For most of the Jews in the Diaspora, war is something which happens in far-off places.
Events in Gaza and Israel had us glued to our TV screens in the summer, many anxiously waiting to hear news about loved ones involved in the conflict.
Right now, hidden from the headlines, there’s another war going on. It’s already claimed a number of Jewish casualties.
Millions of people have been forced from their houses by fighting in Ukraine. Thousands of Jews have lost their homes. The Jewish communities of Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev and Zaporozhe are doing what they can to help, but need extra resources. The small Jewish community of Mariupol has been one of the worst affected.
Mariupol sits on the Sea of Azov in the south east of Ukraine. Less than 60km from the Russian border, it has seen repeated shelling as Ukrainian forces attempt to fight off well-armed Russian separatists. Despite the truce agreed back in September, sporadic outbreaks of fighting take their toll on the city’s children.
My organisation, World Jewish Relief, has been working in Ukraine for nearly twenty years. We support vulnerable Jewish communities, particularly the elderly and people with disabilities. We also run an innovative training programme helping unemployed people get jobs to help lift their own families out of poverty. We launched an emergency appeal for the Jews of Ukraine in light of the turmoil.
Poverty is something the Jews of Mariupol know only too well. Their small community numbered around 1,000 at the start of the year; hundreds have since indicated their desire to leave. Many don’t have the resources to do so. We received a desperate call for help from members of the community unable to afford the cost of travel. We were able to provide them with a stipend for food and travel expenses.
We helped Julia F. escape. She said that the stress had become unbearable. “I’m pregnant,” she confided. “I’m very scared about giving birth. Medical personnel might refuse to operate during bombardments. I wake up at night from explosions in my dreams.” Julia was able to leave Mariupol with her family and two young children. From her rented flat in Melitopol she told us: “Hopefully my child will never hear the sounds of war again, and will never know the fear I felt fleeing our home.”
Ukrainians like Julia have an uncertain legal status. They are not refugees, because under UN law, only someone who finds themselves stateless, or in a country which is not their ‘own’, can apply for refugee status. Ukrainian citizens, still in Ukraine, cannot apply for refugee status, and are not entitled to the rights refugee status affords.
Those who have left do not know when it might be safe to return home. A few have left Mariupol for Israel, hoping to return home when the fighting stops. Others are staying with friends or family elsewhere in Ukraine.
Natan K. said that his daughter suffers from the stress caused by the night-time shelling. “We were constantly running for the air raid shelter. I have to protect my family. The only way to do so is to leave Mariupol. It’s too unsafe.” Natan has taken his family to Dnepropetrovsk, uncertain when he will be able to come back.
As the beginning of another bitter winter sets in, this uncertainty for the Jews of Ukraine looks set to worsen.
Richard Verber works for the UK-based World Jewish Relief