Interview'Chess saved his life'

Disabled world chess champion from Mariupol faces eviction from his Ashdod lodgings

Igor Yarmonov and his wife fled to Israel with the help of chess enthusiasts around the world. Now, with only a week to find new housing, their future is far from certain

Igor Yarmonov and Galina Gurina in their room in a communal flat in Ashdod, December 18, 2022. (Inna Lazareva/Times of Israel)
Igor Yarmonov and Galina Gurina in their room in a communal flat in Ashdod, December 18, 2022. (Inna Lazareva/Times of Israel)

Igor Yarmonov, five-time world chess champion among people with disabilities, sits in his bedroom of a communal apartment in the southern town of Ashdod, a travel-sized chess board perched on his knees and suitcases stashed in a corner as he wonders where he will be living a week from now.

Earlier this year, Yarmonov and his wife Galina Gurina fled their home in the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukraine, after enduring a month and a half of Russian blockade and bombardments, with missile blasts shaking the very foundation of their building. When one of the missiles hit the structure’s top floor, the couple feared the house would collapse on top of them.

“We were praying over and over again that this hell would end soon,” Gurina tells The Times of Israel.

Today, Mariupol lies destroyed, mostly reduced to rubble. Russia occupies the city, with new satellite imagery released this month showing that it is building a large military facility there in an apparent bid to consolidate its position.

Though Yarmonov and his wife feel safe in Israel, their new life is fraught with constant instability and uncertainty — including about where they will be able to live.

“We haven’t slept all night worrying,” says Gurina. “We were told on Monday that we would either be moved to a room in a hostel in Jerusalem with a shared bathroom, or to a room in a communal house for people with disabilities somewhere in northern Israel.

“Igor is a class one invalid, he has a 100 percent disability and bronchial asthma. He needs to be close to medical services in case of asthma attacks, which happen frequently, and he should not live in close proximity to many other people for fear of an infection that could cause serious health problems for him,” Gurina adds.

“There is no cure for either one of us,” says Yarmonov, adding that his wife also suffers from celiac disease. “The only way to stay healthy is to be able to cook food independently.”

Earlier this week, Israel said it would evict 100 Ukrainians living in state-sponsored housing that has been provided for them free of charge.

“The contract with one of the operators hosting the war refugees has come to an end, and tenants who are unable to finance accommodation due to a medical or physical condition have been offered alternatives in a hotel,” the Welfare Ministry said in a statement. “The period of state-sponsored residence for the war refugees was initially limited to three months and has been extended time and time again.”

Igor Yarmonov in his room in a communal flat in Ashdod, Israel on 18th December 2022. (Inna Lazareva/Times of Israel)

The need to move on short notice is the latest of many problems for the couple since arriving in Israel, a situation they have in common with over 14,500 Ukrainians — mostly women and children — who have sought refuge there but are not eligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return.

Unlike in Europe, where Ukrainians who have escaped the war are commonly accorded refugee status, language classes, free access to public transportation and social assistance, in Israel the refugees are classified as “tourists.” There is no guarantee that they will be allowed to stay in the country long-term, and they rely on a network of volunteers for help and basic assistance.

The couple’s current room in a three-bedroom flat shared by two other Ukrainians with small children is provided Tzav Hasha’a, a humanitarian aid administration that operates under the direction of the Welfare Ministry.

In addition, the couple receives vouchers for shopping to the total value of NIS 2,000 ($579) per month, which Gurina supplements with her disability benefit from Ukraine — approximately NIS 180 ($52) per month. (Yarmonov’s disability benefit is currently inaccessible, as his Ukrainian bank card has been temporarily blocked.) The rest of their subsistence is provided by volunteers and well-wishers, who deliver monthly food parcels.

“An owner of a local sausage factory recently came over and delivered food for us and others,” says Gurina gratefully.

Illustrative: Immigrants fleeing from war zones in Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office, at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Israeli volunteers also collected money through crowdfunding to buy Yarmonov an electric wheelchair earlier this year and medical insoles, which make walking a little easier.

“The biggest problem is that we don’t have any health insurance,” says Gurina, adding that the couple relies on Terem, Israel’s emergency medical clinic, for any urgent health needs — for example if Yarmonov suffers an asthma attack.

“In order to do regular health checkups for our medical conditions, we need private health insurance, and we can’t afford it,” she says.

Gurina says she wants to study Hebrew to better integrate into local life, but ulpan — Israel’s immersive language course — is another tough-to-meet expense. Finding the time is also a challenge, as she is Yarmonov’s full-time caregiver. Applying for refugee status — which remains almost unheard of in Israel — requires the services of a lawyer.

“We simply don’t know what will happen to us. We know that if the war ends, Israel will send us back to Ukraine in two weeks — and what then? Where will we go? Our city has been destroyed. We have no home left,” Gurina says.

Illustrative: Ukrainian refugees receive their entry papers to Israel, at an emergency shelter in Chisinau, Moldova, March 15, 2022. (Flash90)

‘Chess prince’

Yarmonov has over 55 years of experience defying the odds.

He was born clinging to life, strangled by the umbilical cord that wound itself tightly around his neck four times and deprived him of oxygen long enough to leave him disabled for the rest of his life.

After Yarmonov’s birth and resuscitation, the doctors at the maternity ward brought papers to his parents, advising them to “sign their son off” for adoption and a life in a Soviet children’s home as, said the doctors, he would never walk or function independently.

“My parents refused and told them, ‘No, our son will walk and will succeed,’” says Yarmonov, telling his story with Gurina’s help.

His parents, he explains, named him after Prince Igor, the ruler of Kievan Rus, a loose confederation of principalities that constituted the first Russian state until the mid-13th century.

“They had high aspirations for him from the start. They refused to give up,” adds Gurina.

Yarmonov proved to be a very smart child and his parents traveled with him to  clinics in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where he made good progress — far beyond what the doctors at the maternity ward told his parents they could expect.

Yet, aged 6, Yarmonov was still crawling, and looking longingly out of the window as other children ran around the playground outside. That was when Yarmonov’s father, an avid player himself, decided to teach him chess.

From then on, the game became Yarmonov’s greatest hobby, obsession and, later, a career.

Igor Yarmonov and Galina Gurina attending the Maccabiah Games in Israel in July 2022 (courtesy of Galina Gurina)

“First he beat his family members, then friends and neighbors who came to challenge him, and soon he was the chess champion of his school,” says Gurina, her husband chiming in to fill in details.

In 1990, he won first place in a tournament in Mariupol among all chess players, even those without a disability. “That was my most important award of all,” Yarmonov says, with his wife explaining that it gave him the confidence that he could go even further.

He gained the chess rank of international master and went on to become the International Association of Chess with Physical Disability’s world champion among people with limited physical mobility five times — in 2002, 2013, 2016, 2018 and 2019.  He was also part of Ukraine’s Olympic chess team for almost two decades.

Russia invades

The war caught Yarmonov, like almost everyone, unaware, just as he was preparing for the International Physically Disabled Chess Association (IPCA) world championship in Israel, scheduled to be held in May 2022.

“There had been so many warnings of war before,” says Gurina, adding that at least eight times since 2014 there had been food shortages in shops across Mariupol as rumors about an imminent Russian invasion spread. “We thought it was the same this time round too, so we tried to stay calm.”

When the bombardments began and the couple tried to flee, they found there was no gasoline left in the city — they couldn’t fill up their car to escape.

Then, on March 2, among soaring food shortages and airstrikes, all lifelines to the city were cut and the siege of Mariupol began.

Igor Yarmonov and Galina Gurina’s apartment building in Mariupol, Ukraine, the top floor of which was struck by a Russian missile in March 2022 (Courtesy Galina Gurina)

“There was no gas, no light, no water, no heating, no telephone or internet connection with the outside world, nothing,” says Gurina. “And the most difficult to bear of all of these was the lack of connectivity. You have no ability whatsoever to call anyone for help.”

As soon as the power went out and alarms were disabled in the shops, the city descended into mayhem.

“People would smash through the glass and break into shops and take everything they could find. Both Igor and I need to take regular medications, and we were running out. I would go to pharmacies in the morning, stepping over the glass shards, searching for something left behind that could help us — but everything had already been looted,” she says.

By then, there was almost no produce left in the shops, which nevertheless had people standing on lines “longer than those to Lenin’s mausoleum,” Gurina says.

Along with the neighbors, she and Yarmonov survived by cooking on a communal bonfire outside their building’s entrance.

A view of the city of Mariupol on May 8, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. (STRINGER / AFP)

“We dug a hole in the ground, put some bricks, and on top of that a grill from someone’s oven — and that’s how we boiled water, cooked porridge, tea and whatever else we could find. We would swap products with our neighbors, exchanging rice for potatoes and so on, but everyone was running out,” she says, adding that at the start of the war, the couple had enough food in their fridge for about a week.

Alongside the hunger came the bitter cold. “Even the water I kept in the bath started glazing over with a layer of ice,” recalls Gurina, showing photos of how she had boarded up windows with cushions and tape in a bid to keep warm.

In Igor Yarmonov and Galina Gurina’s flat in Mariupol, a window is boarded up with cushions to protect against bombardments and the cold in late February 2022. (courtesy Galina Gurina)

“People chopped down all the trees growing nearby in order to use them for firewood,” Gurina says. “A local kindergarten offered the locals to take whatever they needed, and we took a few children’s chairs — they burned well. We also burned some of our books to keep warm.”

In all this chaos, Yarmonov kept playing. “Chess saved his life,” says Gurina, explaining that the game provided a temporary escape from the daily grind for survival.

Despite not being able to contact Gurina in Mariupol, her sister Svetlana, based in Moscow, managed to arrange an evacuation for the pair by rescuers from the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.

“A small minibus full of pregnant women, other disabled people and mothers with young children arrived, and took Igor and me,” recalls Gurina. The bus left Mariupol on April 9.

From Mariupol they were taken to Uspenka, Ukraine. They crossed the border and were taken to Taganroge in southern Russia, where they spent three days recovering before taking a train to Moscow to stay with her sister.

Igor Yarmonov and Galina Gurina’s flat in Mariupol, in pre-war 2022 (courtesy of Galina Gurina)

From Mariupol to Moscow

In Russia’s capital, mid-war, they found themselves in a pleasant apartment overlooking a peaceful kindergarten full of children playing, with the trees on the streets intact and plenty of food in the shops. It was a complete shock.

“You know, it was as if we had landed on a different planet,” says Gurina, describing her desire to cook huge quantities of food “just in case.”

Bizarrely — or perhaps not — the war in Ukraine was barely discussed by those the couple encountered in doctor’s offices, pharmacies and the hairdressing salon in Moscow.

“No one really said anything to us,” Gurina says. “They don’t think about what is happening. It seems like it doesn’t affect them at all.”

“There’s a lot of information [about the war] — only they receive very different information from everyone else,” she adds sardonically.

Illustrative: People walk in the light of the setting sun at the end of a hot day in the center of Moscow, Russia, July 26, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The couple received some donations of clothes from friends of Svetlana. The only other reaction came from a dry cleaning service, where they sent Gurina’s soot-soiled coat from Mariupol for cleaning.

“The coat was so filthy that we were warned that normally the dry cleaners would refuse to clean it,” Gurina says. “Yet when we got it back there was a note attached to it, addressed to the cleaners: ‘This coat belongs to refugees from Mariupol. Do not reject it.’ That was it.”

Goodbye, Russia

The most serious encounter with the Russian authorities came when the couple was set to leave the country for the chess championship in Israel in May. The accommodation, invitation and other amenities were provided by FIDE Israel, while the plane tickets were purchased through money raised by well-wishers online. Yet there was a moment when they thought they would not be able to board their plane out.

“The whole airplane was waiting to take off and we were kept back for interrogation,” says Gurina. “They took our passports, our telephones, started scrolling through our messages, noted down various telephone numbers and other details. I was sure that we would miss the plane and they wouldn’t let us through.”

Illustrative: Aeroflot passenger planes are parked at Sheremetyevo airport, outside Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

When one of the interrogators asked Gurina what she thought of the “situation in Ukraine,” she tried to choose her words carefully but finally did not hold back.

“I told him, ‘I think that this was all a huge mistake — it shouldn’t have happened.’ I told him honestly: ‘I’m for peace. Such atrocities shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century. Why has our city been wiped from the face of the earth? For what? How is it possible? This should never have happened.’”

The officers went off to discuss among themselves, then returned to ask if the pair had plans to return to Russia. “I told them no. They gave us our passports back.”

A new life

Yarmonov played in the May tournament in Ashdod, winning fifth place. Afterward, they weren’t sure what to do next. They feel safe in Israel, but their new life is full of uncertainty.

“I really want to stay in Ashdod,” says Yarmonov. “Here in Ashdod, I already have friends who are chess players, I am representing Israel in the chess league and I am playing for Ashdod’s chess team.”

“Chess is his life — if you take this away from him, he won’t want to live,” adds Gurina.

For now, the couple is waiting for an answer concerning accommodation.

“We just pray for peace, for everything to be over — we live from one day to the next — and we continue to play chess,” Gurina says.

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