Delivering Hope to Jews Fleeing, and Staying, in Eastern Ukraine

 Even amidst the ongoing crisis, a little boy finds comfort in a new stuffed animal (May 2014); courtesy JDC.
Even amidst the ongoing crisis, a little boy finds comfort in a new stuffed animal (May 2014); courtesy JDC.

by Ofer Glanz

When an endless stream of breaking news competes for our limited time and attention, some stories fall between the cracks – like that of the war in Eastern Ukraine, afire with constant shelling, electricity cuts, shortages of food and medicine, and widespread unrest. Three Jewish women’s lives were cut short last month in this region. Did you know?

Svetlana and Anna Sitnikov, a 57-year-old grandmother and her 31-year-old daughter, were killed by artillery fire when they went shopping for shoes in Lugansk, a city fought over by rebel and government forces.

Larisa Faschuk, 75, died on her way to buy groceries in a separate shelling incident in the same town a few days later.

They joined the growing number of civilian casualties in Ukraine’s ongoing crisis, a terrible toll that is tearing the nation apart.

For the Jewish community of Lugansk – which all three belonged to – the loss was particularly painful. Vadim Sitnikov, 5, lost his mother and grandmother and was put in the custody of his divorced father following the fatal attack. Fashuck was a beloved regular at the local Hesed social welfare center where she organized social gatherings.

Thousands of Jews living in the eastern part of the country have suffered dearly since fighting began. When they venture out they are at risk of being hurt, like the three women who perished. Even if they stay home they are not safe. One family’s house in Lugansk was reduced to rubble after it sustained a direct hit. Luckily, nobody was home at the time except the dog, which died in the blast.

Fleeing this unrest, Jews from eastern Ukraine have gone elsewhere until the crisis abates. JDC is currently helping more than 500 such individuals that fled the fighting for the now calmer cities of Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa. They have also gone to places like Rostov on Don in Russia.

Understanding the challenges and psychological distress faced by people displaced by wars and crisis – by drawing from our expertise working with them throughout our history – we immediately enacted an emergency response for these Jews. Over the past several months, we have connected them to the local Jewish community, our Hesed centers, and provided them, among other things, food, medicine, rental stipends, summer camps activities for children, and psychological support through group therapy programs.

I attended one of these sessions in Kiev recently where the people kindly let us listen in and witness a rare catharsis. A mother with two young children recalled to the group how back home her husband’s car repair business was destroyed and that there were mines in the streets, preventing her kids from going out and playing. Someone else then chimed in, after seemingly reluctant to speak, about the mines planted on her apartment complex’s roof, ensuring she and her family could never return home.

Healing is not the only result of the care offered to displaced Jews. Hundreds of miles away in Rostov, I have learned that a woman named Valentina and her granddaughter, Valery, aided by the local Hesed, have already begun giving back to their adopted community. Young Valery has been proactively volunteering in Jewish programming by coordinating children’s activities at the Hesed and serving at the center’s family camp that she is attending next week.

And while we offer aid to those in new places, JDC continues its crisis work with Jews who chose to stay in the East, facing the crushing challenges of war on top of their pre-existing worries. But our staff continue to deliver hope and comfort to these people, together with aid including food, water, and medications to people in Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, where fighting was previously focused, and in Donetsk and Lugansk, where it is now raging. Traveling through road blocks and unrest to reach those most in need, they realize that this emergency is far from over, with looming economic woes that will overtake the people in need when the violence ends.

Given the myriad of grave challenges facing our people in Ukraine, Israel, and beyond, it may seem daunting to find solutions. But there is a fortitude that exists in the global Jewish community, and a yearning to ensure that those most vulnerable are safeguarded. For Pavel and Tanya from Donetsk, sleeping a bit easier in Dnepropetrovsk … for Hagit and Yaron finding safety and recreational distraction in a bomshelter in Sderot … that commitment in given full meaning. And It’s some reassuring news to spread around when we would otherwise like to change the channel.

Ofer Glanz is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Chief Program Officer and oversees the organization’s emergency response in Ukraine.