DNEPROPETROVSK, UKRAINE — Have you ever gone to bed at night wondering if you would wake up alive the next morning? This is a question that, unfortunately, many Ukrainian Jews would answer “yes” to. I thought about that Tuesday morning as my alarm went off, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. I remembered, startlingly, that I was waking up near a war zone, something I had never done before and hope never to do again.
I got out of bed and, as I was getting ready for the day, braced myself for what was to come. I started thinking about the experiences we had the day before, which were centered around heartache, but also reflected hope. Our group of 18, coordinated by Jewish Federations of North America, had dinner with several young Ukrainian Jewish leaders and I happened to sit next to Katrina, a 23-year-old who just graduated from a university and is working for the Federation-funded Jewish Agency. Being only 25 myself I could easily relate to her.
I learned so much from her in our short time together — how she was born as the Soviet Union fell, how her parents were not religious because they grew up under an oppressive Communist regime that caused them to hide their Judaism, and how she, at the age of 10, began teaching her parents about Judaism when she attended a Jewish day school.
What impressed me most about Katrina, was her bravery and her hope for the future. I asked her if she was scared that the war would move into the city of Dnepropeptrovsk, where our trip is headquartered. Dnepropetrovsk is just 100 miles from the violence and it could quickly escalate to include her home city. I thought that she would say yes, as I imagined a conflict raging 100 miles from Birmingham and thought about how scared I would be. Her answer, though, was a firm “no”. She did not believe it would and that it would be contained.
She told me she couldn’t allow herself to be frightened because there are so many people who need help and that it would be silly to be concerned about herself. This selflessness is something I have seen a lot in Ukraine. The local staff members who work for Federation-funded partner agencies sacrifice their lives, families and economic opportunities to help other Jews. It’s an amazing feat they are accomplishing and one that I hope I would be brave and selfless enough to do if I were in their situation.
I continued to think about my conversation with Katrina as our group had a briefing Tuesday on the situation in Ukraine. We learned that the economy is terrible — inflation is at an all-time high. An average salary is, as of April of this year, $200 a month. To put this in perspective, diapers cost $20 per package. Meeting basic needs in the country right now is nearly impossible. Our Federation funds fill the gap and make life possible.
There are nearly 1.3 million Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Ukraine. They fled the conflict zone without money, without clothes, without anything because the situation was so dire. Many of them have landed in Dnepropetrovsk and Federation partners – The Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee — are working to help Jews who’ve been displaced make a life for themselves, either in Ukraine if they choose to stay or in Israel if they choose to leave.
Our first visit was in Dnepropetrovsk, where we met a family of four who escaped Lugansk last summer. Family members were active participants in Federation-funded programs in Lugansk and the mother in the family worked as a cleaner in a local bank. Her husband, due to injuries, was unable to work and received disability support. Additionally, they have a special needs son who cannot work whom they must support, along with a 15-year-old daughter.
During the summer of 2014, the mother fled Lugansk with her children, leaving her husband behind because of his ongoing medical treatments. In an effort to get her husband to Dnepropetrovsk, she was forced to travel by train and foot to avoid checkpoints set up by the separatists. Luckily, they both made it safely to Dnepropetrovsk, but with no possessions.
To meet this family, we walked up four flights of stairs in an old housing complex to their small apartment. Federation funding helps them pay their rent. I expected to meet a sad, broken family when we walked into the apartment, but was instead met by a boisterous woman, her two shy children and her husband, who was quite the comedian.
After all they had been through, I thought that we would be there cheering them up, but, like Katrina, the young woman I had met the night before, their attitude was one of perseverance and hope. They spoke of about how spending Jewish holidays at the local Jewish community center brings them so much joy and, above all, how grateful they were to be Jewish.
I left their apartment with mixed feelings. I wanted to speak to the family more, hear about their travails and what they saw for their future. I left wanting a better life for them. I left wanting them to have a sense of peace and belonging. It was an unsettling feeling to say the least.
WONDERING IF THEY’LL AWAKEN
Later in the afternoon, we met with individuals from the conflict zone who told us they go to bed wondering if they will ever wake up again. In some sense, the people in the conflict zone have identified themselves as people who do not have a tomorrow, a far cry from the hope and perseverance we had seen earlier in the day. Those who have escaped the region have hope, those who remain face daily battles that seem insurmountable.
Currently, the Federations funds support 6,023 Jews living in the conflict zone. For these people that support means the difference between life and death. Life in the conflict zone seems like a scary movie — rebels roaming the streets at night with no rules or laws to keep them in check. But it is a harsh reality for these people.
Our day continued, with even heavier hearts, as we traveled to another camp for displaced people and visited additional homes. Some of us heard from two women who escaped Lugansk and Donetsk. Both women were elderly and one was disabled. Their stories of making it out of the war zone were unbelievable.
One woman’s story struck me in particular and I talked to her afterwards privately through a translator and told her how much I admired her bravery and dedication. (The three of us are pictured here.) She was reluctant to leave her home town of Donetsk and became emotional when she spoke of leaving the only home she had known. She even tried to return once the conflict calmed down, only to have to evacuate again when the fighting resumed.
This woman told us that because of the help she receives from the Jewish community, many people who aren’t Jewish say they are jealous of her. “Why?” she asked them, perplexed. “Because your Jewish brothers and sisters are helping you,” they told her. “No one is helping us.”
While not immune by any means to the tragic suffering in Ukraine overall, we in the Jewish Federation movement also are driven by our sacred teaching that “All Jews Are Responsible For One Another.” Though this is not our war to fight and Ukraine is not our country, these are our people — our Jewish brothers and sisters. Many American Jews, including those in Birmingham, had ancestors who came to America from Ukraine; some of us still have family there. If we do not help them, who will?
As we visited each family and talked to different people, they all thanked us for our bravery for coming to Ukraine in a time of turmoil and war. As I lay on my hotel bed typing this, fatigued but with my mind racing, I am again reminded of 23-year-old Katrina, her selflessness and her bravery. It is we who should be thanking these Ukrainian Jews for fighting; for persevering and for remaining faithful to their Judaism during the harshest and most challenging of times. They are the brave ones.