and had left his mother, father and siblings back in Ukraine. Even though his mother could have left, he told us in a matter-of-fact tone, she decided to stay behind because, as a physician, she felt she had a duty to her fellow Ukrainians. Still, he spoke with her five to six times per day because, as he said, “You know how mothers are.” His English was quite good, but every so often we would need Google Translate to decipher a phrase or concept. 

But those shrieks pulled me out of the trance I found myself in when speaking to Alex. I had other friends at the table who were now speaking with Alex, so I excused myself and left the main dining room to investigate the source of the sounds I heard. 

What I found was half of the Yeshiva University student volunteers playing with dozens of Ukrainian children, ranging from six to 15 years of age. The children were giggling and shouting, ecstatic to be spending time with us, their new friends. They were dressing up in costumes, throwing around frisbees and footballs and sprawling over coloring books with an assortment of colored pencils we had brought. I walked around the common area and saw my classmates struggling to communicate verbally but communicating nonetheless. They were laughing and smiling with the children, gesturing with their hands, and hoping their facial expressions would be enough to entertain the children. Some of the parents stood on the side, staying close by their child’s side, not wanting to leave them out of sight. I looked back in the dining room and noticed some families huddled together at tables, the parent’s looking nervous and on edge, as they didn’t yet know what to expect of their new life. 

These families were not here because they wanted to be. They were here because they needed to be.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24. Now, with thousands of civilian casualties and millions of refugees, Ukraine is struggling to stay afloat and ward off Russian forces. Understanding the gravity of the situation, Yeshiva University took action. Just after midnight on Wednesday, March 9, it announced a humanitarian mission that it was leading to aid Ukrainian refugees who took asylum in Vienna. Less than 24 hours later, over 120 students applied, and by the following morning, 28 were selected to join. Led by Vice Provost of Value and Leadership Dr. Erica Brown and Mashgiach Ruchani Rabbi Josh Blass, we embarked that Sunday night and arrived Monday morning, March 14 to stay through the following Sunday. Our goal was simple: help in any way possible. 

The direness of the situation planted exaggerated images in my mind of what we would be doing to help. I imagined the tragedies of war, floods of tears and wails haunting our ears and an extreme inability to provide support. Who was I to help? What qualifications did any of us have? We weren't doctors who could provide medical assistance nor diplomats able to provide bureaucratic help, and we were by no means millionaires who could donate hundreds of thousands of dollars. But even though we didn’t have the means to support them in these grand ways, we supported them in other ways. Throughout the trip we were able to work on the seemingly innocuous tasks of organizing donations, codifying refugees’ information and playing with children, and that was no less valuable.

Our “can-do attitude” was primarily motivated by our desire to help, but it was amplified by the Austrian Jewish community’s approach to this crisis. On our first day, we spoke to the secretary general of the Jewish Community of Austria, Benjamin Nagele, and his words humbled us. “I don’t first look at our budget to see if we can afford it or think about how we’re going to do it,” he told us. “I say yes, because of course we are going to do it, because it is the right thing to do, and I'll worry about the logistics later. Helping is in Jewish blood; it is just the right thing to do.” We felt the same.

On the second night, we hosted a Purim pop-up shop in the old-age home and brought the costumes we had received as donations. (We brought around 30 duffel bags full of donations to Vienna — items personally donated as well as those generously given by community members back at home — which consisted primarily of costumes but included medical supplies, clothing and Judaica.)

We arranged the costumes on tables in front of the dining room, laid them out in order of size, and waited for the refugee children to come and pick out their Purim costumes. Four-year-old girls tried on tutus and princess costumes, while young boys threw on silly wigs, and firefighter costumes. We riled them up by dressing in our own very absurd-looking costumes. (I was a banana.) The cognitive dissonance of putting on a happy face in these circumstances was not lost on us, but we were reassured by the happy faces looking back at us. 

That night, I met a five-year-old girl named Hadassah. She had golden-blonde hair and a crooked-toothed smile that illuminated her face for the entirety of the night. I sat with her for around 15 minutes, giving her different headbands and costumes that she motioned for. We weren’t able to communicate with language, so instead, we resorted to facial gestures. I would pass her a bunny ears headband, she’d push it over her little, blond head, and I would make a silly face for her to laugh at. Then, she would take it off, and I met her with a frown, prompting her to put it back on or try a different headband, giggling all the while. 

After some time, her mother approached us and beamed at her daughter trying on all these different costumes. I was able to speak with Hadassah’s mother as well as a few of the other parents that night. They all shared that similar expression of profound happiness. They had left Ukraine at a moment's notice to a foreign country and had only brought a few bags with them. Naturally, Purim costumes were not a priority, but they were still saddened that their children could not properly celebrate the Jewish holiday. That was where we came in.

They were so happy and grateful that we had brought along costumes to help their children celebrate Purim and make their transition to a new country that much smoother. The kids appreciated us and had such a joyous time that night at the pop-up shop, but the parents’ smiles resonated more with me. Their happiness was in the face of all the sadness they’d been through the past week and we could tell that the joy we brought the night before Purim meant the world to them.

We had many other experiences during the week. We experienced the richness of Vienna, heard from the President of Parliament, attended a Purim party with the refugees and Austrian Jewish community, spent time with the Bnei Akiva and went on a Jewish History tour of Vienna. But the experiences that taught me the most were the ones fundamental to the greater message the trip bore. I learned that Tikkun Olam, which is understood to mean building a better world, and the broader category of chessed, loving-kindness, are not dependent on the impact you have on the entire world, but rather your community and the people around you. This understanding works seamlessly with the mindset that one’s home community is, in essence, their whole world; an understanding I ironically had to travel across the world to learn. 

Another day, I went to a local hotel that had begun hosting refugees. While our activities were underway and I was trying to find some quiet from the commotion, I spotted a woman I met at the first night's dinner named Tonya. She was crouched over her laptop working on something intensely, her brown curls hovering above her eyes that had bags of fatigue setting in. I approached her and asked what she was working on, and she motioned for me to take a seat. Though Tonya had a sullen expression on her face, when she started to speak, her hands would fly about, gesticulating with excitement. I could tell she was a very passionate person and was eager to share. 

She explained that since she had left Ukraine, she had been writing to her neighbors to see if they needed anything. She wasn’t particularly close with them before, but she took it upon herself to make sure they were safe and assist however she could. One of her neighbors from Ukraine is a 25-year-old handicapped, legally-blind man whose only family is a mother who’s unable to take care of him. Tonya learned that he needs medications that could only be picked up from several miles away. So, over the past 10 days, she had been speaking to him about those medications, finding a pharmacy that carries them and organizing a driver to pick them up. All this for some neighbor she did not know all too well, from hundreds of miles away. I was dumbfounded. She was going through all this trouble for someone she wasn’t close with while she undoubtedly had problems of her own to manage. She felt a profound sense of community and had become responsible for this person's world. It left an impression on me.

It was through people like Alex, Hadassah and Tonya that I learned my lesson about building a better world from halfway across the world. 

The quality of the world is not measured solely on large-scale projects. The number of money one donates or the number of institutions one creates is important and admirable but is not the only way to change the world. I originally had the misguided thought that to build a better world on this trip, we would be totally changing the landscape of Vienna and the lives of the refugees. I knew that we wouldn’t be able to do all that, but the thought of a “humanitarian aid mission” carries a sense of grandiose ambition, and I was eager to see what that would look like. 

I learned that the Jewish value of  Tikkun Olam, building a better world, is not exclusively found in the structures we build or the permanent impacts we leave on a society. 

It is found in the donations we received from our community members who were eager to support a good cause. It was in the conversations I had with Alex, urging him to tell his story and, in doing so, providing him comfort. It was in the phone call Tonya has been making daily for the past 10 days to supply medicine to her disabled neighbor who had to stay behind in Ukraine. It was in the smiles we gave parents, encouraging them to worry about one less thing in their family's upheaval and enabling them to give their children a normal holiday.

We raised over $150,000 for the refugees and brought over 30 bags of donations. We spent time indexing refugee information, cleaning hotels for refugee use and organizing donations. But this isn’t how I’ll remember the trip. What I, along with the other Yeshiva University students brought, and what we palpably felt through the refugees, was a sense of community. We saw it within the refugee families and the unending support they’d give to people they might not have known before; their home country and this refugee crisis being their only link. We saw it within the Austrian community and their willingness to accept refugees into their community without a plan or the resources to back it but an understanding that it’s the right thing to do. And I saw it in the Yeshiva University community; the sense of companionship and friendship we fostered within the student volunteer group and the energy and spirit we created together. This was a trip about chessed and Tikkun Olam, and it was expressed through the smaller communities we encountered.

 The success of our trip cannot be measured by metrics; that’s not how Tikkun Olam or chessed can be evaluated. As Rabbi Sacks writes in “To Heal a Fractured World,” “Chesed is the love that is loyalty, and the loyalty that is love … It is love moralized into small gestures of help and understanding, support and friendship: the poetry of everyday life written in the language of simple deeds.”

Our trip was a success because we made a little girl named Hadassah happy. It was a success because we gave her mother a sense of comfort on Purim. If we had only done that for Hadassah and her family the trip would have been a success, but the fact that we did that for so many refugees means our trip was a success beyond anything I could have imagined. It was a success because we brought what we could, helped where we should and comforted those in need of comfort. We spread happiness, joy, and love throughout every corner of the Ukrainian refugee community in Vienna. We did our little part in Tikkun Olam, building a better world, and we did it by focusing on the details. 

Photo Caption: YU students sitting with Ukrainian refugees in Vienna, Austria

Photo Credit: Talia Leitner