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Far From Home, She Helped Her Country at War

Shachar-May_IsraAID-Ukraine_Dnipro-Shelters_FRIDA_Nov-12-2022-93 Carrying medical supplies

It was late February 2022, and Anna Bondar threw a couple of sweaters and a pair of jeans into a suitcase. Even though she was only going to visit her parents, driving several hours from her home in Kyiv to the small central Ukrainian city of Kropyvnytskyi, she grabbed her passport on the way out the door.

"Usually, I don't take it with me, but there was something in the air," she says. She never imagined that she would be living out of that small suitcase for the next several months, across three different countries.

On the night of February 24th, she says, "I woke up at 4am, which was very unusual for me. I checked the news, but there was nothing yet. I just thought to myself, this is the exact time when World War II started…30 minutes later I received a message that the war indeed had started." By the morning the air raid sirens had begun to sound regularly.

Through a series of chance encounters over the next few months, Anna, like most Ukrainians. would find her life completely changed. A year and a half later, Anna lives in Israel and is in a unique position to use Israeli expertise and resources to support humanitarian needs across Ukraine.

After several days of running up and down to the bomb shelter, Anna and her parents traveled to Western Ukraine. A week later they crossed the border to Slovakia, and in mid-March, they made their way to Israel and made Aliyah. "In the beginning, my main goal was for my parents to make Aliyah, and to make sure that they were okay. My plan was to go back to Ukraine."

But Anna met two important people. The first is her Israeli partner, whom she married this June. And the second was Yotam Polizer, CEO of IsraAID, Israel's leading international humanitarian NGO – which had been responding to the Ukraine crisis from the first days after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. "I chose to come and work with IsraAID because it was important for me to have the opportunity to help my country. I knew that if I took the job, despite not being in Ukraine, I would have that chance," she says.

Today, Anna oversees IsraAID's programs in Ukraine: providing safe water to the city of Mykolaiv; conducting mental health and psychosocial support training for professionals, first responders, aid workers, teachers, and others; creating child-friendly spaces for displaced Ukrainian children; providing essential aid items to small communities near the front lines that are often overlooked and much more. 

Child-Friendly Space for displaced Ukrainians

"When I started, I got to know generally about the work IsraAID does around the world and the Israeli experience with war and trauma care. Taking the most useful parts of this experience and bringing it to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people is very valuable," she says.

The team on the ground in Ukraine is composed almost entirely of local Ukrainian professionals, working closely with the Israeli team at HQ. "I would say that our edge at IsraAID is hiring local staff. They know exactly why they do the work they do. They are part of the communities they are helping, and the motivation is just so high that they can never give it less than their all," Anna says.

One of the projects that Anna says is closest to her heart is training psychologists to work in Ukrainian hospitals, supporting both the medical staff and the patients. Shortly after the full-scale invasion, Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska announced that her focus would be on the mental health of all Ukrainians. IsraAID partnered with her office, the Ministry of Health, and the Ukrainian NGO Barrier Free to integrate mental health care into the medical system.

"It was the first project I worked on," Anna says. "When I visited these hospitals, we heard from the medical staff how much this project has had an impact on them and the patients. Since starting the program, we've seen the start of the reform in the medical system of Ukraine. Our goal was to ensure that this project will continue even when we leave, and that it can become self-sustainable. At first, we paid the salaries of these psychologists, but once they saw the impact, the government started to gradually take over. In some hospitals, they have already hired these psychologists full-time."

"Before the war, all the time I was working with people," Anna says, explaining that before joining IsraAID she had spent the past six years running the Jewish Community Center in Kyiv. "I was helping people, but of course mainly Jewish people. I was born into a Jewish family, but like many Ukrainians, I didn't know a lot about my Jewish roots growing up. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and they didn't talk about it much with my parents. My work opened up a whole new Jewish world for me," she says.

"But now, it's not just my Jewish community that needs help, now it's my entire Ukrainian community. I appreciate that now I have the chance to help all the people, the broader community."

As part of her job, Anna often visits Ukraine, but with the new perspective as an Israeli representing an international organization. "It's very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm really coming home to the place that's so dear to me and so familiar. On the other hand, I can see things from a new angle and help more than I could as just a regular person. I have additional resources, a humanitarian perspective, years of experience, and an entire team, which is so much added value. It's priceless."

"I think it's important for people to hear that the war is still going on in Ukraine," she says. "It might not always be on the front page anymore, but there is still a war. And there's still so much work that we are doing with our partners and local communities. It's essential to remember that." 

Distributing winter clothes in the Kherson region
 

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