Displaced by Conflict in Ukraine, a Young Jewish Activist Shares Her Story with American Jewish Audiences
When the daily shelling began to be too much to bear last June, 23-year-old Masha Shumatskaya packed up her belongings and left her hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine for the safety of Kharkov.
Since then, she’s become one of 2,500 internally displaced Jews aided by JDC after they fled fierce fighting between government and separatist forces. Today, JDC also continues to serve thousands of needy Jews in the separatist-controlled regions as well.
In response, JDC has deployed emergency services assisting Jews caught up in the conflict, including: extra food, medicine, and medical care; crisis-related home repairs; extra winter items such as warm bedding, clothing, utility stipends, and space heaters; and a full aid package, emergency housing, and post-trauma care for displaced Jews – including Masha.
To raise awareness to the situation in Ukraine, JDC invited Masha on a two-week speaking tour of North America this month addressing Jewish audiences in Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York.
On Monday Masha sat down with Gil Shefler at JDC headquarters in New York City for a Q&A elaborating on her Jewish identity, hopes and fears for the future, and the current situation in Ukraine.
Can you tell me a bit about your Jewish background?
My ancestors were rabbis, but my grandparents weren’t connected at all. It was also impossible during Soviet times. Nonetheless, others around them never let them forget their Jewishness. My mother put me in the Number 99 Jewish School in Donetsk because it was convenient, had a school bus, free breakfast and lunch, and great teachers. There, I received a Jewish education, learned subjects in Hebrew, and got really involved in Jewish life – I even took part in the International Bible Contest in Israel representing Ukraine and I still keep kosher.
How did you become involved with JDC?
When I was 17 there was an annual program for young leaders from all over Ukraine organized by JDC called Metsuda. They said it might be a good fit for me, and they were right. I learned the value of teamwork and met some of my best friends there. Perhaps the best thing was the network of mentors and colleagues that I gained. We still gather about once a year and discuss ways we can help out our communities. Some even have successful businesses – despite the crisis – and can give back.
What was it like living in Donetsk during the conflict?
It started with demonstrations by unarmed people. When they took over the government building it didn’t seem unordinary or revolutionary. I saw that and told my boyfriend, ‘Maybe that’s what democracy is about.’ He said, ‘This is a bad thing.’ I only realized how severe the situation was when the barricades went up and some people started wearing masks and carrying guns. By the end of May they started shelling the airport and we had to leave. We lost our jobs and there was no reason for us to stay. We thought we would be back by September – nobody thought it would be more than a few months – so we moved to Kharkov. We stayed with friends until eventually we found an apartment.
How were you received on your tour of North America?
It was great because I came to people who realized I was a war refugee but didn’t realize the size of the catastrophe. I was treated as a member of the family, and showered with love. They were grateful I came, and I thanked those I met, those who supported us and my mother. Thanks to their donations to JDC we received food packages and financial help to rent our apartment for a few months. It was an honor to be an ambassador for all the Jews in need in Ukraine.
What does the future hold for you?
I have no idea – it depends on so many things. The thing that worries me the most is whether the war will come to Kharkov or not. If it does, I’ll be displaced a second time – not something I’d like to happen. In that case, I might have to think of other countries to live in. It might be Israel, or it might be another where I can find work as an English teacher or another specialist job. I had a lot of plans a year ago. Because of what happened, they changed completely.