By Jessica Bohm, World Jewish Relief supporter
In mid-January I had the opportunity to travel to Kharkov and visit the projects World Jewish Relief is supporting and leading there.
Some Facts about Kharkov:
- General Population = 45 million in Ukraine, 1.4 million in Kharkov
- Jewish Population = 260,000 in Ukraine, 45,000 in Kharkov
- Internally Displaced Persons (from conflict) = 1.4 million in Ukraine, 187,000 in Kharkov
Livelihood Development Programme
Our first appointment was to meet a group of eight graduates of World Jewish Relief’s Livelihood Development Programme (LDP), which enables unemployed women and men to gain the confidence and skills to re-enter the workforce with the help of psychological support, vocational training and group workshops. It was so powerful to hear the stories of how these people came from “rock bottom” to where they are today, namely either employed, or having started their own enterprise. It was moving to hear how the programme also taught them to give back to the community such that many are now supporting Internally Displaced Persons or training other LDP participants with vocational skills such as hairdressing.
I was trying to understand why there is such a high rate of unemployed women in Ukraine. A significant contributing factor is due to the culture of women staying at home to raise their children in the early years, and state maternity leave being three years long. So, if you have two or three children, you are likely to be out of the workforce for 5-10 years, losing skills and confidence. In addition, beyond the age of 40, women are seen as ‘past it’ and it is almost impossible to gain employment. Add to this, the heavy emphasis on education, particularly in the Jewish community, with many Ukrainians holding multiple university degrees. In summary: leave university aged 23 after a Masters degree, work for a couple of years, have three children, and you're near the end of your career as a woman, having hardly worked at all!
As if the economic situation wasn’t bad enough in Ukraine, over the past couple of years since conflict began in Eastern Ukraine, almost 200,000 Ukrainians have relocated to Kharkov after being displaced from their homes. This has just added to the unemployment crisis.
Programmes for Older People
It was heart-warming to get a glimpse of various activities taking place in the Kharkov Jewish Community Centre. In one room members of the elderly community were learning ballet, in another they were singing songs such as Hava Nagila, enjoying each other’s company and doing exercises to keep their brains active.
Isolation and loneliness are amongst the main challenges within the elderly community, something that World Jewish Relief is helping to solve via its “Warm Home” programme. Across Ukraine there are over 20 groups consisting of ten members of the elderly Jewish community who come together weekly, meeting at the same host’s home to chat, have some tea and talk about absolutely anything except politics! We were very warmly welcomed and even handed gifts from our hosts!
We made a total of seven home visits over the course of our two day trip, the most poignant of which was to a family in the suburbs of Kharkov. In a 30m2 house lives a woman aged 80, her daughter Yelena, aged 48, and Yelena’s son aged 9. They were given this house in the Soviet Union times, a common situation in Ukraine, and have lived there for 30 years. There is no toilet or bathroom, just a sink in the corner of the entrance which also houses a fridge and a stove. Beyond the entrance there are two rooms, one with a single bed where the grandmother sleeps and the other, with a double mattress on the floor, a sofa and a desk. The double mattress is shared by mother and son and this room doubles up as the living room. Upon asking Yelena how her son gets on at school, the response was “he doesn’t have many friends, he prefers to spend time with his mother” - unsurprising when at the age of 9 they are still forced to share a bed.
World Jewish Relief is providing home repair services to this family, fixing the leaking roof, the holey floorboards and putting in a proper front door to provide insulation. Unfortunately there is no room for a toilet but at least this additional heat should help them get through the winters.
Coming from the freezing cold outdoors, there is an unbearable heat as you enter every home. This is due to old heating systems only allowing for “on” or “off” with no thermostats. In minus 25 degree temperatures, “on” is a necessity, causing homes to be so hot you need to open the window, whilst resulting in very high heating bills for a population that doesn't have the money to afford utility bills!
The situation in Ukraine is complex, politically, economically and socially.
With a war that has been going on for the past four years, over a million displaced people, remnants of the Soviet Union, an unemployment rate far greater than the UK rate, three years of state maternity leave, a large population of holocaust survivors, 76 men for every 100 women….Ukraine has its challenges.
World Jewish Relief is doing an incredible job to relieve some of these challenges, enabling elderly, disabled and unemployed Jewish (and non Jewish) communities to have a better future.