Belarus: background on the Jewish population and how we are helping.
World Jewish Relief has been working in Belarus since the early 1990’s, providing key services to the impoverished Jewish population.
As events in the country dominate global news headlines, we outline some background on life for older Jewish people and the ways we are helping them.
The Jewish population of Belarus comprises between 10,400 and 25,000 people and makes up 0.1% of the country’s overall population. The community is predominantly urban and concentrated mostly in Minsk. There are other Jewish communities in Brest, Vitebsk, Gomel, Mogilev, Grodno, Babruysk, Polotsk, Mazyr, Baranovichi, and Pinsk.
Belarus in general, and the Jewish population in particular, is ageing. There are 1.5m people aged over 65 in the country, and it is estimated that by 2040 over-65s will make up a quarter of the country’s population.
The Heseds (Jewish community centres) in Minsk Vitebsk, Gomel and Bobriusk provide services to 8,359 older clients.
Standard of living for older Jewish people:
Belarus, given its Soviet past and communist ‘style’ infrastructure that remains in place means we see similar problems to neighbouring Ukraine and Moldova of poorly equipped housing for older people, lack of accessible healthcare, limited social care and ‘institutional’ type living accommodation for thousands ranging from children with disabilities to elderly people with mental health problems. Pensions average around £100-£120 per month which, given that the cost of living in Belarus is significantly higher than in other countries in the region, is low.
Covid-19 has hit Belarus particularly hard. Official figures state that there have been 69,673 cases and 617 deaths, but there is widespread doubt as to the accuracy of these statistics. There are anecdotal reports of doctors being prevented from putting COVID-19 as the cause of death on death certificates. There are also fears that the current protests will lead to a spike in cases.
Belarus implemented no quarantine measures and President Lukashenka famously dismissed the virus as a “psychosis”. Although Belarus did not officially close it borders, all of its neighbouring states did, which impacted many Belarusian businesses and drove up the cost of basic goods such as groceries and medicines by 10-20%
Our work in Belarus:
World Jewish Relief has been working in Belarus since the 1990s, supporting the community in various ways including humanitarian aid, projects for children with disabilities, livelihood development programmes, home repairs and other assistance for older vulnerable Jewish people.
Currently we work in partnership with Hesed Rakhamim in Minsk, but as the largest Hesed (Jewish community centre) in Belarus they also coordinate activities for us in other regions in the country.
In recent years have pioneered a transformative dementia care and awareness campaign, led by the Hesed who have reached out to other Heseds, non-Governmntal agencies and media, and have demonstrated their dementia work to State agencies to inform their national ageing strategy.
In June 2020 we were able to provide an emergency Covid-relief grant in addition to our core work and funded items of PPE and transport for homecare workers, hot meal delivery and food packages to older people who didn’t have family or friends to assist them during this period.
From July – December 2020 we will reach 350 older members of the community with the following activities, all aimed at helping people live active, healthier and happier lives:
- Befriending visits and companionship homecare for people who are isolated and struggle to leave their homes
- Recruitment and training of older people as community volunteers
- Payment and provision of hearing aids and eye surgery to people who cannot afford it
- Day centres for people with early stage – moderate dementia and home visits to people with advanced dementia or people with dementia who struggle to leave their homes and access the group activities
- Training and support for relatives caring for a loved one with dementia
- Homecare for Non-Nazi victims with dementia (Nazi Victims receive funding from Claims Conference)
- General training and awareness raising on dementia for the community as a whole and for other providers of care in Belarus, beyond the Jewish community.
Currently, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some of our activities are taking place online or with alternations to allow for social distancing. Where activities are not taking place at all, funds are being redirected towards additional homecare, food packages and hot meals for the most at-need older people.
- In addition we partner with JDC in Belarus to support 162 older people, all born while in evacuation from the Nazis during World War Two. Our services include homecare provision, food packages/bank cards, day centre activities, SOS funds and medicines.
Impact of the current crisis on older Jewish people:
The current political crisis follows an election result that has led to mass public protest and the arrest and detention of political prisoners, followed by widespread strikes. This is undoubtedly be having a detrimental impact to older people in particular as they worry about the future of Belarus, their loved ones potentially at risk for protesting, and economic crisis. For the 6th month they remain stuck in their homes as a preventative measure against Covid-19 where, most likely, many will have been watching the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters by the special military forces and seeing their country change before their eyes. We continue to stay in close contact with our partner, Hesed Rakhamim, as they navigate these new and unprecedented circumstances to work in, and to work out where there might be new needs to support.
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