As war planes darted across the night sky above Kyiv in the early hours of February 24, 2022, ORT Ukraine’s students, teachers and professional staff knew their world had changed.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine that followed and the violence that has continued to this day have elicited an unparalleled response from across ORT’s global network.
In addition to ensuring our students can continue their education by whatever means necessary, our staff and supporters have provided dedicated assistance – organizing logistical, humanitarian, and financial aid for thousands of ORT family members.
As we prepare to mark the anniversary of the start of the conflict, our work continues unabated.
Read on to find out how ORT responded during the initial weeks of the conflict, how our support has adapted to meet the changing needs on the ground, and what the future might hold.
With more than 8,000 students, teachers and their families spread around the cities and towns ORT worked in throughout Ukraine at the start of the conflict, we immediately launched an emergency campaign to raise funds for food, water, medical supplies and transportation.
More than half of our ORT family members left their homes and schools – fleeing either to safer areas of Ukraine or to neighboring countries.
Mila Finkelshtein, ORT Ukraine Chief Executive, explained in the first week of March how she and a colleague had evacuated to a small village away from our offices in Kyiv.
Dolina Shalmina, School Principal in Zaporizhzhia, said the school had no shelters and staff were preparing escape routes for students and their families.
ORT schools in Moldova, Bulgaria and countries further across Europe began to welcome students and others fleeing Ukraine.
Svetlana Klimina, Principal at ORT Herzl Technology Lyceum in Kishinev, and her colleagues opened their doors and hearts to those coming from Kyiv and Odesa – including those who were not associated with ORT. When 50 Jewish refugees arrived from Uman, she worked with local authorities to find them accommodation.
More than a dozen refugees arrived at ORT’s Kfar Silver Youth Village in Israel during March. Students were provided with housing, food, clothing, education including Hebrew language instruction, trauma counseling, and other services they needed to acclimate to their new surroundings.
Distance learning in Ukraine prevented further disruption of lessons until the end of the academic year in May. During this time Jewish educational activities also continued, especially at Pesach during which an in-person Seder was held at the ORT school in Chernivtsi.
A Summer of Preparation
During the stalemate of the summer and the reduction of violence, ORT rapidly planned for the months ahead and the perils of winter. Staff concentrated on preparing for the physical reopening of our schools and the required security improvements at the sites.
This included first aid and emergency response training for teachers and staff; purchase of security equipment, reinforcement works, and hiring professional security guards; organizing safe transportation of students to school; paying teachers’ salaries to ensure retention of staff; and ongoing financial and humanitarian support for ORT families.
The summer also saw the extension of our provision of mental health services for Ukrainians under the guidance of Maryna Zavgorodnya, Vice Principal of ORT Educational Complex #141 in Kyiv.
She said that in May alone, ORT had helped dozens of students and teachers who had left their homes and were dealing with the loss of relatives and friends, constant sirens and other traumas. They were in need of intense therapy. This was followed with special training for teachers led by Israeli trauma specialists.
Daniel Tysman, World ORT Head of Education, said: “Living as refugees and being displaced creates increased anxiety. We were hearing about panic attacks, night terrors, and trauma. We knew that we must act.”
Seeking Safety and Shelter
One of the most significant interventions of the year came in November when ORT organized the evacuation of more than 150 people from our schools in Odesa and Zaporizhzhia. Both cities faced constant danger as missile attacks intensified.
Thanks to the ongoing assistance of our supporters worldwide, ORT was able to arrange the transfer of students, teachers and their families to the town of Truskavets in western Ukraine. Suitable accommodation was organized in a hotel, with security and guaranteed heating.
One mother from Zaporizhzhia said: “We are endlessly grateful to ORT for this evacuation, for allowing the children to sleep peacefully, to smile, to run around. Now in Truskavets children can continue their studies with ORT.”
Innovative Education in Action
Eighth-graders Kirill and Kyrystyna and ninth-graders Victoria and Artem were part of a team from the ORT school in Chernivtsi who put their STEM education into action.
They used 3D printers to create medical supplies which aid the health and wellbeing of their community.
They designed and produced much-needed tourniquets for victims of attacks. Their improvised bandages were used by civilians suffering from heavy bleeding.
The students were determined to help fellow Ukrainians and began designing the tourniquets as part of the World ORT Gina and Joseph Harmatz Award for Social Responsibility, which highlights the positivity of Tikkun Olam, teamwork, forward-thinking attitudes, and problem-solving skills.
They said: “We feel strongly about our involvement in helping to save people. In these difficult days for our people, we want to be useful.”
New Hope in the Netherlands
Vanda, who taught Hebrew at the ORT school in Kyiv for more than 15 years, escaped to the Netherlands with her husband, two children and their grandmother as the conflict reached a crescendo in the spring.
The family have since been trying to rebuild their lives but face long-term uncertainty after their home was destroyed by a fire during shelling.
Vanda attributes her family’s financial and physical survival to the help provided by ORT supporters around the world.
“It is hard for my children to be away from home, they are going through a difficult time.
“I am grateful to God for working in the ORT school, because we are all like a big family. I keep in touch with all my colleagues and hope we will meet again.
“Personally we would not have been able to survive financially without ORT’s help. On every step of the way ORT has been supportive, kind and attentive. We had to buy a lot of things: shoes and clothes for the kids. ORT also provided financial help to purchase food, petrol, other necessities.
“It is a very long, complicated process to get compensation for the loss of our home. I am focusing on volunteering and making sure my children are settled and well.”
Working Through Winter
As of the end of January, we believe two-thirds of our current ORT Ukraine students remain in the country, with one-third now living abroad.
At least 55 percent of students are engaged in regular online learning – extending the disruption to their education that began three years ago with the Covid pandemic. The impact of this ongoing change will be felt for many years to come – both for individual students and their schools.
Thankfully more than 1,300 students have now returned to their classrooms in-person. The majority are in Kyiv and Chernivtsi, as well as in Bila Tserkva.
World ORT helped to facilitate intensive training in Psychological First Aid and Trauma Management that we provided to specialist staff from ORT schools in Ukraine between September and November 2022.
In total, we believe the current ORT Ukraine school body totals 3,400 students and teachers.
World ORT, supported by our international fundraising partners, has helped deliver generators and other power provisions to our schools. In Kyiv, the ORT Simha school hosts what is known locally as an ‘Unbreakable Point’ – providing electricity, internet and other vital infrastructure during long power outages.
This is based in the school’s underground shelter and allows teachers, students and other Kyiv residents to continue working during the frequent air raid alerts in the capital. They are provided with constant light and electricity to charge cell phones and laptops, access the internet, make hot drinks and use other essential equipment. The power supply in the city is currently affected for eight hours or more every day.
In Odesa, the power is out for more than 12 hours a day, affecting more than 1.5 million people.
At the Odesa ORT Zhabotinski School No94, three solar-powered energy banks have been purchased by World ORT, along with an Eco Flow portable power station and all necessary extension cables and connection points.
Thanks to the support of The Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore, the school can now open its doors as a place for local families and workers to charge devices, drink hot tea and warm up. Teachers, students and their parents use the facility and the school can run computer classes and complete essential administrative work.
But as Victoria, a teacher at ORT Simha School explains, the situation remains one of “constant fear – we need to get the kids down to the shelters regularly.” Her hope for the future is “to return to normal – to go to school calmly, to take my child to the kindergarten and to know that we do not expect any danger.”
The situation in Ukraine remains extremely difficult for residents who are living in constant danger. We continue to help thousands of people from Ukraine who require ongoing humanitarian support to overcome these current challenges. We are also supporting preparations for the inevitable long-term difficulties resulting from the conflict.
The current needs are in two major areas:
- Energy Crisis and Infrastructure Support: With regular power outages now common across Ukraine, schools and families require additional power supplies to charge devices. Larger generators need regular maintenance to keep them operational for longer periods. Schools are also experiencing the need for alternative food storage, such as thermoses, when refrigeration is unreliable and during air-raids lasting several hours.
- Supporting Teachers and Families: Our school communities are experiencing significant emotional trauma, affecting teachers, students and families alike. The requirements for mental health counseling are growing rapidly and will need long-term support. We are also working hard to ensure teachers remain employed with their schools amid motivation and financial challenges. We must be ready to respond to any eventuality or emergency.
We are committed to doing everything possible to support our students, their families, and our schools and programs for as long as necessary.
Thank you for your help.
ORT leaders are now looking to the future and considering what ORT Ukraine’s structure and operations might be in the coming years. The situation in the country remains hugely uncertain, with significant ongoing threats to infrastructure hampering a return to full in-person education.
Our hopes are for a speedy resolution to the conflict and to ensuring the long-term continuation of education programs and welfare opportunities for our students and teachers. Thank you to the ORT family worldwide for the steadfast support shown throughout the past 12 months.