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Sophia Tupolev-Luz
Founded The Reboot, welcoming displaced professionals to Israeli Tech

100 days, 72,533 newcomers. Are we failing them?

Ukrainian Olim in an absorption hotel with a Reboot volunteer.
Ukrainian Olim in an absorption hotel with a Reboot volunteer.

You go to sleep at night and wake up to war. So you run for your life, hoping that you make it over the border. This is the story of the war in Ukraine, it’s the story of many of the 72,533 people who arrived in Israel in the last 100 days, from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. And it’s a story that every Jewishly-connected person has imprinted in their genetic memory. 

Leonid Barats, a refugee Oleh who escaped the war in Ukraine. Photo credit: Leonid Barats

The grim milestone of 100 days of the war in Ukraine has come and gone. Over 5 million Ukrainian refugees were displaced abroad, and hundreds of thousands of people fled Russia and Belarus too, fearing political oppression and economic crisis. While millions ended up in Europe and North America, a minority of those that were displaced landed in Israel.  What we have done as a society to welcome  displaced people and what will become of them? 

For Israel, the displaced wave of migration from the Post-Soviet space has proven to be an immense challenge. In the last hundred days, 72,533 people arrived in Israel, displaced – each forced to restart their lives unexpectedly. To make things more complicated, only some of our new arrivals have the right to work. There are four main situations that people are in, and their challenges are distinct: 

  1. The Ukrainians referred to as ‘refugees;’
  2. The new immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus (‘Olim’);
  3. The visitors from the FSU eligible for immigration;
  4. The dual citizens from the FSU who returned to Israel in a hurry. 

We’ve failed our Ukrainian ‘refugees’

In the last 100 days, 20,785 Ukrainians arrived in Israel without eligibility for immigration and got tourist visas for three months, without refugee status. Currently, this group has received an extension of their tourist visas until June 30th, 2022.

Zoya Levitin Pushnikov, the Ukraine Response Coordinator at HIAS, told me,

Getting refugee status in Israel is nearly impossible, but providing ‘tourist’ status to those who seek asylum in Israel creates many challenges. Although they can work as part of the non-enforcement policy, this is temporary and will need renewal and re-approval each time. So they are driven to work in temporary jobs, mainly manual jobs, since hiring an employee for a period of a month doesn’t pay off. Ukrainian asylum seekers are left with very little resources to overcome the horrors of the war and build an actual future with the stability and protection they need.

Without the longer-term right to work, this large group of Ukrainians will not be able to re-start their careers in their own professions, and they can’t live in Israel with dignity. We’ve failed them. 

We haven’t completely failed our repatriated immigrants (“Olim”)

11,480 people in Israel from the Former Soviet Union have completed the grueling immigration process for the FSU and managed to become full-fledged Israeli citizens. Our new immigrants have access to healthcare and social benefits, and importantly, the right to work. But their challenges don’t stop the minute they receive their national identity card. It’s an uphill battle to learn Hebrew and get through the bureaucracy. 

Former Knesset member Dov Lipman, Founder and CEO of Yad L’Olim, told me,

It is remarkable how Israel flies the Olim and prospective Olim here and gives them time in a hotel. But there are many holes in the process and the Olim call upon Yad L’Olim’s Ukrainian-speaking staff to help them with every aspect of their Aliyah – from food, clothing and other basic necessities like finding a home and securing employment.

When it came to restarting the careers of displaced professionals affected by the war, the first responders were the non-profit initiatives, many launched by volunteers. Grassroots initiatives were launched by volunteers, like Milla Orlovsky’s mentorship program and a job posting website for Ukrainians, by Gali Meiri and Ayelet Carasso. 

In the first week of the war, I co-founded a grassroots movement to welcome all displaced professionals to Israel through employment in sectors like high-tech and creative industries. Our group of volunteers called ourselves The Reboot Startup Nation Community and 250 companies quickly signed up to hire newcomers to Israel affected by the war. 

When we launched, we were flooded with thousands of resumes from displaced professionals who are struggling to find work in Israel, despite being highly skilled. To solve this problem, we also partnered with people from the government, municipalities, and legacy non-profit organizations. Today, 7% of our community has found employment in high tech, but most are still interviewing and applying. 

Two of my co-founders, Daniil Chernov and Katerina Greenstein came through the Nevo Network, a fellowship program and community aimed at elevating Israeli immigrants through the technology sector.

Abbey Onn, the CEO of Nevo Network, told me,

“Even for the elite, with top educations, credentials, and tech skills, finding a job in tech is incredibly challenging. In a recent survey we ran, we learned that the biggest challenges facing new immigrants are finding a job and building a network.

Abbey Onn, the CEO of Nevo Network. Photo credit; Abbey Onn

To respond to the war, Israeli technology training programs like IT Works, Israel Tech ChallengeThriveDX, Masterschool, and she.codes, launched targeted programs to train refugees and immigrants in bootcamps that will set them up for success in the Israeli or global tech sector. These programs are tailored to specific tech topics that range from soft skills such as sales development representatives (SDR) and customer service to highly technical programs that will launch careers in software development, data, and cyber security. All the programs offer mentorship and job seeker guidance – and some go as far as offering babysitting, tuition subsidies or full scholarships, English lessons, and a variety of other services to uplift this population. In parallel, established programs like Gvahim addressed Russian speakers, and MasaTech by Masa Israel Journey continues to relocate technology professionals from the Post-Soviet space.

Potential Olim: to stay or to go?

12,600 people from Ukraine and Russia arrived with the right to immigrate, 27,668 Russians came in as tourists without declaring eligibility for immigration, and an unknown number of others used their pre-existing second ‘backup’ Israeli passports. 

The magnitude of this group is under-reported because,

Encouraging immigration is considered a national task for the government. Therefore, the state looks at anyone who claims to be entitled to the Law of Return as an immigrant until proven otherwise. In addition, even among the people who arrived on a tourist visa, the state sees some of them as potential beneficiaries of the Law of Return who will make aliyah.

That’s according to Yair Smolianov, director of immigration (Aliya) at Israel’s Russian-speaking lobbying organization Lobby 1 Million

Leonid Baratz, a Ukrainian refugee who made it to Israel in March 2022 and got Israeli citizenship, told me,

I’m leaving Israel! Although I’m an experienced media professional, I have been offered work as a waiter or cleaner. Since my Aliyah, for the last three months, I’ve received only 3 offers with minimal salaries. But if I don’t have experience in Israel – they treat me like I didn’t have experience at all.

What happens next:

As the war rages on, people across the Post-Soviet space continue to pack their bags and look abroad to resettle. We need to make sure that those seeking a safe haven in Israel won’t fall through the cracks, or be forced to return to their home countries, where they’ll again face violence and oppression. If they’re still considering moving to Israel, they’ll look at the way we have treated our 72,533 new neighbors, for better and for worse. 

As a nation founded by displaced refugees and immigrants, we are all accountable for our newcomers. Make your voice heard. Contact me to join the movement. What happens to our newcomers, and those still on their way, is a national issue that will affect Israel for generations to come.

About the Author
Sophia Tupolev-Luz is the founder of The Reboot Startup Nation, a non-profit, grassroots initiative rallying Israel's tech sector to welcome displaced professionals affected by the war in Ukraine.
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