My second visit to Kiev reminds me how complex life is here. In one respect it is a busy, thriving city where the people are proud, hardworking and smiling. In another respect the economy is surviving on international aid, everyone is out to make a fast buck and the divide between those that have and those that have not seems insurmountable.
I feel at home here. I walk back from the office (if you have visited Kiev you will know why I am not on my bike!) and I explore the city in the evening – restaurants, shops, parks, statues, churches and my personal favourite – the Lvov chocolate shop. It rains every day. To remind me of home. Yet I am far from home.
There are two reasons for my visit. First I need to gain real experience of how our partners operate financially. What are their strengths? Where might they be able to improve? What can they teach others and what do they still have to learn? The partners are all so different (the accountants not so much) and they have different ways of working, different motivations but their aims are the same; to provide dignity and hope to those that they support.
The good news is that Ukrainian accountants follow the rules. That is reassuring. All purchase orders are followed by an invoice which is authorised and paid on time and they in turn are followed by a goods received note. Partners ensure that there is segregation of duty in terms of making payments. Budgets are set, monitored and reforecast. Separate project codes are in place to track funds separately and donors are reported to regularly. Most partners have an active board who review the financial information twice a year.
This is all important. You might have skimmed this list or glazed over at this point but you need to know this stuff. World Jewish Relief staff, trustees, donors and the general public need to know that we check how our grants are spent. We trust our partners and we are here to support them but at the same time we are accountable for the money. I can sleep easy now. The hyrvnia have all been counted.
Our partners are all incredibly passionate about what they do and this enthusiasm is infectious. They talk and talk about their ideas, the future, the people they help. They are optimistic.
So that brings me on to the second reason for my visit. Once the money, food parcels, medicine, new windows and Shabbat dinners have all been counted I can look beyond the numbers. To see the people. In fact I saw just three of our elderly beneficiaries. Three very different women with three very similar stories. Most of their families have left Kiev and indeed Ukraine. They are dependent on the few remaining members of their families but not in the way you might think. These family members give them a reason to survive and a reason to stay strong. Two of the women, Gaia and Liudmyla are caring for their grown up children who have disabilities. Beth, has supported her daughter and grandson on her pension (£40 a month) since her son-in-law died.
They are all fighters, that is plain to see. Gaia whose mother died when she was young looked after her siblings and the household when she was still a child. Beth was 6 years old when she was forced to live in a ghetto in the 1930s. Her father and uncles did not survive the war. Her mother looked after all the children and they only survived because her mother was a seamstress and she could earn the little money she needed from repairing clothes. Beth remembers being forced to work hard - providing water and clearing the snow from the streets in the freezing cold of winter.
Gaia and Beth need emotional & intellectual stimulation. They enjoy the Shabbat dinners, getting out is important to them, as is talking about their struggles and their history which is our history too. And so very real when you hear it through their own words. Gaia has kept a diary – piles of notebooks that must span 30 or 40 years at least. She is incredibly intelligent and yet does not think anyone would want to read her story. How wrong she is.
Liudmyla’s needs are more basic. She is poor and vulnerable and needs both food and medicine. The stench of her flat is overpowering and yet she keeps it tidy and has provided tea for us. The support she gets is quite literally a lifeline and she is eternally grateful.
These women have worked hard all their lives, they worked into their sixties and seventies. The Ukrainian state cannot and does not provide adequately for them. We are helping to bridge this gap.
The money we provide helps change lives and our work is vital. Without our funding people like Gaia, Beth and Liudmyla would not be able to live with dignity and hope. My trip to Ukraine was a timely reminder why we do what we do. And also a reminder that my job is not just about the numbers.