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San Antonio Jewish Federation leader reflects on journey in Europe where millions of Ukrainian refugees reside

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised locally to help refugees. Nammie Ichilov brought with him two duffle bags of donated over-the-counter medicine.

SAN ANTONIO — Jewish leaders from San Antonio returned from witnessing the humanitarian mission taking place in Poland where nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees now reside after fleeing the Russian invasion.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is approaching exactly two months and sees no immediate end in sight as the brunt of the conflict is focused on the eastern front.

For Nammie Ichilov, CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, the surreal experience of what he saw and heard while in Europe has only just sunken in.

“Once we got there, it became clear that what the refugees really needed was somebody to listen to their story,” Ichilov said.

He listened to several stories of struggle and survival amid a war that’s destroyed lives and turned cities into cemeteries.

“We fled Kyiv when we understood this war would be long. Because we all know what happened in Bucha, what happened in Mariupol,” said one unidentified Ukrainian mother in a video provided by Ichilov.

Ichilov recalls the journey of a surgeon fleeing Ukraine with her two daughters and two dogs. He said the woman initially feared fleeing due to potentially being captured by the Russian military. But the reality of imminent danger swayed her to make the decision and leave with her family, leaving mostly everything behind. Ichilov said it took the family seven days to reach the Ukraine-Poland border.

“She got to places and just stayed on people’s floors, on their couches, people she didn’t she know just to get from one place to the next. A week before this experience, she had her nails done.”

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, has become sanctuary for Ukrainian refugees who are trying to figure out what’s next in life.

This is among the facilities Ichilov visited, where humanitarian relief organizations from Israel were on site providing a variety of resources for displaced families.

“There were rooms in the hotel that were converted with donations so one room just had shirts. Some places had shirts, other room had snacks,” Ichilov said.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised by the Jewish Federation of San Antonio. Every dollar is going directly to help Ukrainian refugees. Collectively, the Jewish Federations of North America have generated more than $28 million in donations intended for aiding Ukrainian refugees. 

“It was a scene out of some kind of apocalyptic movie. Then they go to a cot, to a massive room. It’s the equivalent of the largest H-E-B, if you just gutted it and just put out cots as far as the eye can see,” Ichilov said.

Whenever the war ends, the path to recovery will take years. Ichilov just hopes the world remains committed to standing united with Ukraine for decades to come.   

“From the Jewish community’s perspective we have used the ‘never forget’ phrase when it comes to the Holocaust. My greatest fear and the fear of all the refugees, is that the world forgets,” Ichilov said.

On May 12 at noon, the Jewish Federation of San Antonio will deliver a presentation on the journey and how the dollars raised are being used to assist refugees in Europe.

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