International news media reports that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have reached a ceasefire agreement were greeted by skepticism by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Ukraine department. Its staff in Ukraine has been on emergency footing for months in attempting to ameliorate the dire situation of its clients in conflict-stricken eastern Ukraine.
“I can’t believe it right now, though I would love to believe it — it means my family will be safe too because my family is right there,” says Oksana Galkevich, head of the JDC’s Ukraine desk.
Since the start of the armed fighting in eastern Ukraine in April, nearly 2,600 people have been killed and over 340,000 forced to flee their homes, according to the UN. Countless thousands of Jews are among those who left the war-torn region, including some 2,000 welfare clients of the JDC. But another 3,100 clients — elderly, disabled, disadvantaged children — have remained in what’s left of their homes and suffered for weeks without water or electricity.
Eastern Ukraine once held 27,000 Jews, according to Jewish community estimates. Today in Donetsk and Lugansk, which have both declared themselves independent republics, there are some 1,600 welfare clients in constant need of life-sustaining aid such as extra food, water, and medications. Astoundingly, workers from JDC affiliates called Heseds continue to provide for them and the 1,500 others in the periphery.
The JDC has helped Jews in extreme crisis situations for the past 100 years. It is known for its quick fundraising abilities, as well as parachuting in aid through cooperative efforts with locals and other welfare organizations. Among its prominent financial supporters are Jewish Federations of North America, the Claims Conference, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the UK-based World Jewish Relief.
But the challenges faced in eastern Ukraine today, a logistical nightmare, are also life-threatening. The New York Times reports cities are shelled day and night. Burned out tanks line highways and heavily armed soldiers fight for strategic locations.
On a homecare visit inside one of the bombed-out, besieged cities, a typical Hesed worker rides his bike to a client’s apartment to check in and deliver food necessities and medicine. Once there, he must draw fresh water from the closest water source — often a firehouse pump or a patrolling fire engine. After lugging the buckets and containers back up to the client’s home, he climbs onto the roof in hopes of a faint cellphone signal to report back to his local Hesed branch.
The pharmacy shelves are empty. There is no insulin to be found for an elderly diabetic woman. The call goes out through the chain of Hesed branches and soon the woman receives her essential medication.
The reasons these Jews remain are simple: they fear for their safety; they fear loss of property; they are too physically fragile; or they are holding onto hope of a quick outcome to the crisis.
Though many have immigrated to Israel, some still believe in Ukraine, says Galkevich. “These are Jews, but Ukrainian Jews. They live there and have built the country.”
For others there is a sense of disbelief that the situation has deteriorated so severely. “Nobody believed until recently that Russia would in fact send its troops. Everybody was helping the Ukrainian army, waiting for it to liberate them. A real war with real Russia is much more scary,” says Galkevich.
In the port of Mariupol, Chabad Rabbi Mendel Cohen agrees that there is a new state of fear among his community. Since the pro-Russian troops have closed in on the city, he has noted psychological changes among his congregation.
The strategic coastal city would provide a land bridge for Russia to the annexed Crimea peninsula.
“Everybody is sure in the next hours or days or weeks, fighting will start. The Ukrainian army is all over the place, in and out of the city,” says Cohen on a recent trip to Israel.
He said while most of his community is still there, others are increasingly packing for other parts of Ukraine and abroad. It’s Israel for the youth, and Germany or other parts of Europe for older Jews, says Cohen.
“Where the war has started, only old people stay,” says Cohen.
‘Where the war has started, only old people stay’
Some 2,000 JDC clients have fled from eastern Ukraine, creating a whole separate set of care challenges. Many are new to the welfare system and as middle-aged professionals are accustomed to drawing salaries and providing for themselves and their families. Numbering some 400, they now rely on the JDC even for toothbrushes and towels, having abandoned everything in their haste to seek safety for their families.
The displaced elderly as well are 100% reliant on the JDC. Any pension they may have drawn back home does not follow them in their flight. The bureaucracy in changing a pension’s address takes months — even without a war.
However, people are starting to return to cities liberated by the Ukrainian army, says Galkevich who visited the country two weeks ago.
People coming back to their homes in places that have seen fighting for over two months often find their houses ruined. The repair of these homes — roofless, damaged by explosions and shelling, with no interior walls — is the JDC’s next challenge ahead of the approaching winter.
As cold weather sets in by mid-October, homeowners are trying to start necessary repairs, making sure there are windows, doors and roofs. Having neither funds nor means to accomplish these massive renovations, Galkevich says the JDC is preparing an urgent fundraising campaign to aid those who choose to resettle.
“They are trying to restore their lives, their homes, families, and roots,” says Galkevich.