‘An Image I’ll Never Forget’: Toronto Volunteers Join Humanitarian Operation in Eastern Europe
Over 30 years ago, Tatyana and Dmitry Korobchevski arrived in Budapest from Kyiv, as part of their aliyah journey supported by UJA’s partner the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Now, amid the war in Ukraine, the couple is back in Budapest to support Ukrainian refugees as they escape the ravages of war. “We’ve come full circle,” said Tatyana.
They are part of a team of Jewish community volunteers from across the continent with Russian or Ukrainian language skills, assembled by the Jewish Federations of North America on a special volunteer operation on the ground. Together with others from the United States, Canada, and Israel, Tatyana and Dmitry worked long days to help make the immigration process a little easier for refugees fleeing Ukraine. “We worked very well with all the volunteers, it was magical,” said Tatyana. “We were a group united by passion and devotion to the work we were doing.”
The couple was part of a group of four members of our Toronto Jewish community who partook in this initiative to support the operations of UJA’s on-the-ground partners. The team was stationed in Budapest and, among other things, helped maintain a 24-hour resting station where weary refugees could get a hot meal, translation support, and an opportunity to rest after long hours of travel.
Tatyana also credits the JDC for helping her build a career that allows her to continue giving back to the community. By funding her education in Israel, the JDC helped Tatyana transition from a career in engineering to social work, which she calls the “profession of her life.” After moving to Canada, she worked for many years at the UJA-funded agency Jewish Family and Child Service (JF&CS). This experience has been very helpful in her work in Budapest, Tatyana said, as she provided emotional support to refugees, talking them through their trauma and anxieties for the future.
Semyon Dovzhik, another volunteer on the Mission, said a big part of his job was to provide translation and language support for Ukrainian refugees at border cross points. “The entire process is very scary for the refugees, because a lot of them are mothers with young kids or elderly, and many of them don’t speak a word of English,” said Semyon. “There are a lot of miscommunications with the Hungarian police because of the language barrier, and children would start crying because they’re so terrified. We served as a bridge for the refugees by explaining to them what is going on and that they’re in good hands and nothing bad is going to happen to them.”
While supporting operations at the train station crossing was the main focus of Semyon’s job, he also helped refugees who were being transported on buses and those crossing the border on foot. “The image of a young mother crossing the border by foot, holding a suitcase in one hand, and her child in the other, is one that I will never forget,” said Semyon. “It was devastating to see.”
For Mykola Hutta, participating in this Mission helped him give back to the organizations that supported his own family’s evacuation from Ukraine. As a Ukrainian native, Mykola moved to Canada 10 years ago and still has a lot of family and friends in the region. In the early days of the war, Mykola’s mother and sister were evacuated from Ukraine and were helped by volunteers from other countries throughout the process. “That’s when I realized how important volunteerism is and I wanted to do my part to support these efforts.”
Mykola said the highlight of the Mission was seeing how his work brought real-life, quick results to hundreds of families that were seeking help. Mykola was assigned to work at the Israeli consulate and helped refugees put together their aliyah applications, as well as organize logistics surrounding transportation and housing.
“I know some people who are waiting for weeks and weeks to get a decision from countries, dealing with lots of bureaucracy,” said Mykola. “In my time volunteering, we closed close to 200 cases. It all happened very fast––within a matter of days after arriving in Budapest, refugees would be on a flight to Israel. It was amazing to see how our work brought such quick results and changed so many lives.”