Helping Ukrainian Refugees Start Over
Rima was studying computer programming in college. She was the top student in her class.
Then the Russians invaded.
She left her home and unfinished degree in Ukraine and fled to Israel with her family. She’s one of the 6.2 million Ukrainians who, 18 months later, have yet to return.
“No one knows when there’s an end in sight, but these women and children are struggling every day for their survival,” says Melanie Kelfer, founder and president of Operation Mordechai, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports Ukrainian refugees as they rebuild their lives from scratch.
Most Ukrainian women left Ukraine with “the clothes on their back [and] with their children,” Kelfer says. Some had enough time to pack a suitcase or throw a teddy bear into a backpack; the fortunate ones brought all their legal documents—but that was all they had. Kelfer launched Operation Mordechai shortly after the invasion to supply them with the things they didn’t have—hygiene items, strollers, cribs, furniture, and appliances.
“When we hear about refugees living in apartments, we don’t realize that these apartments oftentimes don’t have refrigerators. They don’t have an oven; they don’t have a bed or a mattress to sleep on,” Kelfer says. “We became very familiar with what their real needs were.”
The organization has since expanded its focus to help refugee women and children continue their education by providing laptops, school supplies and funding for higher education. With their husbands away on the front lines, Ukrainian women have been tasked with supporting their families on only one income. Through Operation Mordechai, some of these women have had the opportunity to go back to school to develop skills such as marketing or social media management that will help them earn higher-paying jobs.
A grant from Brother’s Brother Foundation will support Operation Mordechai’s work and help more Ukrainian women pursue higher education.
Kelfer wants BBF donors to know “how critical their support is.”
“Everything your organization does is just tremendous. There are no words to describe what your organization does to help tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands around the world. I’m so grateful to have met with people in your organization and to be affiliated in this way,” she says.
It’s been 113 years since Kelfer’s Grandfather, Mordechai, fled Kiev with his father to escape antisemitism. Mordechai died two years before Kelfer was born; she was named after him.
“If it wasn’t for the kindness and generosity of complete strangers, he never would have made it to America,” Kelfer says.
When the Russians invaded in 2022, she started Operation Mordechai in her grandfather’s honor.
“This does feel very personal to me, like history is repeating itself,” she says.
In Operation’s Mordechai’s early days, Kelfer took a trip to Israel so she could understand the needs of the nearly 30,000 Ukrainians who came to the country seeking refuge. A Ukrainian rabbi took her from family to family for two weeks so she could see how they lived.
It was on this trip that Kelfer met Operation Mordechai’s first “Ambassador,” the name she uses to refer to the Ukrainian refugees who connect her with other refugees in need. To date, Operation Mordechai Ambassadors have helped Kelfer deliver direct person-to-person aid to 594 families across 25 countries.
After arriving in Israel, Rima desperately wanted to continue her education. She passed the college entrance exams and took an hour-and-a-half commute to university each way.
Operation Mordechai is helping her pay for her enrollment, dormitory and laptop.
“I’ve been…keeping her in the right direction so that one day, this girl is going to support her family and be a future leader of Ukraine,” Kelfer says.
But the help is also doing more than that.
There’s a video of Rima posted on Operation Mordechai’s website.
“It’s a great feeling to understand that there are people who we can ask for help,” she says. “It really helps us not to feel so lonely in an unknown country, because it was really hard to leave our home, to leave everything we had and run into the unknown.”