WJR Chairman and JLC Trustee James Libson writes a personal account of a moving trip that he took with WJR to visit projects that they support in Zaparozhye, Ukraine between 15 and 17 March 2015.
I am writing this on the plane back from Istanbul after two moving, profoundly worrying days in Zaparozhye, East Ukraine visiting people and projects supported by WJR. The reason I am flying from Istanbul is instructive. Travelling to Zaparozhye 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, 6000 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 Zaparozhye we are looking after 300 Jewish 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. Cost that is replicated over several cities and for more than 2000 internally displaced Jews. It is a fraction of the overall problem the country faces. Zaparozhye, 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 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% 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. 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?
So 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 Zaparozhye JCC as something close to miraculous - and it is. This city that, like so many others in the region, 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 wellbeing 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 9) 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.