Ukraine Calling: Some on East End Travel to Eastern Europe to Assist in Crisis

Ukrainian refugees Tania, 2, and Galina, 11, wait in the ticket hall at Przemysl Glowny train station, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Poland, April 4, 2022.
Ukrainian refugees Tania, 2, and Galina, 11, wait in the ticket hall at Przemysl Glowny train station, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Poland, April 4, 2022.
REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

While millions of Ukrainians flee the Russian invasion that has caused widespread suffering across the Eastern European nation, a few East End residents are heading into the fray to assist in person.

They include a chef who has been helping bring food and other supplies to volunteers on the front lines of the conflict for weeks, a rabbi who is flying to Poland to aid refugees at the Ukrainian border for about a week this month, and a couple from Mattituck. Both the chef and rabbi hail from East Hampton but neither is of Ukrainian descent.

“We’re supposed to understand what it feels like to be refugees, to understand their plight, to understand and to really have empathy for their experience,” said Rabbi Josh Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, noting the timing of his trip coming right before Passover, which commemorates the Isrealites’ exodus from ancient Egyptian slavery. “Now we’re going to make sure we can help other people who are going through that same experience that we went through.”

More than 4 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland since the start of what Russia calls its “special operation” in Ukraine, U.N. agencies say. Almost 2.5 million of them have crossed into Poland and more are still arriving — though the numbers have slowed since the start of the war, according to Poland’s border guard service. President Joe Biden said in late March that the United States would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians to resettle in the country this year.

Franklin said that as a descendant of German refugees who fled the Nazis in the 1930s, he needed to answer the call to assist those displaced by the biggest attack on a European nation since World War II.

“Most of our community does have similar stories coming from Eastern Europe as refugees,” he said. “And it’s not just Jewish refugees that we’re concerned about. We’re worried about all of them.”

Franklin said his congregation has raised “a very fair amount of money” in addition to gathering supplies to assist weary volunteers on the border of Poland and Ukraine, but he declined to specify exactly how much.

His five-day trip from April 9 to 14 will be as part of a rabbinical mission with a delegation of American and Israeli rabbis in partnership with on-the-ground refugee aid organizations, including the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. He’ll be home in time for Passover, which starts April 15 and runs through April 23.

Rabbi Josh Franklin
Rabbi Josh Franklin

“Passover reminds us that once upon a time, we too were refugees leaving Egypt, and that when we see tyranny and oppression, it’s our moral responsibility to alleviate the contemporary suffering that we too endured long ago,” he wrote in an email to his congregation.

The mission trip will also give him the responsibility of bearing witness to the crisis firsthand and bringing what he learns back to the East End.

“We’re getting the news stories, but we’re not getting the stories of the people who are actually fleeing,” he said. “We’re not really hearing from the refugees themselves. And my role will be to go over there and bring back the stories for our community.”

Across the border in Ukraine, Kristofer Kalas, the chef/owner of the restaurant Hello Oma, has been traveling across the war-torn nation with a band of volunteers trying to assist those in the middle of the conflict that started on Feb. 24. His calling came from the fact that his family had split their time between the South Fork and his wife’s homeland for several years. He could not be reached for comment as of press time.

“My focus is making sure that there’s still a Ukraine for my daughter to grow up in,” Kalas told Eyewitness News. “We have so much that we can do and each day is not enough so we just, we just try to focus one day at a time and keep things moving.”

On the North Fork, Dr. Tom Mercier and his wife Barbara, a nurse, reportedly flew to Poland and crossed the border into Ukraine last month to help treat casualties.

“When the war started, something in my hear said, ‘how can we not go?'” Barbara told The Suffolk Times. “We had been there. These were people we knew. They were crying out for help.”

While the efforts of the Merciers, Kalas and Franklin have gone beyond the local donation drives, charity concerts and other efforts aimed at helping Ukrainians, they are not the only ones from the greater Long Island area who’ve gone overseas to assist the boots on the ground. So, too, have Neina Vetrano, a former Romanian tour guide, and her husband, Pastor Justin Vetrano, of The LIFE Lutheran Church in Westbury.

“What we saw was overwhelming,” Justin said. “The children were wonderful and so sweet — they’re kids, kind of on an adventure. But the mothers and grandmothers, you can just see this glazed look in their eyes. Some of them would just break down in your arms.”

Alexis Antilla, a New York-native college student who was acting as a combat medic for a team of fighters in Ukraine, was herself injured in a land mine explosion, she told Reuters at a hospital near the capital Kyiv last month.

“I felt a calling to come here, I felt like it was the right thing to do, I feel like what’s happening here, what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is doing, is evil,” she said. “There is no need to put millions and millions of people through the suffering and torment that they are going through, and I felt I had to be here to help in any way that I could.”

~ With Reuters and Briana Bonfiglio

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