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May 27, 2016

My trip to Odessa and Kherson


My trip to Odessa and Kherson

By Rafi Cooper, World Jewish Relief’s Director of Communications

Vera had not experienced fresh air for three years. Imagine that, not even smelling a flower or hearing the wind whistle through your hair for three years. Incredibly frail, getting down the six flights of steps to her tiny apartment hasn’t been possible for years. She couldn’t even dream of it.

But until four years ago, she could at least take solace from spending time on her balcony, staring at the world outside. That was until a fall meant she was not able to even climb the one step to get into the balcony. She was trapped, physically and emotionally. Not just lonely but trapped in virtual solitary confinement. That was until a few months ago. Our home repairs programme took away the step that she simply couldn’t surmount and made the balcony accessible – a simple change. Seeing her gratitude is incredibly powerful. Now she can spend hours each day looking at the outside world and experiencing it for the first time in years. She is a transformed person. Her confidence has grown and she now has friends round and is able to confidently entertain and show people her balcony. It might not sound like much, but this simple change to her house has given her a reason to live, thanks to World Jewish Relief.

Her compatriot Nadia is not so lucky. She bursts into tears before we’ve even entered her home. Walking into her house the smell of asbestos is so strong that I felt a headache come within minutes. The plumbing in her toilet is non-existent. Her ceiling is falling in. Unlike Vera, she cannot bear to entertain friends, she’s simply too embarrassed by her home. She dreams of the day, only a few months from now, when she will be given life’s essentials – a functioning home and toilet, a safe living environment, a ceiling that doesn’t leak and, ultimately, her dignity back. I can’t wait to go back and see the change it makes.

Seeing people’s homes repaired, I was reminded, once again of the extraordinary difference a simple change can make on people’s lives.

Our work to specifically alleviate loneliness and isolation is similarly impressive, albeit slightly less physically tangible. We met Alexander whose speech is seriously impaired and who lives a lonely life. A boxer in his youth, the exuberance is obvious in his eyes, but the rest of his body just won’t keep up. I could feel his frustration. Despite his slow speech, he exudes gratitude. The companionship offered by Olga, his homecare worker, is the best time of the week. A simple game of chequers, a chat about the latest Jewish festival; just to spend time with another human being is so transformative. He gives me a cuddly toy dog as an expression of his gratitude. He doesn’t have much so the item is obviously incredibly significant for him. It now sits proudly in the office, a sign that a simple thing can change someone’s life, something that our work is doing every day.