Emma Igual, the brave young Jewish woman risking her life daily in Ukraine

For more than a year Emma, 32, has been engaged in the most dangerous work possible on the Ukrainian war front:


It was a rare moving moment in an otherwise desolate war zone.

Emma Igual, a young Jewish woman who co-founded the Road to Relief NGO soon after the war in Ukraine began last year, had driven into Severodonetsk, in the east of the country.

She was trying to help people evacuate from a burning building.

“Suddenly a man ran towards me and handed me a beautiful little bouquet of a few flowers — I suppose his way of saying thank you,” Emma recalls.

For more than a year Emma, 32, has been engaged in the most dangerous work possible on the Ukrainian war front: evacuating injured civilians and soldiers.

“Aid-worker colleagues and good friends have been killed, like my British colleague Chris Parry in January,” she remarks.

Parry, 28, and another aid worker died when a missile hit them at a checkpoint near Bakhmut. “But so far, I have been extremely lucky — not even a scratch,” Emma tells the JC.

She believes she is being “watched over” and “protected from above” by her Jewish grandmother, who escaped the Holocaust in Austria as a teenager, losing her whole family in concentration camps, and was adopted by a family in Spain.

Emma and her mother grew up in Barcelona without much contact with Jews.

What happened to her grandmother, and the deaths of her murdered twin great-uncles, great-aunt and their parents have, she says, provided a major motivation in devoting her life to war-zone rescue missions.

“I grew up with that background, feeling what it must have been like to be a refugee, or to be an orphan, so I felt determined to help people in a similar situation to her,” Emma tells the JC.

Her grandmother died from Covid in Spain two years ago, not long before the Russians invaded Ukraine. She was in her late nineties.

By then, after a degree at University of California in Berkeley and a Red Cross academic course, Emma had become involved in humanitarian aid projects, often with a focus on children, in Greece, Myanmar, Morocco and Kenya.

Soon after the war in Ukraine erupted last year, she and a Frenchman, Henri Camenen, co-founded Road to Relief and registered it in France and Ukraine.

“I felt I needed to put all the experiences I had already had to good use, and to apply my humanitarian and Jewish ethos. And also, as a European, I saw that if Ukraine falls, we all fall.

“When I first arrived I was extremely shocked at the brutality I saw in this conflict. It was like something out of World War One. Soldiers here even get trench-foot and the barbarity we see is also terribly upsetting.

“We started by rescuing civilians who had fled from Mariupol. Then we shifted our attention to rescuing people after Russian missiles killed and wounded hundreds of train passengers at Kramatorsk station.

“I’m proud to say we’ve never left anyone behind. Sometimes we have to go back again and again to a sick or injured person until we assess that the risk of driving to safety is itself not more dangerous for the patient or for us than staying put.”

Road to Relief has rescued thousands of people, and saved hundreds of lives. Emma describes one of her team’s successes. Her colleague had to use all his strength to pull a Ukrainian soldier out of a tank after he had, apparently, stopped breathing.

He had been hit while in the trenches around Bakhmut, where the war’s fiercest battles have been fought.

“The tank driver had a broken arm, and the other soldiers inside the tank were too sick to pull the worst-injured soldier out. My colleague heaved him out from the turret. We intubated him, and got him breathing again, then rushed him to a field hospital.

“He seemed to have died, but he survived. That’s the sort of thing that makes it all worthwhile.”

Not all the work involves actual rescue. Road to Relief has also set up field hospitals and begun using telemedicine, where doctors worldwide can see patients remotely and diagnose or give instructions for treatment or surgery.

Emma says about a quarter of the people working with her from abroad are Jewish volunteers. One comes from Israel.

She also has an Israeli anaesthesiologist with her as we speak, and says she is getting logistical help from the synagogue in Dnipro. She recalls a remarkable encounter with a Jewish man near the front line.

“I was in a small village, Sviato-Pokrovsky, with maybe 200 people before the war, but now only 20 or 30 are still there. When I delivered aid as snow fell last February, a man called Anatoly Adelman told me: ‘I’m Jewish.’ I said: ‘Me too!’

“He said I was the first Jewish person he had met since 1975. He went inside and donned a white kippah. Astonishingly, he also emerged with an Israeli flag and insisted on giving it to me as a present. He said he had wanted to go to Israel but did not have the documents.

“We had a beautiful conversation, which brought him a great deal of happiness. And we had a very beautiful dinner together.”

As she runs a humanitarian operation, Emma stresses that her team has been willing to treat pro-Russian collaborators in recaptured areas with the same degree of support as Ukrainians — though once they are safe or medicated “we are obliged to hand them over to the authorities who consider them to be prisoners of war”.

Emma’s base of operations is in the embattled east Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, where in 1941 more than a 1,000 Jews were driven to a quarry in buses and shot by the occupying Nazis — a pattern followed in many Ukrainian locations.

Road to Relief’s headquarters had been in the nearby city of Kramatorsk, the target of last week’s missile attack that smashed into one of its few working cafés, the Mia Bar, killing at least 11 people.

She and her fellow-aid workers had often frequented the café, which serves excellent pizzas. When disaster strikes those close to her, Emma says it makes her all the more determined to carry on, “to honour them”.

She sent the JC a remarkable dashboard camera video of her and Henri driving through a war zone. In between wide-eyed moments of fear as rockets or shells explode nearby, Emma whips out a tube of red lipstick, which she carefully applies.

She says she works 20 hours a day, every day, and never takes a break — though she says she will know when it’s time to do so. That will be, she says, when she stops feeling fear.

“The moment you stop being afraid is the day you must go home. Otherwise you will make the wrong call. It means you are now a danger to yourself and also you will start making wrong decisions for those you are trying to rescue,” she explains.

“My work is my first, second and third priority. My personal relationships have to fit in to what drives me in life — or else it’s not right.

"I have a group of old friends, close to my heart, who all know and understand that my work is such a fundamental part of who I am, so there’s no need for me to be checking on them every day and we talk when we can.”

Road to Relief relies on donations, which don’t always match the NGO’s urgent needs.“So we have had to deplete our own personal savings many times over.”

It’s a price she feels is worth paying. “Maybe,” she says, “my Jewish grandmother would have felt the same.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive