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Children traumatized by war in Ukraine find mentors from unexpected places

Imagine being a child whose entire home — entire school, entire village, entire way of life, everything — has been brutally destroyed amid war.

This is the plight of many Ukrainian children right now.

As the Russia-Ukraine war gets less attention than previously in many parts of the world, many people have been stepping up to help the unfortunate — and many did so at the outset and have continued to do so.

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In Warsaw, Poland, a 5-year-old girl’s drawing at a summer camp caught the eye recently of one of her counselors. 

Why did she use black and white, and not red or pink, to make a heart? asked Rabbi Ilana Baird, as the Associated Press reported.

The girl, sighing heavily, said it was black like the dog she left behind in Ukraine.

Rabbi Baird of California volunteered with several other Jews who were originally from Russia or other parts of the former Soviet Union to mentor Ukrainian refugee children at the camp in Warsaw. 

The program, which ended this past Friday, was created to bring some joy to youngsters traumatized by war, to help prepare them for a new school year in Poland — and to give their struggling and burdened mothers a little bit time to themselves.

After performing puppet shows and reading stories to her group of 5- and 6-year-old campers, painting a lot of little faces and dispensing lots of big hugs, the rabbi saw another heart drawing. 

This one was pink.

“Happiness,” the girl explained.

Baird, 48, was happy to see cheerful colors and rainbows also emerging in the artwork of other children under her care at the Kef Be Kayitz camp, a Hebrew name that means Fun in the Summer.

For the volunteers, the decision to take time off from their usual jobs in the United States and to fly to Poland to work with Ukrainian children was driven by a desire to help those in need, a value that is universal and a central part of Jewish religious teachings.

“Jewish people have suffered so much in the past. We suffered pogroms, we suffered the Holocaust and we suffered anti-Semitism,” Baird told the AP.

“And we have a sense of obligation to help people who are suffering right now.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 of this year, people across Poland sprang into action to welcome and help refugees from the neighboring country.

Poland has accepted more of the war’s refugees than any other nation.

Local and international Jewish organizations also began working immediately to meet the most urgent needs: to house and feed Ukrainians, most of whom are women and children.

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With the war soon entering its sixth month, the camp at the Lauder Morasha School in Warsaw has reflected the type of programming being developed to meet the changing needs of refugees. 

Many Ukrainians realize they won’t be able to go home soon — or perhaps ever — Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for Jewish Life and Learning, told the AP.

Mornings were devoted to Polish, English and math lessons so the children will be in a stronger position to adapt to school. 

Many of the Ukrainian kids who arrived in Poland since February finished the Ukrainian academic year remotely — but will start at Polish schools in September.

Campers spent afternoons doing arts and crafts, playing sports and making excursions to city museums and parks. 

About a third of the 90 children who attended the camp are Jewish, according to Marta Saracyn, the head of the Jewish Community Center of Warsaw.

“It’s a lovely bubble for kids to be kids,” Saracyn told the AP.

Some of the Ukrainian refugee mothers need to look for jobs — while some are severely depressed after being separated from their partners and relatives back home, organizers said.

The Taube Center and the Jewish Community Center of Warsaw organized the camp in conjunction with the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Joint Distribution Committee.

The Jewish Federations of North America recruited nearly 90 Russian-speaking educators and rabbinic leaders to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland and Hungary, and 10 helped out at the Warsaw camp, said Hannah Miller, who runs the volunteer program.

The 10 camp volunteers are Russian-speaking immigrants who left the Soviet Union decades ago, or the children of Russian Jewish immigrants. 

Only a couple spoke Ukrainian, so they mostly spoke to the children in Russian, which is also widely used in much of Ukraine.

Baird recalled painting the face of a boy who became upset when he realized she wasn’t from Ukraine. 

“Why did you come here?” he asked her.

“Because you don’t need to be from Ukraine to help others,” the rabbi answered. “You just need to be human.”

Similarly, an extraordinary journey to bear witness to the struggle and strife of displaced Ukrainians — and to comfort them as well as observe relief efforts on their behalf — took place recently when a group from Temple Emanu-El’s congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan traveled to the border of Ukraine and Poland.

The mission was one of faith, compassion, care and giving. 

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When most Americans were just beginning to embrace the beginning of summer on Memorial Day weekend, the group from Temple Emanu-El — New York City’s leading Reform Jewish congregation — traveled to Ukraine instead. 

As Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson told his congregation ahead of the mission, “Together we will bring much-needed supplies, offer comfort to those fleeing the war — and bear witness both to the suffering and to the extraordinary efforts of the agencies offering relief from that suffering.”

The group from Temple Emanu-El brought duffel bags filled with donated supplies from temple members for the desperate Ukrainians who have fled for their lives, said Martin Bell, one of the travelers on the mission.

Every place the group went, Bell related to Fox News Digital recently, they saw the relief efforts that had been “started initially by everyday Poles” — who have continued to run them to help the displaced Ukrainians, who are mostly women and children.

He said, “The part about bearing witness — that’s what really resonated with me and with everyone in our group. In part, that’s maybe a Jewish reaction in a world where there are Holocaust deniers,” said Bell. 

“We wanted to go there so that we could then come back and tell other people what we saw.”

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“It’s a story that should be told. It’s a story that must be told,” he also said, as Fox News Digital reported earlier. 

“We made the journey to bring relief,” said Rabbi Davidson at a recent Friday evening temple service as he described the mission afterward to the congregation. 

“But we also made it to bear witness to the suffering of the Ukrainian people, in a world that too often not only turns a blind eye to human suffering but allows it to be written out of history altogether.”

“We just know from our own experience that bearing witness is a sacred duty.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.

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