On a brutally cold evening in early March, Diana, a Ukrainian in her early 20s, escaped Russian attacks on her home city of Odessa and arrived in Isaccea, Romania. She and her mother, along with her small dog, were among hundreds stepping off the ferry that took them over the Danube River and into the unknown. They knew nothing of Romania or of what they would do next.
To Diana’s pleasant surprise, volunteers kindly greeted her with tea, blankets, and words of comfort. Two of those volunteers were Long Islanders Neina Vetrano, a former Romanian tour guide, and her husband, Pastor Justin Vetrano, of The LIFE Lutheran Church in Westbury. Justin told Diana that a bus would take her to a refugee camp, where she would be safe.
“We were so nervous and we really didn’t know what we should do,” Diana later told Justin on a video call from Constanta, Romania, where she and many other Ukrainians were given apartments to stay in. “I was so thankful for all you gave us and all you said to us. It gave me hope [that if] strangers can leave everything and come here to help us, then we can go ahead and live on. There is hope.”
For one week in the beginning of March, Neina and Justin met thousands of Ukrainians at the Romanian border who were just like Diana – anxiety-ridden with nowhere to go. Neina, of Old Westbury, has grown up in Romania and was working as a tour guide there when she met Pastor Vetrano, who was traveling in the country. They were married and have lived together in the U.S. for about 10 years.
When the couple learned of the hundreds of thousands Ukrainian refugees pouring into neighboring countries, including Romania, “we felt more than called – we felt responsible” to get on a plane and help out at the border, Justin tells the Press.
Russia’s fiery, deadly invasion of Ukraine, which began Feb. 24, has forced about 4 million Ukrainian women and children to flee Ukraine, while men remain in the country. A total of about 10 million people, out of a population of 41 million, are displaced either in a different part of the country or a different country altogether, according to a March 25 report from Bloomberg.
Neina, Justin, and the other volunteers handed out sandwiches, hot beverages, and blankets, as well as stuffed animals for the children, at the Romanian border. They quickly learned that the word spasibo means “thank you.” About 500 to 800 refugees flooded off each ferry, roughly every two hours, Justin recalls.
“What we saw was overwhelming,” he says. “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.”
While there, Neina and Justin realized that the greatest need was for transportation and housing accommodations. Neina reached out to her connections at tour bus companies to secure busing to bring refugees either to shelters or housing provided by Romanians, many of whom have dropped everything to volunteer and help the refugees, Justin says. The couple also met with the mayor of Isaccea, Romania and made other connections at the border to find out how else they could help in the longer term.
Back at The LIFE Lutheran Church in Westbury, volunteers in the ministry have been raising money and awareness about the refugee crisis by posting photos and videos of Neina and Justin’s journey on social media. They’ve launched the LIFE for Ukraine campaign, which is funding buses, hotels, and refugee centers that Neina and Justin are helping coordinate in Romania. Anyone can learn more and donate at thelifeny.org/ukraine.
“Our goal is to create a connection between Long Island and the refugees,” Justin says.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine persists, the couple’s work is far from over. They said they returned to help in Romania on March 29, and will return again with more volunteers from Long Island the weekend after Easter.
“If Russian soldiers pulled out of Ukraine today, we are still looking at a humanitarian crisis that’s going to take about a decade to address,” Justin says. “People need jobs, kids need to go to school, they need to rebuild their entire lives. That’s why it’s important to be committed to the longer term.”
Unfortunately, Justin notes, it doesn’t seem that Russia will pull out of Ukraine any time soon. As of March 28, bombings continued in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, with its mayor, Vitali Klitschko, reporting more than 100 war deaths, including four children, and at least 16 children hospitalized, since the invasion began. In the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a spokesperson for Mayor Vadym Boichenko reported that nearly 5,000 people, including about 201 children, have been killed in the war, Reuters reported on March 28.
Meanwhile, Russia and Ukraine prepared for peace talks during the last week of March; however, on March 28, Reuters reported that Putin “did not appear ready to make compromises to end the war,” according to a U.S. senior official.
Long Island-Ukrainian couple Elena and Sergei Schwartz, cantors at Temple Sinai in Roslyn, know all too well from friends and family still living in Ukraine the horrors happening there. They have also been working to send funds to people helping Ukrainians on the ground by connecting with their former high school classmates and childhood friends.
“We will be on the phone with them and we hear the sirens, or they text us saying, ‘Sorry, we have to go to the shelter’ during our conversations, and that’s heartbreaking,” Sergei tells the Press. “Every day this happens.”
The East Hills couple grew up in Dnipro, which is in eastern Ukraine, where the war is being fought. They moved out of the country more than 30 years ago, shortly after getting married when they were 18 years old, to study music in Israel and then in New York.
Temple Sinai has raised funds for a variety of different causes in Ukraine, including for the temple’s Ukrainian sister congregation, Congregation Hatikvah in Kyiv, whose manager is helping elderly and disabled members who could not leave Ukraine, by delivering food and other necessities to them.
The Temple Sinai Support for Ukraine Fund is also directly funding Jewish communities that are taking in refugees, bus transportation to evacuate Ukrainians, an animal shelter, a hospital in Dnipro aiding the wounded, and more.
“It’s a 24/7 operation,” Elena says. “We have a very special relationship with the Jewish community in Ukraine. Everyone is sad to see what’s happening to the country, how Russians are just annihilating and ruining entire cities. There’s lots of looting and destruction.”
As part of the fundraising efforts, Elena and Sergei held a virtual rally for Ukraine doing what they do best – singing. They brought 13 cantors together on March 6, and more than 500 people participated on the call, helping them raise significant funds from Long Islanders to help Ukrainians.
Says Elena, “Temple Sinai is really helping save lives.”
Donations are still being accepted at mysinai.org/ukrainesupport.