Jul 13, 2015

Losing Hope in Eastern Ukraine

By Etta Zimmerman

I recently returned from a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) mission to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, with a small group of lay leaders and professionals who ventured halfway across the globe to this war-torn region. The dire challenges that have beset Eastern Ukraine are evident almost everywhere. We were based in Dnepropetrovsk, 100 miles away from the besieged Donetsk and Lugansk Region.

From the Maidan clashes in February 2014, through the Crimean Annexation, to the violent actions that ultimately brought down the Eastern Ukraine, the population has been suffering. As a result, 1.3 million Ukrainians have become displaced within what had been their home country’s borders. These are commonly referred to as Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

Approximately 350,000 Jews reside in the Ukraine. During times of calm, our Federation’s overseas partner agencies help 70,000 impoverished Jewish children and elderly meet their basic needs. Within the conflict zone, more than 6,000 clients remain in extreme peril. Another 3,000 Internally Displaced Jews in need of an array of services have registered for help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC); this list continues to grow, so far increasing the already challenging caseload of those vulnerable by 5,200 “new poor” and young families.

Those who remain in the conflict zone usually do so due to age and mobility limitations. Providing services in this area is extremely challenging, as goods are pricey and difficult to come by. Even more challenging is that the area is no longer reachable through previous transportation routes such as train or bus. With no humanitarian corridor available, there is no efficient or safe passage through which to reach those who remain in peril.

With a worldwide refugee crisis of an unprecedented 60 million people this year, very little attention is focused on the suffering in the Ukraine. But this very real humanitarian crisis is serious and needs our attention.

Last summer, when a small group of us from JDC traveled to the region, we felt that the Internally Displaced Persons we were meeting would be able to resettle into more permanent, secure lives, either there or in Israel. However, a year ago, we did not anticipate the drastic escalation in fighting and insecurity that has led to so many able-bodied people fleeing their homes in unprecedented numbers.

Those of you who have traveled with me on missions know that a tired piano and a Yiddish melody will start me singing and dancing, helping even the dismal seem palatable. On our first day in Ukraine this time, a Warm Home project visit set the tone to lighten our hearts. Eight retired female engineers there wrote a song for me that ended with the phrase, that their socializing time was “medicine for their souls.” How poignant, and true!

This glow was short lived, as the home visits to IDP’s both at the senior residence, Beit Baruch, and to temporary housing were quite desolate. The sadness, vacant stares and insecurity at what the future holds permeates everywhere.

The experience of an educated young couple who packed up and left Lugansk last August with two little boys sounds surreal. Before leaving, they unpacked all but two bags so each parent could hold onto one of the son’s hands and not lose the children as they were losing everything else they had achieved as a hard working family. Their temporary housing is minute, but meticulous. The parents, both professionals have tenuous employment paying far less than survival wages.

To say that Ukraine is the perfect storm would be a compliment to bad weather. Political strife, collapse of the economy, rampant inflation, devalued currency and no social safety net make this environment overwhelmingly challenging, with a dramatic erosion of the middle class and a burgeoning new poor.

Visiting families with young children and elderly who will likely never leave the besieged region contrasted with our Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) visit to those preparing for aliyah at the Mayak Center. Fewer than 10,000 Jews have made aliyah from Ukraine since February 2014. While leaving for Israel would seem like a sound choice for them, the sheer trauma and denial of their dire circumstances and uncertain futures keep many in place.

Clearly, a beacon of light in Dnepropetrovsk is its Chief Rabbi Kaminezki, who has set a community tone of cooperation and is a trusted companion throughout the efforts of the JDC, JAFI and the area’s JCC. This air of positivity and cohesiveness does much to sustain our dedicated professionals in the region.

Let me backtrack for a moment to more than 20 years ago, when the Iron Curtain fell and the Hesed system and JCCs were born. These great, wide-reaching institutions have worked to infuse a sense of communal independence and cohesiveness among Jewish people the region. Today, committed Hesed and JCC volunteers tirelessly provide positive contributions to their respective communities both inside and external to the conflict zone. Demonstrating great bravery and dedication, volunteers often times risk their own safety to help the helpless.

Consider Victor from Slovansk. After the Hesed building was destroyed, he went in to retrieve the list of recipients and food packages, and made the deliveries on his bicycle. In his late 70s, he did what he could in the most trying circumstances. And he is not alone in the dedication and volunteerism that has become a mainstay of this community. This maturation, compassion and sense of belonging among these Ukrainian Jews may be a silver lining to a dire situation.

Another bright spot there is the strength of the Metsudah Leadership Program, which continues to return a solid investment as its graduates set a tone of commitment that helps this downtrodden community.

So is the welcoming environment for the Internally Displaced Jews trying to make a better future for themselves in Zeparozhe. Yet our home visit in Zeparozhe was bleak, with a medically compromised child, a grandmother and mother. With no safety net, this challenged family has no venues for help, nowhere else to turn, beyond the community and dollars from far away. We also left another home visit the following day with a feeling of uncertainty for the future of a family fractured between the conflict zone and displacement. The home visits amid such limited resources and economic and political uncertainty were unsettling and upsetting.

From the senior residence of Beit Baruch, to Pavlograd, to temporary apartments, to JCC gatherings, the internally displaced Jewish people are shattered, disbelieving, grateful, fearful and facing unparalleled uncertainty. Almost a year and a half after the region’s destabilization, it is difficult to find hope and stamina. One fears that brighter tomorrows are ever more elusive.

But beyond a shadow of a doubt, our Federation’s overseas partners have the most dedicated professional staff in the entire world. Tireless, selfless, bold, brave, compassionate, loving, and working 24/7. They are afraid to rest, committed to each and every Jew whether remaining in the conflict zone or internally displaced. They treat every person with compassionate care and dignity. They are the brightness in a region where hope is scarce.

I returned home heavy hearted from this region that I have visited 20 times before. I have tried, a week later, to see the positive in what is being done for the Jewish community in Eastern Ukraine against great odds. I am proud, and I am worried.

I take solace in our Federation’s continuing commitment to raise funds so imperative in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Our Federation is proud to be part of a caring global Jewish community, and together we have the strength to make an impact on alleviating the worst situations for the most vulnerable.

As you read this account, I know you will be moved to join our Federation in aiding our overseas partners’ ongoing relief efforts in Ukraine. While our Annual Campaign regularly supports assistance there, the urgency in Ukraine requires us to do more through critical supplemental dollars.

Please join our urgent response through the JFNA Ukraine Emergency fund at jewishboca.org/ukraine, or contact Dana Vizner at 561.852.3270 or danav@bocafed.org.

Etta Zimmerman is a Former Board Chair of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, a current JFSPBC Vice Chair and a Board Member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)