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No way out for 130 Jewish families who want to leave Kherson

Director of JDC’s Hesed in city captured by Russia says half of his social workers are no longer working amidst curfews and dwindling food

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A demonstration against occupying Russian forces in Kherson, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. (Screenshot)
A demonstration against occupying Russian forces in Kherson, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. (Screenshot)

Conditions are deteriorating in Kherson, the only regional capital taken by Russian forces, according to the director of the Hesed Center, which provides social services to needy Jews.

“There were 160 social workers in Hesed. Half of them are not coming to work,” Alexander Vainer reported Tuesday.

“It’s understandable. Some are afraid. Some have already left Kherson. Those who still come to work cannot provide [all that is needed] to the elderly.”

He went on: “A strict curfew is in place and you risk being killed if you go out during curfew. Public transportation isn’t working. The city is quite large and it can take up to two hours for a journey.”

Vainer said that 300 members of the Jewish community attended a recent meeting.

“People were very stressed and troubled. They had many questions and were looking for answers they thought the rabbi had,” he said. “The community plans for evacuation and 130 families have said they are ready to leave. But as long as there is fighting in [the nearby city of] Mykolayiv, unfortunately, nothing can be done to bring people to a safe place.”

Military situation as of March 9, 2022 (Viewsridge / Wikipedia

Hesed, a network of Jewish social services providers in Ukraine supported by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) aid group, has had to close some of its 18 offices since the Russian invasion, including Kherson’s, although staff have continued to work wherever possible.

Earlier this month, Vainer reported that work was continuing, with everyone doing what they had to from home. “They all have their laptops with them, data about the clients, and all the phone numbers and they can coordinate the work of the social workers,” he said then.

At that point, 40 social workers had stopped working.

Kherson occupies a strategic location on the Black Sea and the Dnieper River and was a key early target of the Russian forces. Despite Russian occupation, Ukrainians there are continuing to demonstrate.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported a claim by Ukraine’s military high command that Russian soldiers had detained more than 400 people for protesting in the Kherson region.

On Saturday, CNN quoted residents saying Russian troops were shooting at anyone who tried to leave the city.

Vainer said since the Russians had taken the city on March 1, Ukrainian flags and state symbols were still allowed, and the mayor was still in his post, but “everything is controlled by the new regime. Everybody is watched during the daytime. Locals are not being hurt, but it is obvious [the Russians] want to show who is master.”

“The city of around 300,000 that had everything people needed has nothing at all now,” Vainer said. “The banks don’t work, the grocery stores are empty, medicines have disappeared from the drug stores. Even if people have money, there’s nothing to buy.”

“It’s not difficult to imagine what it will be like in three days when people’s stock of products at home has gone. We will face a humanitarian crisis,” he added. “I do not see light at the end of the tunnel, only darkness. Everything is very sad.”

A JDC spokesman said the fact that as many as half of the social workers were still working in Kherson “underlines the dedication to the elderly people they serve, their bravery. It’s incredible.”

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