The Most Important Thing I Learned In Ukraine

VIENNA, AUSTRIA — I am sitting in my hotel room in Vienna, overlooking the beautiful city from the window in my room as the sun sets. Honestly, it is a relief to be in Vienna, to be out of a war-torn country that continuously pulled on my heart strings. But it is also conflicting. This bustling, stunning city serves as a stark contrast from where I was just four hours ago, confronting conditions Ukrainian Jews are facing and learning about how our Federation dollars are helping them.

My experience in Ukraine was physically and emotionally exhausting. There were so many times throughout my trip that I just couldn’t understand why these terrible things were happening to the Jewish community as well as other Ukrainians. I still don’t fully understand, but that doesn’t change the fact that these things are happening and something must be done to help.

I am so thankful for those Ukrainian Jews who shared their experiences with our group, who opened up their homes for us to visit; who let us hear their stories of escaping war, surviving poverty and living on next to nothing. These brave people helped us understand the magnitude of their situation and how we can better help them.

On the last day of the trip, over breakfast, I was speaking with the staff of the Federation–funded Joint Distribution Committee about the homes we visited and the people we met. She told me that they had approached many others who had said they were not willing to tell their stories yet.

“Why?” I asked this JDC professional, wondering why these Ukrainians wouldn’t want the world to hear their tragic stories and wonderful bravery. “Because,” she said, “they want to preserve their dignity. They are not ready for you to see them so vulnerable. They are not ready to talk about what has happened to them.” It never occurred to me before that this community wouldn’t want us to know their stories, but what she said made sense. These Jews have so little in material goods. Besieged by conflict and turmoil, what they are striving to keep is their dignity. This, I believe, is the most important lesson I learned in Ukraine.

IMPORTANT REMINDER

I thought about this a lot as that morning continued. It was an important reminder to me that as I move forward in my career, I must honor and respect every person I meet, regardless of their external status, and remember that each of us has dignity and pride.

At the same time, another thought brought me comfort. Being among some of the world’s poorest Jews for a week, in conditions I could not have imagined before I went to Ukraine, I am now even more convinced that Federation, along with our partners, are helping people maintain their dignity.

Ukrainian Jews are unlike other needy people in Ukraine who, without any government assistance, welfare program or support from abroad, are left to beg on the streets. However, thanks to funding from The Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation and other Federations, the JDC and Jewish Agency provide for Jews in a way that allows them to retain their self-respect. I know because I saw this with my own eyes, felt it with my heart, and reflected on it through my own tears. I am so proud to be a Jew and to be doing Federation work — holy work, as I came to understand this week.

ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

Being in Vienna, and staying here overnight, makes me feel as if I have arrived from an alternate universe. It is surreal to be in a comfortable hotel room trying to decide what I want for dinner when I think of those who I met in the past week living in shambles — the “lucky” ones make $100 a month. Some Jews don’t even have running water in their homes.

Vienna clearly is a majestic city, but one that I will barely have time to experience. And that’s fine with me. I can appreciate the beauty of it, but my mind is elsewhere. I am sure that even if I had time, I would not be in a frame of mind to take it in. My heart is still with the Ukrainian Jews I met as I replay stories and conversations in my head that I believe will change who I am forever.

The other, more seasoned trip participants, a number of whom had been to Ukraine previously, told me that I would return home and the images I had seen would pop into my head when I least expected. They told me that I would want to do everything I can to aid our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, but even then, it won’t be enough. There’s never enough, they said.

While they are right — the needs of these people are so great that it would take unlimited funds and manpower to manage this crisis — as I think about my returning home, I am more determined than ever to do all that I can to help them. I will spread the message, help raise money and make sure that these people, who need us so badly, are represented in all our Federation deliberations.

Our time in Ukraine concluded with a tour of an elderly institutional facility that is the only facility in the region with 24-hour medical care. It was incredible, a true beacon of hope for those who are sick and elderly. We were told that if you are over the age of 70 and have a stroke in Ukraine, the hospital will turn you away — the belief is that you have lived long enough. This facility turns no one away and its mission is to preserve the dignity of these people who have lived such difficult lives. The JDC, thanks to funding from Jewish Federations, is involved with this unique facility and Jews and others are benefiting.

TWICE IN ONE DAY

Twice in one day, I was reminded that preserving dignity is worth almost as much as providing food, a place to stay or Hebrew lessons for those leaving Ukraine for Israel. We continued to talk about dignity as we wrapped up our trip, each participant sharing how we felt, what we had gained from the trip and our overall reflections. I would be the last person to share my thoughts, so I listened carefully to the others.

Also, at 25, I was the youngest person in our group.

One person mentioned that he, not unlike several others on our trip, had relatives who once lived in Ukraine. What he said next was something I had managed to push out of my mind during the trip because it is too difficult for me to think about. “Under a different set of circumstances, these people could be my family and me,” he said fighting back tears, referring to his Ukrainian roots.

Part of my family is from Odessa, Ukraine and I had thought about the connection of my family to Ukraine before I left. I was excited to see the country where my family once lived, to see some people who looked like me, to proudly tell those I met that I, too, came from Ukraine. Once I was there, though, thinking of my family experiencing these dire circumstances was too much to ponder. My fellow trip participant’s remarks, however, forced me, in the final hours of our trip, to confront this reality.

Though Ukraine was not anything I could have envisioned, I am still proud to have roots in this strong Jewish community. In ways I never could have imagined, my trip was a homecoming — and an experience that I believe I will remember for the rest of my life.

About the Author
Samantha Dubrinsky is the Director of Community Impact for the Birmingham Jewish Federation.
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