Yael Eckstein, president and CEO of The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), says she “thought she had seen it all.” She relates the story of a secret orphan rescue from the murderous onslaught of Russian forces in Ukraine.
She elaborated, “I have worked in the humanitarian aid field for over 16 years. I thought I had seen it all. But in the past seven days,” she added — referring to Russia’s assault on Ukraine — “I have witnessed suffering and desperation that I have never seen in my lifetime.”
Eckstein wrote in a letter to Fox News that for her, “the most heartbreaking thing was seeing orphans whom The Fellowship supports [caught] in the middle of a war zone.”
Amid that suffering and desperation, however, comes a dramatic story of planning, escape, care and — at least for now — a semblance of calm during the storm that is most of Ukraine right now. And it wouldn’t have happened if not for the support, the prayers and the help of many people, including those who have donated to important charities over the years.
It all began in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, where a woman named Malcki Bukiat was running an orphanage for children from “socially challenged families,” The Fellowship. Some of these children are orphans; others had parents who couldn’t care for them. For the bulk of the year — from the age of 4 years old until age 17 — the students lived at the orphanage.
Yet when the war on Ukraine began, Bukiat “found herself responsible for the lives of the children at the orphanage,” as well as for the children of two other Jewish families that lived together with the school community — plus her own five children.
Said Bukiat, “We knew the situation [was] very dangerous. We saw that it became even worse in the last day, before we left. We were theoretically ready to take the kids toward the border — but, practically, it was very complicated.”
Waking to the sound of explosions one morning at 5 a.m., Bukiat said she knew she had to evacuate the children immediately.
The [children] were very scared and some of them cried” during the trip westward.
“When you have to organize a trip of nearly 60 children — not including [your own] children [and other children] — with their basic needs, their documents and the papers from families, and at the same time you have to try to keep them calm and mentally balanced, it is not easy,” she said.
“It took us a couple of hours. We told the kids to take only the most important things: clothes, personal medicines. We prepared some food for the way, as we knew the way was going to be very long,” she added. “And we left Zhytomyr, moving to the west, in [a] bus.”
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, along with Chabad, planned this rescue mission for these children. The group mapped out the route based on what they knew about the path and the terrain — and about the bombings that were going on in Ukraine.
A journey of hope — toward safety
Bukiat shared that during this bus trip, “it was very difficult to keep the children calm. They were not used to seeing tanks, military vehicles and soldiers. They were very scared and some of them cried,” she said.
“They needed us to support them, and we had to convey calmness to protect them from trauma.” The trip took 15 hours, Bukiat said.
“The traffic jam was endless. Thousands of people were trying to escape to the borders. People were out of gas, food and water,” she said.
“Some of these [travelers] had been [on the road] for three days or more,” she said, “hiding from bombs and rockets in the open areas because they couldn’t arrive [at proper] shelters.”
She said that “in the gas station, each vehicle could buy only 10 liters of gas. Thank God, we had our gas tank full.”
Throughout this rough journey, things were “not easy” for Bukiat, she said. She finally realized that she needed help. So “I gathered the elder children, ages 14-15, and I [told] them I needed them to take care of the little ones. Everybody got an important role, and they did a fantastic job. We declared that our slogan was ‘everybody for everybody,’ and the children acted according to this principle.”
She said they drove through open areas, “and it was scary. We passed checkpoints, we met some other people and I could not always be sure if they were harmless or dangerous,” she added. “The [journey] was challenging. We prayed a lot.”
Bukiat said the group then “finally arrived at the area of the [Carpathian] mountains, where Chabad members rented us a hotel. The first thing we needed” to do, she said, was “get some necessities — clothes, toothpaste, shampoo — all the different things that the kids [had left behind, at the orphanage].”
After that, she said the adults created “a day program that was the closest we could do to the one they were used to. The best way to calm the children,” she said wisely, “was to bring them back to their routine.”
Bukiat said that on Sunday, however, she “began to feel that the situation [had become even] worse than before. We heard more explosions and people who came to the hotel told us that this area wasn’t safe anymore. We decided that there was no choice — we [had] to take the kids to the other side of the border.”
The group made its way to Romania, across the border — and Bukiat reported that there, all the children were “safe.” From that point, the group prepared to fly to Israel.
Bukiat shared this important note about the treacherous trip: “You know, I didn’t [see] any difference between my own biological children and the schoolchildren. We were raised on the Jewish brotherhood principle — every Jew is precious to me. You ask me if I was scared at some point. Yes, I was, of course.”
Yet “I am a believing woman,” she added. “And, you know, you can believe in God and you can fully trust God.” She said she fully “trusted God” and said she felt that “everything [would] be all right.”
Final leg to Israel
“These innocent children endured days of fear and treacherous travel,” said members of The Fellowship. The groups worked nonstop for days preparing for the trip.
“I shed tears of joy when I heard they crossed the border out of Ukraine,” said Yael Eckstein.
On Sunday, March 6, the children finally arrived in Israel, via several flights. The trip was a joint operation by Israel’s Aliyah and Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency, and The Fellowship, the latter group explained.
The Fellowship also told Fox News Digital that it worked tirelessly with government officials to ensure that the children had the travel documentation necessary for the trip.
Upon arrival, they were greeted by The Fellowship’s Eckstein — as well as by Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The orphans will be staying, for now at least, at a school campus in Israel. The Fellowship team is providing “immediate temporary housing and aid for their basic essentials,” the group said.
In total, approximately 300 immigrants made it safely to Israel as part of this overall operation.
“Thank God that generous friends, especially Christians, had already provided over $3 million to help Ukraine’s Jews over the last week,” Eckstein told Fox News Digital earlier.
“We are so grateful they’ve helped us help them — but we’re going to need more.”
‘Blessed to be able to bring them home’
Eckstein also told Fox News, “I followed their evacuation closely from Israel, with anticipation and prayer. I shed tears of joy when I heard they crossed the border out of Ukraine.”
“Now,” she added, “The Fellowship is so blessed to be able to bring them home to Israel, where they will be cared for and loved.”
She said her Fellowship group was able “to do this lifesaving work quickly and effectively because we’ve been on the ground in the former Soviet Union for 30 years.”
— Yael Eckstein (@YaelEckstein) March 6, 2022
Added Eckstein, “We have the vast network of staff, partners and volunteers to get things done efficiently and effectively, even in a time of war.”
She also said, “I truly believe that when my father founded The Fellowship nearly 40 years ago, it was leading up to being able to provide people in the greatest need with aid and comfort in a time like this.”
–FNC News Service | Maureen-Mackey | Used with permission.