By Richard Verber
I’ve often thought that I should start a newspaper which prints only good news. Heartwarming stories of strangers returning lost wallets. The world’s largest cupcake. Lottery winners donating their millions to charity. Oh, and pictures of cats. There must always be pictures of cats.
If ever there were an idea whose time had come, it’s this one. The regular news has been seriously depressing of late. I’ve not been glued to my phone this much in years. First thing in the morning, last thing at night. It’s starting to take its toll on my eyes as well as my emotions.
Beyond the tragic pictures coming out of Gaza and Israel, the Ukraine crisis is worsening. You’ve probably seen the aftermath of the aircraft shot down last month, and watched in bewilderment as the international community was prevented access to the crash site.
But what you might not know is that due to the ongoing fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, some 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, seeking shelter elsewhere in Ukraine. Entire families have been uprooted.
There are at least 600 who are Jewish. But for a quirk of fate, this could have been my family, had they not turned left and ended up in England. These Jews are all in need, particularly those who were living in poverty before the crisis began.
Offering support is complex as their needs are hugely varied. Some cannot afford food. Others require accommodation. Many have lost their jobs.
Yelena, 35, fled Sloviansk after a grenade destroyed her house. She only survived by hiding in the basement with her four-year-old son. She immediately left the city with just her documents and the bare necessities to survive.
Older Jews are particularly vulnerable. Sixty-year-old Natalya was forced from her home in Sloviansk when the city became too dangerous for her.
Natalya had always worked in the theatre, taking great pride in her role in Sloviansk’s cultural life. But since May, the university, where she led the theatre studio, has been closed and students haven’t completed their final exams.
Arriving in Kharkov, in northeast Ukraine, she has had to start again – not easy at 60.
So what can be done? Our history – tragically – means we know only too well what it’s like for Jews to be forced from their homes, only taking what they could carry.
World Jewish Relief’s roots go back to 1933 and the creation of the Kindertransport. We were known then as the Central British Fund for German Jewry. Thanks to people like Simon Marks (of Marks & Spencer fame), Lionel and Anthony de Rothschild (the banking brothers) and Chaim Weizmann (the future first Israeli president), thousands of Jewish children were rescued from Nazi-occupied Austria and Germany.
Today much of our work is focused on the vulnerable Jewish communities of Ukraine. We’ve had programmes there since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. We can once again provide a vital lifeline for displaced people through funding a resource centre in Kharkov.
On arrival people receive food and clothes. The centre helps people find accommodation. It connects them with job centres as well as medical, legal and psychological support.
Securing employment is always challenging, particularly with Ukraine’s economy. Some businesses we work with have agreed to hire displaced people on a seasonal basis, even agreeing to pay a weekly (instead of monthly) salary, in order to alleviate immediate economic constraints.
Natalya joined our Wohl Livelihood Development Programme in Kharkov last month. It provides training for Jewish single mothers and others who are underemployed or unemployed, enabling them to gain – and maintain – a job.
Employment helps them break the cycle of poverty for their family.
The future is uncertain for Yelena and Natalya, and thousands like them. But with the right support, I look forward to featuring them in a future edition of my good news newspaper.
Richard Verber is World Jewish Relief‘s campaigns manager