The Guardian Angels of Poltava: Helping IDPs Find Safety and Community in Ukraine

Svetlana L. fled Kharkiv in the midst of shelling to find safety in Poltava — as well as a way to heal her fellow Jews.

By Svetlana L. - Case Manager; Poltava, Ukraine | September 13, 2023

Svetlana L. (center, front row) with her team at the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava, Ukraine.

When the Ukraine crisis began, Svetlana L. dodged rocket-fire with her husband and two children in tow. She fled her native Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has been particularly hard-hit — and found safety and support at the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in nearby Poltava. A psychologist by training, and now an internally displaced person (IDP), Svetlana went to work immediately, helping those in the same boat as herself and her family.

This is her story.

Svetlana, left, with her youngest daughter.

Last year, when everything began, my body was aware of it first. That February morning, my husband and I woke earlier than usual. If normally we’d go to the kitchen, brew coffee, and talk, that morning we moved silently — we moved like animals following our instincts. We followed our routine, even as we were realizing that routine no longer made sense. 

Then a rocket flew over our house. At that moment, we knew the conflict had begun. My husband ran for our younger daughter and I ran for our older daughter. We shepherded the children to the bathtub, covered them with a duvet, and all fell to the floor. We stayed in the bathroom during the shelling. 

We tried to do something useful between the air-raid sirens. My husband began fortifying our house, and I gathered important documents and dressed the children. We tried calculating the exact amount of time between each missile launch and hit. Every Kharkiv resident now knows that timeline like the palm of their hand.

We lived on the fourth floor, and any hit would make the building collapse like a house of cards — so I started looking for places to shelter. The basement of our five-story building was dangerous, and the underground station was too far away; plus, there were crowds of people there — there would be panic, and it didn’t feel safe to me.

We moved to a nearby school and searched for food between the sirens. Somehow, we found bread, fed ourselves, and waited for a break in the storm: We had roughly 40 minutes to leave.

Then, with my two children in tow, we accidentally entered a very dangerous area. We managed to escape only because my husband, thanks to his job, knows all the backroads. When we reached the city checkpoint, everyone was surprised that we had managed to escape and save many people in the process — a bunch of other families had followed us in their cars.

We headed for Poltava. I’m a psychologist and a ballroom dance coach — those were my two jobs back in Kharkiv. I knew I could be useful. I went to the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center and told my fellow psychologists I was ready: If they needed me, I could help. I met Svetlana, at the time the director of Hesed Nefesh, and now a vital member of JDC’s team coordinating vital aid to Jews all across Ukraine. 

Svetlana leads a virtual physical therapy session for elderly Jews.

At Hesed, it was love at first sight. It was as if I’d known those people my whole life — like I had come home, like I’d found my place. 

Svetlana and I decided that the elderly Jews needed my help, since many of them were depressed. From my years of experience, I knew it was better to first address their physical problems. I organized a kind of physical therapy session for them. In the beginning they said that they couldn’t even raise their arms or legs, but after my class, they could stretch, they could bend, and they felt healthier. They told me, “My arm doesn’t hurt anymore, and I can finally move my legs.”

After treating their bodies, I decided to treat their souls. Now I organize psychological sessions online. It’s like a family circle where they open up and share their feelings and experiences. Even if there’s a blackout, even if they lose their internet connection, they don’t get lost or feel alone. They know what to do because we made a plan: They can come to Hesed and I will be there for them. 

More and more internally displaced people (IDPs) were coming to Poltava and I then became an IDP coordinator. I felt equipped to do this work because I myself am an IDP — their struggles were my struggles. 

People came with nothing. We organized a volunteer store. Locals brought utensils, cups, spoons, absolutely everything. We sorted it all. Our volunteers helped us a lot, and we hung up the clothes so that people could come and choose, try them on, and see what was there. We also collected books so that the IDPs would have something to read. Local authors donated their books, too. 

But this wasn’t just a store — it was a place where IDPs could meet each other and find community. Now they understand that they can receive other kinds of help — help with rent, help with utilities. Many people were left homeless and had nothing. It was important for them to understand that someone cares enough to give them even a plate or a cup, and it was equally important for the locals to share, donate, and be involved.

I adore my team. I call them my “students,” because I feel like I’m their high school teacher, leading and guiding them. They’re always ready to help with anything, and we have a person for every situation. There’s an electrician and a guy who can fix anything. They respond and they help with joy.

It’s very important that now people have this help from Hesed and JDC because many simply wouldn’t have survived without it. And now, with inflation, this help is more urgent than ever — many can’t even afford food and other necessities. 

This help saves lives. If only you could only see the faces of the people who come here, if only you could hear them saying, “Oh my G-d, everything is so delicious! Did you put all of this together? You’ve brought us so much!” 

At Hesed, it was love at first sight. It was as if I’d known those people my whole life — like I had come home, like I’d found my place.

Translated from the Hebrew, Hesed Nefesh means “charity of soul” and the people who work here reflect this name — they’re a big family with a huge, generous soul, large enough to include locals and IDPs alike. People need to understand that they have a guardian angel who stands behind them, protecting them. JDC and Hesed are those angels. 

All of our beneficiaries know they are important and loved, and Hesed Nefesh is more than just a place to come and receive humanitarian aid. Here, we — and I include myself in this group as well — can find people who empathize, who care, who are involved, who know who has given birth to a child and the child’s name, who even know which person has a door handle broken … and know someone who can fix it, too. 

We are family. I am next to them. I am here. And I will not leave them. In a family, you keep all members together, you keep them close, no further than arm’s length.

So, this is what we do: We come here, we share our grief and our joy, and we go through it together.

Svetlana L. is a case manager at the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava, Ukraine. 

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