A trip to Zaporozhye

I am writing this on the plane back from Istanbul after two moving, profoundly worrying days in Zaporozhye, East Ukraine visiting people and projects supported by WJR. The reason I am flying from Istanbul is instructive. Travelling to Zaporozhye is, at the best of times, not easy. It inevitably involves two unsociable and uncomfortable flights with a change in Vienna. Now, however, the appetite for travel to Ukraine has diminished further and the routes in and out are ever more tortuous. It is emblematic of the isolation that is apparent when you are there.

I was last there a year and a half ago and I left feeling hopeful for many reasons. In our world, I could see hope and a future. Our programmes were working. The investments made over 15 years were paying dividends. Poverty was slowly being addressed, homes repaired, jobs found and there was a proper sense of a Jewish community. Something that was perhaps permanent and sustainable. Something actually quite miraculous given where we had started. And there was a sense of connection – to the world, as Europeans, and, for our community, to am yisrael. 18 months and a violent, disastrous, murderous and ignored conflict later, the change is immense and all in the wrong direction.

First, isolation. Travelling via Istanbul is inconvenient for us. But the complete and utter abandonment of Ukraine by the rest of the world is a disaster. Meeting Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the Max Grant Centre, the Jewish Community Centre we built and still support, the only anger expressed was at how the outside world has ignored Ukraine. Over one million people displaced, six thousand killed, cities utterly destroyed and only the tiniest fraction of attention that events in Paris or Copenhagen have received. And other than that cry of despair, what characterised every encounter we had with an IDP was their acceptance, their patience and their gratitude at the assistance they were receiving. It was humbling.

The stories were agony to listen to. It does not matter where you are in life, social standing or wealth, when you have to flee and leave everything behind, the trauma, the fear and need to start all over again is the same for everyone. In Zaporozhye we are looking after 300 Jewish internally displaced persons (IDPs). We have housed them, we ensure they have enough to eat, we look to their welfare needs, we provide medicine and we are re-training them and finding employment opportunities (through our pioneering Livelihood Development Programme). But how do we address the fear of a young father who fled with his family from Lugansk who is too scared to register for employment in case he is conscripted to fight? “We did not want this conflict. We can’t believe it has happened. It was unthinkable” was the refrain. To have to fight against men who, a year ago, were your neighbours, in a war for which you feel nothing, is intolerable.

The support comes at vast cost. This is replicated over several cities and for more than two thousand internally displaced Jews. It is a fraction of the overall problem the country faces. Zaporozhye, a city of 700,000, has had to cope with an influx of 100,000 refugees putting an unsustainable strain on resources, creating resentment and isolation and compounding existing problems. And the conflict, quite apart from the refugee crisis it created, means that the basket case that already was Ukraine’s economy and political situation has worsened appreciably — from a position it was difficult to imagine could, in fact, be any weaker. The Hryvna (the local currency) has devalued by 300 percent and inflation is rampant. Price controls are coming to an end. Life, difficult when I was last there, has become unaffordable.

So, quite apart, from the specific situation in which the IDPs found themselves, our existing clients’ positions are perilous. Pensions and disability allowances barely meet utility bills. Food, especially healthy food, is ever more expensive and, without help, those who need medicine simply cannot afford it at all. Our clients — Jews in 21st century Europe — will die without us supplementing what they have received until now to buy the medicines that keep them alive. I am not referring to isolated examples. Practically every person we met worried about how they were going to be able to pay for their medical requirements.

Roman, an incredible 9-year-old with chronic kidney disease, welcomed us into his apartment where he lives with his mum and his Babooshka. It is tiny, on the top floor of a decrepit Soviet building and, despite the grim environment, his personality lit up the space with his enthusiastic and contagious joie de vivre. He loves transport and gave each of us a picture he had made of some sort of vehicle. He has to take 19 different medicines for his condition, the most expensive of which, by itself, exceeds what his mother, Tatiyana, receives from the state. We pay for the rest, but every week it gets more expensive. As we left we gave Roman a lift to the hospital where he will stay for the next few days being prepared for the next of the endless set of operations his condition requires. The next day we saw Tatiyana at the JCC where she was teaching Hebrew while her mum looked after Roman in hospital. Roman is why we exist. But, leaving the intensity of the encounter with each individual we meet, one is bound to extrapolate and, when you do, the challenge feels frightening. How can we afford to do what we need to in this new environment? How can we afford not to?

The sense of isolation is acute and the scale of the problems exponentially greater than they were last time. But some things were inspiringly similar. I have often described what we have achieved in our communities and especially at the Zaporozhye JCC as something close to miraculous – and it is. This city that, like so many others in the region, is part of the richest Jewish era in our history, had extinguished its Jews and its Jewishness almost completely. Almost. For from the embers, incredible people, inspirational leaders the like of which we rarely see, have recreated a community that looks after itself, is proud of itself, has a recognisable and strong identity and culture and that is a true light unto the nations within its society.

Not only is the JCC bustling with life and activity, with a strong sense of Jewish tradition and heritage, not only is it involved in pioneering, cutting edge work with the disabled and other disadvantaged groups, not only does the Hesed system provide comprehensive and sophisticated welfare services to those that need them, the JCC is also an active participant in civil society contributing expertise and commitment that others benefit from. Inessa, the JCC director, sits on countless civic committees that deal with welfare matters. The JCC is the only building in the entire region that has disabled access and we are active participants in campaigning to improve conditions for those with disabilities in a place where disability rights are in the dark ages. As well as being the right, the Jewish, thing to do, it means that the esteem in which the JCC and the community is held is high. It assists with the community’s sense of well being and makes the JCC even more attractive to its users.

Despite the overwhelming scale of need, then, a visit leaves me knowing that, if we can raise the resources, we have the expertise to do what we need to. The individual encounters are so enriching, so humbling, so inspirational that we leave with a renewed enthusiasm and commitment. But each of us who travelled (we were a small group of nine) also, I think, has come home with a bit more fire in our bellies, perhaps even anger, on behalf of our clients and, in fact, the people of Ukraine that this disaster on our doorstep (via Istanbul) that has ruined the lives of so many is so low down our country’s — and our community’s — sense of priorities.

My plea, my call to arms, my prayer is for WJR, my trustees, my professional team, my community and my country to recognise this moment in history and to respond appropriately. I realise we haven’t yet. We are not close to doing so. We have a lot of money to raise. We have to do it now and we will have to do it for several years to come until we get to where we were 18 months ago — and it wasn’t easy then. If you need convincing, come with me and see for yourself. It is harder to get to, it’s still freezing but the welcome is as warm and nourishing as any you will get on the planet.

About the Author
James Libson is the Executive Partner of Mishcon de Reya LLP. He has been involved in many of the highest profile cases of the last 20 years, including acting for Deborah Lipstadt in her defence of the claim brought against her by the holocaust denier, David Irving, for Gina Miller in both her recent Supreme Court challenges relating to Article 50 and, this year, prorogation; and for the Jewish Labour Movement in its referral of the Labour Party to the EHRC. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Law in 2018. He has sat as a trustee and chaired several charities including World Jewish Relief, and currently chairs Prism, the Gift Fund, a charity that seeks to increase the flow of funds to the philanthropic sector