A view from the ground in Ukraine

Territorial defense exercises amid the threat of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Military exercises for civilians in Kyiv, Ukraine
Territorial defense exercises amid the threat of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Military exercises for civilians in Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukraine has been in a state of frozen conflict for eight years. The incredible trauma many went through in 2014, the fear of further incursions, the displacement of a million people westwards, meant that all parts of Ukraine felt the brunt, either physically or psychologically. And that psychological fear hasn’t really left.

For older Ukrainians who remember the Soviet Union and closeness between Moscow and Kyiv, the breakdown of that relationship has been very difficult. Many in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the Jewish community, would be Russian speakers, as opposed to Ukrainian speakers. They may have had family in Russia, or personal allegiance to Moscow, so the trauma of the conflict is deep and complex.

Speaking to our partners in Ukraine, it can seem as if there’s more worry and panic from outside Ukraine than inside. There’s a resigned sense that ‘we’ve always been in conflict, the Russian military is always on our border’ and now is no different.

There were recent public service announcements saying, ‘Don’t panic but have a bag packed and know where the bomb shelters are.’ That increases the level of worry.

Many of our Jewish clients are housebound, isolated, alone, living on the margin, with no family network. The community centres are closed because of Covid so their social support has changed. Many end up watching pro-Ukraine or pro-Russia TV filled with propaganda and misinformation, which creates great uncertainty. The constancy of our support is as worrying for them as any security concern. 

Our clients are amazing. They’ve lived through the Holocaust, communism, unbearable winters, poverty, yet they live with pride and resilience that is indescribable. When I’m jumping up and down, worrying about what might happen, they’re the calming influence.

There are very sizeable Jewish communities in Kharkiv, Odesa, Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, Kryvyi Rih, many big urban centres. They’re Russian-speaking and well-established. There’s no reason to suspect that Jewish Ukrainians would be any more at risk than non-Jewish Ukrainians.

Kharkiv, which is 70km (43 miles) from the Russian border, hosts a very significant Jewish community, with a large Jewish community centre that we helped build.

The stakes are incredibly high. In 2014 we saw a mass displacement from the east, including members of the Jewish community who left Donetsk, Luhansk and Simferopol in Crimea. We helped to accommodate them. They’d left their homes and jobs. We helped them to survive and rebuild for the future in new locations.

Whatever happens, we need to continue to find a way to provide a range of support services to our Jewish client group wherever they are. That might mean engaging with existing authorities or different ones. It may be a different context. 

We can’t be alarmist or partisan because I don’t want to compromise our access to anyone.

About the Author
Paul Anticoni is the Chief Executive, World Jewish Relief
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