For Ukraine’s Jews, $50 can stave off starvation
search

For Ukraine’s Jews, $50 can stave off starvation

With no pensions or salaries, the growing displaced Jewish population is increasingly reliant upon international donations

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Recent widow Anna Kushnir, 76, from Slavyansk said she is not ready to leave her husband and will stay in Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)
    Recent widow Anna Kushnir, 76, from Slavyansk said she is not ready to leave her husband and will stay in Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)
  • For 83-year-old Elena Lerner from Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, immigration to Israel is not a thought she entertains. (courtesy JDC)
    For 83-year-old Elena Lerner from Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, immigration to Israel is not a thought she entertains. (courtesy JDC)
  • Director of the Kramatorsk JDC Hesed center Galina Davidavna, 78. (courtesy JDC)
    Director of the Kramatorsk JDC Hesed center Galina Davidavna, 78. (courtesy JDC)
  • In Artemovsk, homebound pensioner Leonid Annov, 67, lives with his wife and grandson in an uninsulated apartment in eastern Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)
    In Artemovsk, homebound pensioner Leonid Annov, 67, lives with his wife and grandson in an uninsulated apartment in eastern Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)
  • Olga Tulchinsky-Stasenko, 56, became an IDP in August 2014 and now lives in Kharkov with the support of the JDC. (courtesy JDC)
    Olga Tulchinsky-Stasenko, 56, became an IDP in August 2014 and now lives in Kharkov with the support of the JDC. (courtesy JDC)
  • Head of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies Barry Shrage (far right) with a family of Internally Displaced Persons in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine during a March trip there. (Courtesy CJP)
    Head of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies Barry Shrage (far right) with a family of Internally Displaced Persons in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine during a March trip there. (Courtesy CJP)

Fifty dollars. While in many parts of the world consumers regularly plunk down the sum on a nice pair of jeans, in Ukraine it can mean a month’s worth of food staples, said Jerusalem-based head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Ukraine desk Oksana Galkevich.

This reality is a far cry from the headily optimistic days of February 2014 when Ukraine’s progressive Euromaidan Revolution forced a changeover in government from a corrupt pro-Russian head of state to a Ukrainian nationalist. But war came quickly: The Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia in March 2014 and by April, 40,000 pro-Russian separatist forces entered the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, areas of Ukraine bordering Russia.

Though there are tenuous cease fire agreements — most recently in February — civil unrest continues on the eastern border where 6,000 have been killed and, as of March 2015, some 1,168,600 are displaced in this year of rebel fighting.

Those with means have fled the conflict zones. The elderly, sick, and impoverished remain, however, in regions where banks no longer function and pensions are halted. Today, many who still have jobs, work them without pay, just to keep their positions.

The country’s Jewish community is no exception.

Working in tandem with international donors and volunteer organizations, before the conflict, the JDC served some 7,500 of the combined conflict regions 22,000 Jews through its local Hesed social welfare centers. The JDC maintains 32 Heseds nationally which in peacetimes serves some 70,000 Jews in 1,000 locations. With the worsening situation over the past year, 2,700 clients were added to JDC’s aid rolls.

Many of the Hesed newcomers were, until the conflict, working middle-class families

Many of the Hesed newcomers were, until the conflict, working middle-class families. Now, with a falling currency and rampant unemployment, they cannot keep up with the rapid rise on prices for basic goods and utilities — especially gas for heating — and have sought help.

Additionally, the welfare organization is also almost entirely supporting some 2,500 Jewish internally displaced people (IDPs).

As of March 20, 2015, in the entire Ukrainian IDP population, 12.7 percent are children, 4.1% are people with disabilities and 60.3% receive some type of pension, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a humanitarian NGO that is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

Some on the eastern border initially welcomed the pro-Russian “rebels.” Later, regardless of their political views, most of the Jewish IDPs supported by the JDC fled the war zone this summer to western Ukraine, often with small suitcases and the clothes on their backs.

Olga Tulchinsky-Stasenko, 56, became an IDP in August 2014 and now lives in Kharkov with the support of the JDC. (courtesy JDC)
Olga Tulchinsky-Stasenko, 56, became an IDP in August 2014 and now lives in Kharkov with the support of the JDC. (courtesy JDC)

“When there is war, there is war; when your home is ruined and you don’t know who shot the missile who shot and killed your relatives, you start to hate everyone. You become afraid to leave the property, afraid it will be taken. You don’t have anywhere to go — no relatives or friends. You’re hoping everything will be ok… It’s not so easy to uproot and leave,” said Galkevich.

‘When there is war, there is war; when your home is ruined and you don’t know who shot the missile who shot and killed your relatives, you start to hate everyone’

At the height of the armed conflict and uncertainty, Olga Tulchinsky-Stasenko, 56, became an IDP in August 2014 and now lives in Kharkov with the support of the JDC. The distributor of handmade boots is waiting for a return to normalcy in Lugansk before going home.

Asked what she’ll do if “normal” is far off, Tulchinsky-Stasenko said, “I’ll move to Israel to be with my children.”

While some 5,840 Ukrainians made aliyah to Israel in 2014, and some of the 2,500 IDPs are reportedly still considering it, for many more Ukrainian Jews emigration is not a realistic option.

Restarting life in a new country is not an easy endeavor, especially not for the elderly or poor, said director of JDC field operations in eastern Ukraine Yoni Leifer in a choppy cell phone conversation from Dnepropetrovsk.

“We are a good partner for the Jewish Agency [the semi-governmental body tasked with immigration to Israel]. Everyone who wants to make aliyah did, and some others are still thinking about it,” said Leifer.

For 83-year-old Elena Lerner from Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, immigration to Israel is not a thought she entertains. (courtesy JDC)
For 83-year-old Elena Lerner from Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, immigration to Israel is not a thought she entertains. (courtesy JDC)

“It sounds funny, or maybe sad, but those who stay want to take care of their apartments. There are lots of life stories there,” said Leifer. However if there are relatives in Israel already or if the younger generation wants to move there, some JDC clients may follow, he said.

This is the case for 63-year-old kindergarten manager Nadezhda Vsevolodovna from Slavyansk in Donetsk province. “If the war reaches us again, I’ll go to Israel — only because my daughter wants to make aliyah.”

But for 83-year-old Elena Lerner from Kramatorsk, also in eastern Ukraine, immigration to Israel is not a thought she entertains.

“I will 100% stay here. There is no way I would leave, I will not even go into the basement to hide. Due to my age, health, and the fact that the JDC is here I’m assured I’ll be taken cared of and therefore I am staying put,” the former engineer who has been supported by the JDC since 1998 told a Hesed fieldworker.

Recent widow Anna Kushnir, 76, from Slavyansk said she is not ready to leave her husband and will stay in Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)
Recent widow Anna Kushnir, 76, from Slavyansk said she is not ready to leave her husband and will stay in Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)

Recent widow Anna Kushnir, 76, from Slavyansk said she is not ready to leave her husband. The retired director of the Slavyansk cultural and folklore center said because he is buried there, she will stay.

“He’s the only person in my world. He was buried three months ago and I can’t leave him alone because then who will he have to speak to? It doesn’t matter what happens next, I’m not leaving here under any circumstances,” said Kushnir.

Boston Jews help their Ukrainian sister city

The JDC partners with several organizations to fund and carry out its welfare work, including Chabad, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.

Some US cities already have a partnership program with sister cities in Ukraine, such as Boston’s Dnepropetrovsk Kehillah Project (DKP), a program of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston that was launched in 1992.

The Boston program began as part of a national effort by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry to link American Jewish communities with Former Soviet Union Jewish communities, and is supported by the city’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).

CJP head Barry Shrage, who is part of the DKP project since its start, visited Dnepropetrovsk this month. In a conversation this week with The Times of Israel he said over the years he has seen “an amazing rebirth” in the Jewish community there, with “Jews coming out from the woodwork.” He described it as a “thriving,” “growing,” and “inspiring” community in the best of times.

‘The economy of the community is under siege’

Today, however, in addition to the some 500 IDPs the community is helping support, “the economy of the community is under siege,” he said, and people are “worried where the money is going to come from to take care of their families.”

CJP has recently donated $180,000 to the JDC, and added another $20,000 to go towards Dnepropetrovsk directly.

“We’re keeping up with JDC requests, and trying to add extra resources for our kehilla project,” said Shrage. “We owe it to them to stand with them now as well.”

The JDC raised an additional $4 million in 2014 for its emergency Ukraine operations. In practice, it needs $380,000 a month to maintain its aid at a standard in which the organization can distribute $30-50 monthly prepaid grocery cards to impoverished individuals, more to families, and stave off starvation, said the JDC’s Galkevich.

In Artemovsk, homebound pensioner Leonid Annov, 67, lives with his wife and grandson in an uninsulated apartment in eastern Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)
In Artemovsk, homebound pensioner Leonid Annov, 67, lives with his wife and grandson in an uninsulated apartment in eastern Ukraine. (courtesy JDC)

The grocery cards, essentially the minimum subsistence level for foodstuffs in Ukraine, cover the halted circa $30-50 pensions (depending on inflation). According to Galkevich, the basic Ukrainian diet usually consists of milk, eggs, bread, kasha, oil, flour, tea, and “in peaceful times, chicken, but not beef.”

To compare, a dozen eggs there today costs about $1, a loaf of bread is about 30 cents, a liter of milk is 50 cents and buckwheat is $1 a kilogram — “very expensive,” said Galkevich.

The JDC’s food, medicine, and winter supplies could well be the difference between life and death. In Artemovsk, for example, homebound disabled pensioner Leonid Annov, 67, lives with his wife and grandson in an uninsulated apartment in eastern Ukraine. All three are reliant on the JDC.

There have been cases of deaths by starvation in the conflict zones, but, said Galkevich, “Not among our clients.”

“Even in the hardest times, we’re always able to provide the basic minimum. It may be very modest, but people are not hungry,” said Galkevich.

Director of the Kramatorsk JDC Hesed center Galina Davidavna, 78. (courtesy JDC)
Director of the Kramatorsk JDC Hesed center Galina Davidavna, 78. (courtesy JDC)

During a call from Ukraine, Leifer said the JDC clients who depend on the organization for food, medicine and “many other things,” have been supported, in person, by staff even during the heaviest fighting.

“It is like a miracle, believe me,” he said. He emphasized the total dedication of his staff — many of whom are volunteers.

Galina Davidavna, 78, from Kramatorsk, embodies this commitment. She said that as the director of the JDC Hesed center there, she will remain to support her clients.

“For all of my clients, I’m their Jewish mother and they call me ‘Mama.’ They need me and I need them. I love my country and will not leave,” Davidavna said.

read more:
less
comments
more