At the age of three, she crossed the Sudan desert on foot with her Jewish family as they fled the civil war in Ethiopia and found refuge in Israel.
Four decades on, Pnina Tamano-Shata has risen through Israeli politics to become its first ever black minister, and the head of the refugee programme for Jews fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph from her office in Jerusalem, Ms Tamano-Shata said her own experiences as a refugee had left her determined to take in 100,000 Ukrainian Jews by the end of the year.
“It was a hard journey to Israel, we crossed the desert from Ethiopia through Sudan – a very bad situation where people died and we buried families,” the 41-year-old said, who worked as a lawyer before entering politics.
“My goal is 100,000 this year, and 20,000 are actually already here,” she said, referring to the government’s scheme to bring Ukrainian Jews to Israel.
“I believe that 100,000 is a high goal but if I close with 60,000 that will be a big achievement.”
Ukraine has a major Jewish population which was estimated at 400,000 people before the war began, and includes the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
The community is mainly based in major cities such as Dnipro, Kyiv and Odesa but a number of Jewish families have also been trapped by fighting in villages in eastern Ukraine.
“As you know a lot of the refugees that came to Israel were women with children and without husbands as the men are not allowed to leave Ukraine,” Ms Tamano-Shata said.
“We’ve seen the elderly in big amounts. We’ve seen also a lot of Holocaust survivors arriving in Israel without family.”
When the war began in February, Israel faced a wave of criticism for setting a cap on the number of non-Jewish refugees it would take in and demanding a cash deposit of around £2,000 from Ukrainians upon their arrival in Israel.
After a public backlash, both policies were reversed. Ms Tamano-Shata says she wants to convince Ukrainian Jews that Israel is a welcoming country, and has more to offer them than wealthy EU states such as Germany which is also receiving a high number of Jewish refugees.
“Israel was established by the understanding that it is the safe home for the Jewish nation,” she said.
“It’s one of the most important pillars of our nation, to understand that each and every Jew that wants to come, Israel will do that in the bad times and the good times.
“I can assure you, we’re a safe country – yes we have a security challenge, we struggle against terror and it’s not easy. And still, to be in Israel, you walk outside at night, people feel safe. And it’s a warm society. If you need help, just speak to people in the street, people love to help.
“You can still see that new immigrants that come here, the first thing they say [as grounds for coming] is Zionism and the second is they feel accepted in a family.”
As the war grinds on, Israel is trying to strike a careful balance between supporting Ukraine and maintaining its extremely delicate relationship with Russia.
The Jewish state is home to around a million Russian Jews, and it coordinates with Moscow when carrying out attacks on pro-Iranian forces in neighbouring Syria.
Relations hit a crisis point in April when Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, claimed that Hitler had “Jewish blood” and suggested Jews were to blame for the Holocaust. Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly secured a rare apology from Putin over the remarks.
Ms Tamano-Shata said the remarks showed how Russia was weaponising anti-Semitism, and called on Moscow to abandon the war.
“I hope Putin will come back to the negotiating table. Using anti-Semtism as a weapon or as a way of pressuring Israel … it is shameful and not acceptable. Hopefully Putin and Russia will decide to retreat, and finish the war and come back to normality eventually,” she said.
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