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Nataliya and Masha: Helping Ukraine, the Country They Once Fled

By April 1, 2022August 4th, 2022Atlanta Jewish Community, CARING

Nataliya Fleshler and Masha Vaynman both came to America from Kyiv (the Russian name is Kiev) as young girls — part of the wave of Russian Jewish refugees who were resettled in America in the 1990’s.

Nataliya was 9-and-a-half when her family arrived in Atlanta. She went to Garden Hills Elementary School and studied Management and HR at Georgia State. Today she works in HR at VMware, a cloud computing company, and is the mother of two little girls. She was recently chosen to participate in Leadership Sandy Springs.

Masha’s family originally settled in St. Louis, and she later came to Atlanta. In college she studied art history, psychology, and business administration. “Eventually I became a corporate recruiter. After having my second daughter, I spent two wonderful years with PJ Library Atlanta as a Russian speaking connector. Now I do HR work full time for a local startup.”

Living safe, comfortable lives in Atlanta, both Masha and Nataliya are horrified by Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine and the refugee crisis that has ensued. As Jewish women who also identify with the broader Russian speaking community in Atlanta, they admit it’s complicated. Masha is married to a Russian with lots of family members in Russia. “His peers and friends understand the truth about the war in Ukraine. But family not so much. It can be divisive, but I would say most of the local Russian community has stepped up to help Ukraine.”

The irony of prioritizing humanitarian support for the country they fled is not lost on Nataliya and Masha, but both women are committed to taking action in a big way.

“I mostly have sweet childhood memories of Kyiv,” Masha says, “but my family came to the United States as refugees because we were persecuted in Ukraine as Jews. Our papers and passports were stamped Jewish. Even though we were not religious, there were strange little signs. My grandparents spoke Yiddish. And once a year we had matzah, but it was kept hidden in a closet. It wasn’t until years later after attending Jewish day school in St. Louis, that I realized my father came from a religious family and knew all about Judaism. It just didn’t come up much at home.”

“Having a Jewish last name made us second-class citizens. I was picked on. Had we stayed there it would have been hard to get into college or have the career of my choice. We left Kyiv in the dark of night without telling our neighbors. But now the Ukrainians need us, and I am committed to helping. There is a lot of complexity about putting in so much effort to help the country we ran away from because we could not build a life there. For me it is a matter of humanity, and of not repeating history. We must be better, and it feels good to be able to help.”

For Nataliya, Ukraine relief has practically become a second career. She has launched a program to send medical supplies to Ukraine, in partnership with VMware and Leadership SS. “There are huge medical needs in Ukraine – drugs to perform surgeries, surgical supplies and daily medicines to treat refugees. This past month has made me self-reflect on the abundance in my life. I want to prioritize my energy and talents to help those in need. Normally we’d get our families together for Passover, but now my time is going to logistics work, getting supplies from Poland to Ukraine. My own family has understood that this is my way of coping, through giving.

Masha adds, “Today Jews in Ukraine are having a much better life, with more possibilities, and even a Jewish president! But there’s still racism and prejudice there for Jews and for people of color. With Passover coming it is impossible to not see this as a modern Exodus for Ukrainian Jews who now able to leave for Israel.  It also makes me think about how Jews risked so much to celebrate Jewish holidays in the Nazi era.  This will be a profound Passover for all of us.”

How You Can Help Send Medical Supplies to Ukraine:

For the month of April, Congregation Beth Shalom will be holding a Ukrainian Medical Supply Drive. In partnership with Project CURE and MedShare, these items will be delivered to hospitals in Ukraine. The drive will focus on medical supplies currently in shortage, as well as personal hygiene items. If you would like to contribute, please select the items created on our Amazon wish list to be sent directly to Beth Shalom. Please be sure to select Anna Shakhnovsky on the registry address so the items can be delivered directly to the synagogue.

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