Without a home again': Jewish orphanage evacuates 300 children in Ukraine amid Russia invasion
On a night two weeks ago in southwest Ukraine, children inside a Jewish orphanage felt the ground shake and watched lights eerily flicker.
Bombs were falling just a mile from their home, shattering their safe world and sending them fleeing into the darkness.
The children, most in their pajamas and without shoes, rushed out of the orphanage and squeezed onto buses to make their way to the Moldova border as the Russian military launched its invasion of Ukraine. The journey, which eventually took the children to Romania, left them in tears and confusion: Where would they call home now?
"Tikva, our orphanage, decided it was more dangerous to stay put than travel that night, both for the children's physical and mental health," Refael Kruskal, CEO of Tikva, a Jewish orphanage that shelters and educates children, told USA TODAY. "But we needed to save them."
Still, Kruskal said the decision to move the children out of their homes was "heartbreaking."
Tikva, which means hope in Hebrew, evacuated 300 children, 80 staff and 150 families from Odessa, Ukraine, to Moldova and later to Neptun, Romania, Kruskal said. By the end of this week, the orphanage hopes to evacuate another 800 refugees to Romania.
The children joined a long stream of civilians scrambling to find safe havens in the past two weeks. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.
As of Thursday, 2,316,002 refugees had fled Ukraine; over 1.4 million of them have crossed into Poland. The U.N. expects that number to soon exceed 4 million.
Kruskal said the children spent over 60 hours traveling by bus, a physically and emotionally taxing trip as the orphans saw up close the damage from Russian forces to buildings and homes in Ukraine.
"It breaks my heart to think these same children who have lost so much already in their lives, now find themselves without a home again," Arielle Setton, Tikva's executive director, told USA TODAY. "But I find comfort in knowing that they have not lost their sense of family."
While occupying hotels in Romania, the orphanage is attempting to instill a sense of normalcy by continuing education programs and outdoor activities such as soccer games. Kruskal, who was born in London, said he had a doctor, speech pathologist and psychologist flown in to evaluate the children.
Despite seeing their world changed overnight, Kruskal said the orphans are looking after one another. Some are tucking the younger children into bed and saying a prayer for their country together. Others are volunteering to prepare food, clean rooms or assist the teachers.
"Each child can feel each other's pain and all they want is to help each other," Kruskal said. "It's a beautiful thing to see. It shows the war can take away homes and possessions but not the compassion and care for one another."
Setton and Kruskal said donations were coming in from organizations in the U.S. and European countries. Just this week, an organization in Munich, Germany, sent a truck filled with blankets, food and treats to Romania. Another doctor will be flying in from England next week to treat children reporting fatigue, headaches and minor illnesses.
"Our goal for the foreseeable future is to protect as many children, elderly and adults in Ukraine," Kruskal said. "We can't predict what physical and emotional toll the war will have on the orphans, but we can keep them safe and smiling when possible. We can't steal our compassion, and it won't stop us."