The Time Ukrainian Refugees Celebrated Passover — in a Church

By Matt Schiavenza

Managing Editor,

Shabbat dinner in Barcelona

Refugees from Ukraine participate in a Shabbat dinner in Barcelona, Spain, on September 8, 2023. (Sarah* for HIAS)

Until full-scale war broke out in Ukraine in February 2022, Sarah*, a Moscow native in Barcelona, had never done charity work. But she had an intuition that she could help. “I know how difficult it is to adapt and integrate into a new country and a new culture,” she said. 

Sarah threw herself into the relief effort. She organized accommodation, clothing, and food for the arriving Ukrainians. When she noticed an absence of mental health services, she issued a plea across her social networks for psychologists. More than 100 who spoke Ukrainian and Russian and had experience with refugees answered her call. Eventually, her efforts caught on.

“Word spread that there was a crazy Jewish woman who was willing to help,” she said. Soon she was coordinating scores of refugee families billeted in hotels across northeastern Spain, enrolling children in schools, and making sure they were equipped with basic clothing and hygienic supplies.  

That April, Sarah decided to organize a Passover seder for the families she had met. But she encountered a problem. Few towns had a venue large enough to accommodate the hundreds of expected attendees. One man, though, was willing to help: a Catholic priest. He volunteered to host the seder in his church, even donning a kippah for the occasion. For the 347 who attended, the ceremony was a welcome distraction from their difficult circumstances. 

“Some of the attendees said it was the first time they could admit to being Jewish without fear of prejudice,” Sarah said. “They sang songs their grandparents had taught them. We all cried.” 

“Word spread that there was a crazy Jewish woman who was willing to help.”

One of the attendees was Natalia*. Just over a month before, she fled her hometown of Odessa, Ukraine, driving west with her son and dog in a caravan with a neighboring family. “When they turned, I turned. When they stopped, I stopped,” she recalled.  

The journey to Spain took a week. Once she arrived, life was intensely stressful, with little time to devote to celebration. The seder in the church, for Natalia, marked a turning point. “It was magical,” she said. “It was like a gift. The kids played together like they had before the war.” At the ceremony, Natalia exchanged contact information with other families with whom she has continued to keep in touch. 

In the months after that year’s Passover, Sarah continued to work tirelessly for the Ukrainians who had come under her care. Among other initiatives, she established a kindergarten and language classes in English and Spanish for the adults. Over time, many of the refugees became established in their new home. But they still required assistance.  

That’s when Sarah encountered HIAS, which had expanded its successful Welcome Circles program from the United States to Europe and begun partnering with Jewish communities across the continent who wished to assist Ukrainian refugees. Sarah was a natural fit: Welcome Circles were designed to provide people with her drive and determination with the resources they need to make an even bigger impact. 

In Barcelona, HIAS’ support has been instrumental in offering legal assistance to Ukrainians who needed help with securing a residency permit as well as resources for mental health support. Natalia received booklets from HIAS with tips for coping with depression and information about online support groups. “When you understand you’re not alone, it helps,” she said. 

Sarah has continued her work with Ukrainian refugees in the Barcelona area. The experience over the last two years has had a profound effect on her life. “Some people have told me that they can’t recognize me — that I’m not the same person,” she said. “But I decided then that if I could help — even just by smiling, or by giving a hug, I should do it. No matter what happens, people need to feel secure. Not just physically, but psychologically.” 

*Participant names have been changed in order to protect their anonymity.

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