DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — They came with four suitcases on a winding itinerary that took them from their native Odesa, through Moldova, Romania, France, New York and, finally, to North Carolina.
Since their arrival, the young Ukrainian couple has found work, a car, furniture and housewares — largely through the help of American Jews in the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill areas.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins Tuesday (Oct. 4), many in the Jewish community here expressed a renewed resolve to help the couple — Vladislav Bedereu and Elizabeth (Liza) Orel — rooted in the Jewish value of caring for the stranger, including refugees.
In July, Bedereu, 33, a ballet dancer and opera singer, and Orel, 23, a theater actress, gave up their lives and livelihoods in Odesa.
They landed in New York but came to North Carolina four days later because Bedereu’s friend and former colleague teaches ballroom dancing at a Fred Astaire studio nearby. They are renting a bedroom from an exiled Russian family living in Chapel Hill.
But it is the Jewish community they have come to rely on most.
“They gave us an atmosphere like at home,” said Orel, reflecting on the efforts of the North Carolina Jews to help them. “It is very important for us because, of course, we miss our home.”
This past year, American Jews, like people of other faiths, watched with horror as Russia invaded Ukraine and attempted to annex some of its eastern front. Tens of thousands have died and as many as 7 million have sought refuge — mostly in neighboring countries.
For American Jews, Ukraine is not just any country. It’s the place from which many Ashkenazi Jews can trace their family’s own journeys to America.
Many grew up hearing that America did not do enough to save European Jews during World War II. Extending a hand to Ukrainian refugees is an opportunity to do better.
“Not a whole lot separates us,” said Adam Goldstein, a family physician who lives in Chapel Hill and has helped the couple — letting them borrow a car and connecting them to medical and other service providers. “I just feel we need to do anything and everything we can, knowing how difficult it was for them.”
Goldstein invited the couple to attend Yom Kippur services alongside his family at Beth El Synagogue in Durham. He connected them with Jewish for Good, the Jewish federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, which is arranging a car donation and has provided other supplies.
The couple said they cried when they saw all the boxes.
Orel and Bedereu each have a Jewish grandparent. Growing up, Orel attended a Jewish school. Later she planned movies and other events at a Jewish cultural center. Bedereu, like many Ukrainians emerging from years of religious repression in the old Soviet bloc, is less versed in Judaism.
The couple said they appreciate the Jewish traditions — lighting Shabbat candles, celebrating the holidays — even if they are not religiously observant.
For now, they are happy to work preparing kosher meals on a food truck owned by Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish group on the Duke University campus. They dream, eventually, of finding work in their own professions.
The COVID pandemic and then the war made the couple’s professional careers impossible. Even as cultural events began reopening, the Russian invasion led Ukraine’s government to scrub cultural performances of Russian classics such as The Nutcracker by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Even the Russian language, spoken by most of the people in Odesa, is now frowned on as Ukraine seeks to uplift its own distinct cultural heritage.
For Bedereu and Orel, who were educated and trained in the tight-knit world of Russian and Ukrainian ballet and theater, it has been a twofold blow.
Bedereu, who once toured with the “Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker,” (now renamed “NUTCRACKER! Magic of Christmas Ballet”), said the idea of moving to the United States first arose on one of his international tours with the company.
Then, he suffered a back injury that prevented him from dancing. Ukrainian men of military age cannot leave the country. But Bedereu’s injury allowed him to avoid conscription. He found various jobs at an opera company and later coaching rhythmic gymnastics. He is hoping to find similar work here, too.
Orel has been without work for some time.
“I’ve been utterly amazed at their positive attitude,” said Zalmy Dubinsky, a Chabad rabbi who runs a center for young Jewish professionals in Raleigh and has hosted the couple for Shabbat dinners. “They lost everything. Liza couldn’t even access her master’s degree diploma. Just seeing them adapt and connect socially and have an incredibly optimistic and positive attitude toward their circumstances is really amazing.”
The couple came to the U.S. as part of a private sponsorship program set up by the Biden administration called Uniting for Ukraine. To date, more than 50,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the U.S. through the initiative, which entitles them to stay as humanitarian parolees for up to two years. (Another 20,000 Ukrainians came in along the U.S. Mexico border.) Bedereu and Orel are allowed work and receive benefits, such as food stamps. But they are not afforded a path to citizenship.
“It’s a beautiful opportunity,” said Orel. “We hope that after two years we can stay here.”
For the Jewish community of the Triangle region, the influx of refugees is also an imperative to step up.
We want to do everything we can, knowing how difficult it was for them,” said Goldstein. “Hopefully, they can feel like this is a community that they can grow and prosper and contribute to.”