I thought I was prepared, I was not: reflections from Odessa
By Bianca Weber, Head of Home Repairs Campaign
When I came back to the office after two action-packed days visiting our Home Repair project in Odessa, Ukraine, numerous colleagues asked me how my trip was. Addressing this question elicited a different response each time it was asked. Depressing? Horrifying? Shocking? Hopeful? Uplifting? After visiting several elderly recipients waiting for home repairs, no answer I provided could ever truly explain the overwhelming experiences.
Although this is my fourth trip to Ukraine – nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and felt when I visited the home of Svetlana. I thought I was prepared. I was not. How do you describe the despair of seeing an elderly lady who could represent any one of our own grandmothers go hungry? Or the feelings of walking into a home that has no toilet or no hot water. Basic amenities I take for granted. Engrained in my mind as I write this is the image of Svetlana in tears. I was numb.
Svetlana, aged 77, experienced hardships from a very early age. She was separated from her parents as a young girl. When the Nazi’s invaded Ukraine, they came for her parents and were later then evicted from their apartment and marched away. She never saw her parents again. She was literally left in the hands of her non-Jewish neighbour which is how she survived to tell her tale.
Svetlana lives in a two bed apartment together with her daughter and grandson. Svetlana was diagnosed with cancer but she beat it. Two years ago, her daughter was also diagnosed with cancer. As if having cancer was not enough, her daughter suffers with mental issues after a very long abusive and violent marriage. As a result she has become introverted and suffers with severe anxiety and depression.
They have no means of keeping warm. Gaps around the windows and doors let the freezing air flow constantly through the house. Her bedroom window cannot close at all. Wallpaper hangs from the damp walls and ceilings. The dilapidated bathroom no longer functions. There is no toilet and no running water.
After working for years as a librarian, Svetlana is now retired. Because of her daughter’s poor health, she is incapable of looking after her son and the responsibilities lie on Svetlana. Svetlana feels her situation is desperate. Despite living with her family she feels that life has become very difficult and she feels completely alone.
So much more needs to be done to help Svetlana lead a safe and dignified life. World Jewish Relief will carry out essential repairs to her home in the next few months. The bathroom will be replaced so that she has hot running water, we will install a toilet and repair the leaking ceiling and draughty windows.
However numb I was, I was in desperate need of an injection of hope; I wasn’t disappointed. However sad Svetlana may be, she refuses to give up hope. She told me that she loves G-d and loves life even though she hasn’t been dealt a very kind hand. Svetlana is a delightful lady who has a zest for life despite all the hardships life has thrown at her. Her positive energy is contagious and I left her home feeling very inspired.
After visiting Svetlana and others living in the same dire unsuitable conditions – there was Maya, Natalya and Oleg, I was on my own personal mission to listen, to learn, to feel. Yet the more I learned, the more I saw, the less I understood. For the entire two days of the trip and from now until the end of my days, I ask, “Why?” Why do members of our global Jewish family live this way? Why are they denied basic human amenities? Why do they have to live their last days feeling hungry?
From the stripping of basic human needs like having a flushing toilet to the degradation of these Jewish individuals who live their lives hungry, there were those that I met who tried to remain optimistic and dared to dream of better days ahead.
This was an unforgettable and emotionally challenging two day journey. Visiting recipients of our Home Repairs Programme was one of those reminders to love being alive, to be proud to be Jewish. I think about it every day.
World Jewish Relief’s Home Repairs programme helps to ensure that the poorest members of our global Jewish family are able to live with dignity, in safe and warm homes. In the next four years, we aim to repair 3,500 homes. Many of those we help, like Svetlana, live in Soviet-era apartment blocks that have been entirely neglected since they were built. With new windows, fresh plaster, a toilet, a shower or new kitchen, their lives will be changed forever.
If you would like to support our Home Repair programme, donate here.