The Jerusalem Post

The bittersweet Israel experience of wartime Russian, Ukrainian olim

 JEWISH IMMIGRANTS fleeing the war in Ukraine arrive in Israel last year on a rescue flight sponsored by Keren Hayesod. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
JEWISH IMMIGRANTS fleeing the war in Ukraine arrive in Israel last year on a rescue flight sponsored by Keren Hayesod.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

ALIYAH AFFAIRS: Many who have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the Russian war with Ukraine have encountered a bittersweet experience.

Nearly 16 months after arriving in Israel as a new immigrant from her native Russia, Alina Debolskaya still feels uprooted and lost.

For 42 years, she had lived the definition of a successful life in the suburbs of Moscow. She went to the best medical school in the country, then worked in one of Russia’s largest national centers for gynecology for 21 years. Her husband, Igor, worked at a large international food-producing company, and their twin boys had “everything they could imagine.” 

Then, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything fell apart. Debolskaya found herself telling her eight-year-old sons that if they were even to say the word “war” in school, she could go to jail. In that moment, she realized that the family needed to leave. 

The next two weeks were “unplanned, strange, and unusual,” Debolskaya said. 


By March 1, the family had visas to fly to Israel and on March 4, they were on a Russian airplane on their way to Israel. As that plane flew under Cyprus’ airspace, it was suddenly stopped; the Mediterranean island just announced a ban on Russian aircraft in their airspace. They turned and flew back to Moscow. Some of Debolskaya’s friends helped her get a flight through El Al, and finally, on March 8, the family landed in Israel. They only had their suitcases with clothes. 

 ALINA DEBOLSKAYA – an ‘unplanned, strange, and unusual’ journey to Israel. (credit: Alina Debolskaya)
ALINA DEBOLSKAYA – an ‘unplanned, strange, and unusual’ journey to Israel. (credit: Alina Debolskaya)

Debolskaya’s story is similar to thousands of some 85,000 other olim from the former Soviet Union (FSU) who have found refuge in Israel since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

In the next seven years, most Ukrainian Jews and more than half of Russian Jews are expected to leave their nations, according to a report conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Many of them will join the 85,000 olim from the FSU, who have found refuge in Israel since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. 

However, many of these 85,000 olim have struggled to integrate into Israeli society. 

Some are highly educated, but are unable to find work in Israel, while some struggle to learn Hebrew due to long waits for ulpan (Hebrew lessons). Others are unable to transfer money from their home countries to Israel, and have thousands of dollars in limbo.


Several olim told The Jerusalem Post that they feel unwanted by the Israeli government, which they feel has been slow to respond to their complaints. 

“Unfortunately, the government is not willing to help [olim from the FSU],” Yair Smolianov, head of aliyah absorption in the One Million Lobby, the largest NGO in Israel that advocates for FSU olim, said. “They don’t want to make any effort to make them stay here.” 

Smolianov attributed the government’s lack of effort to politics. Olim from the FSU are likely to vote for central-left-to-left parties, giving one more vote to the current opposition, he said. 

“Why would they make an effort to bring more people that will vote against them?” Smolianov asked. “It’s very sad, to feel and to think like that. But it’s the reality.” 

Regardless of the reason, the struggles of new olim remain. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps them here is that the alternative – a war-torn country, or a country spiraling into authoritarianism – is worse, Smolianov said. 

In speaking with several new olim about the difficulties they face, the two most prevalent issues that have made their transition to Israel bumpy have been finding work and accessing banking services.

Finding Work

Smolianov said that most FSU olim have had to take jobs significantly below their skill level, with the exception of those working in tech companies, because those companies care more about experience than diplomas. 

“But if we look at teachers and doctors and psychologists and lawyers and construction engineers, and basically all jobs that require some document or some professionality that needs to be proven, most of these people are still not working in their jobs,” he said. 

For these people, there are three options; change jobs, fight the system, or leave. 

In 2022, 953 doctors came to Israel, and over 800 of them were from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, Smolianov said. Of those 800, almost 300 of them have already left Israel, because they realize that they can start working much faster in places like Germany or the United States. 

“In Israel, it takes 10 years to make someone a doctor, and it costs the government something like 10 million shekels,” Smolianov added. “Israel is being given a present of almost 900 doctors with years of experience, and we’re just throwing this opportunity away.” 

In Debolskaya’s case, although her husband was able to seamlessly resume his work at his firm, she did not know what to do next. Representatives from the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, told her that ulpan classes were full for months, and they weren’t sure where she could go to find a job as a doctor. 

By a “miracle,” she was able to get into ulpan, which she needed to begin any work, and learned there for nine months. Yet, she still has no prospects of getting her own license to practice medicine. 

The Ministry of Health allows new immigrants who have more than 14 years of medical experience to get their license without passing exams or residency, given that they provide the right documents. Debolskaya has been trying to give them all the documents they need, but she says that the ministry insists on her completing a three-year residency before she receives her license.

For Debolskaya, the prospect of a three-year residency after 21 years of clinical experience is both humiliating and daunting.

“The residency in gynecology is very, very hard and I am not so young,” she said. She has been pleading with various representatives from the Ministry of Health to just access her license, but she has found a lack of transparency in the department. 

Each person at the Ministry “changes their words,” she said. “The problem is that every person who works there says something, maybe he or she is sure that it’s true, but someone else says something different, and you go in a ring, where you go stupid and you cannot understand who is really right and what to do.” 

Debolskaya is not confident she will win. She is thankful that her husband is working, because she otherwise isn’t sure what she would’ve done to feed her family or pay her bills in Israel. 

MIKE PREPELITSKIY, a three-time expat, moved from Ukraine to the US when he was seven, then to Moscow for work, and recently made aliyah after the war broke out. He is helping olim who can’t find jobs to start their own business. His initiative, called Olimpact, is a venture builder non-profit that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship among recent olim. 

He emphasized that though the job market is tight, immigrants from the FSU should not rely on the government to give them good jobs or to help them. 

“Just because you were an employee somewhere else, does not mean that you can’t be an entrepreneur here,” Prepelitskiy said. “Immigrants account for almost everything that we see in Israel – immigrants are inherently risk takers.” 

However, Oleg Mosyazh, who owns a company that connects venture capitalists with start-ups, said that being a start-up owner as an olim is challenging. He said he personally knows at least 50 start-up owners who have made aliyah in the past year. Not one of them has successfully attracted a meaningful investment. 

Though Israel is known as the “Start-Up Nation,” the ecosystem for investment is very closed off, he said. 

“If you haven’t served in Unit 8200 or graduated from Technicon or Tel Aviv University, you are a kind of stranger in this country, a stranger in this ecosystem, and they are not going to invest in you,” Mosyazh added.

This leads to start-up founders leaving Israel for other nations, such as Germany or the US – an unnecessary loss of human capital, he said. When he raised the issue during last week’s Knesset Immigration and Integration Committee Session, he asked the Israel Innovation Authority to partner with him in a pitch competition for olim. 

“Can I do it myself?” Mosyazh asked during his speech. “I can and I will. But the impact will be much greater if I have a strong local partner.” 

He has yet to receive a response from the Israel Innovation Authority. 


For many of the new olim, an additional obstacle has been the Israeli banking system. 

Israeli banks have frequently denied money transfers from Ukraine, Russia, or Belarus, leaving many FSU olim unnecessarily cash-strapped, according to Sophia Tupolev, a co-founder of Reboot Startup Nation, an NGO that helps jump-start the tech careers of immigrants.

Tupolev, like Prepelitskiy, is a three-time expat, and, like Prepelitskiy, she spends much of her time helping FSU olim. Lately, her focus has been on ensuring FSU olim’s equal access to banking services through the Fair Banking Project. 

Within the project, she has collected hundreds of survey responses detailing cases of olim not being able to access their money, not receiving explanations for transactions, fees, or blocks on credit cards, and other difficulties. The answers in the survey come to at least 70 pages of testimony, Tupolev said. 

One survey responder said that Bank Leumi rejected their money transfer, even after providing all the necessary documents and paying for an auditor. 

“There was no logical explanation to that, they referred just to their internal policy and sanctions (neither I, nor my money, nor even my bank were under sanctions! but I was punished and restricted in rights),” the survey responder wrote. They were able to open an account in the Leumi bank and transfer money with “fewer problems,” they wrote. 

By press time, Bank Leumi has not responded to requests for comment. 

Another responder said they were given a credit card limit of 2,500 NIS for a family of three, which caused “huge problems in our first months of life in Israel.” When they requested to increase the limit on the credit card, they were denied on the grounds that they were olim hadashim (new immigrants) and that they didn’t have jobs, despite the fact that they deposited more than 50,000 shekels when they arrived. 

“People are being denied the basic bread and butter services that they require to actually establish their life in Israel,” Tupolev said. 

She added that after talking to hundreds of olim, the banks, and the Bank of Israel, she believes that these banks are simply giving blanket refusals to immigrants from the FSU, something she calls “discrimination by omission.” 

“They’re just saying ‘no, we’re just not going to deal with this. We’re just not going to let you go through compliance,’” she said. “93% of people [in the survey] got verbal refusals of services without a written explanation. How is that possible? It’s unacceptable.” 

One immigrant, who made aliyah from Moscow in 2019, said that Bank Hapoalim refused to accept money transferred from his bank in Russia – Sberbank – even before sanctions were imposed on the bank. 

This person – who asked to be anonymous so as not to interfere with his financial situation – agreed with Tupolev that at least the banks are “partially discriminating” against immigrants from the FSU, who often struggle to understand Hebrew or know the right people to talk to. 

In response, Bank Hapoalim told the Post that the bank “acted in accordance with the provisions of the law and regulations.” However, “in light of the customer’s recurring request and the fact that the funds have not yet been returned to him,” the bank promised to use its best efforts to assist him. 

YET, Tupolev said that this issue is broader than case-by-case. She has lobbied the Knesset to do something for months, and the only thing that has been done since then, she said, was that the Bank of Israel issued non-binding guidance to banks to not discriminate against immigrants. She added that the Association of Israeli Banks then issued a list of recommended documents that immigrants from the FSU could bring to open an account. 

Earlier this month, there was more movement on the issue. During the Knesset’s Immigration and Integration Committee Session meeting, MK Ron Katz (Yesh Atid) voiced his support for fines for discriminatory banks, and promised to hold a hearing on the topic in the Subcommittee on Banks, of which he is the Chairman. 

Tupolev said she is thankful for Katz’s support, and emphasized her appreciation for MK Oded Forer (Yisrael Beytenu). 

“I am grateful to MK Forer for reinforcing his commitment to the economic inclusion of Olim, and for holding the Israeli banks to account to end discrimination against people based on their country of origin,” she said. 

Despite the difficulties, multiple olim said they were grateful to have a new start in Israel. Tatyana Glezer, an immigrant who founded a Facebook group called “Pumpkin Lattes” for FSU olim to discuss their difficulties, said that she sees an undeniable gratefulness in the community. 

“Though there are problems, Israel has become our new place, our new home.”•