Someone to care: reflections on a journey to Ukraine

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Earlier this year Rebecca travelled to Ukraine to meet some of the people who benefit from the support of World Jewish Relief. This year's Rosh Hashanah Appeal focuses on the most vulnerable older people that we support and the remarkable home care workers who enable them to survive.

Kryvyi Rih is just a short flight from the UK but you could be forgiven for feeling like you’re going back in time to a northern industrial city in the 1970s. Built along a seam of iron ore, the city is more than 100km end to end and is one of the largest centres for mining and steel in Eastern Europe. The streets and houses are covered in a fine red dust from the open iron-ore mines scattered along the length of the city and our jovial translator, Arkady, tells us it’s not unusual for the birds and stray dogs also to turn red, as well as the snow in winter.

Arkady speaks and teaches seven languages and lives in Kryvyi Rih with his wife and four children. A warm, dark humoured man, he relates the long history of the city and the struggle to adapt after the fall of the Soviet Union. Life in Eastern Ukraine is hard and after three years of fighting, the conflict is making it increasingly difficult. As you drive along the potholed roads you pass low rise Soviet era apartment blocks, tired and worn with peeling paint and disheveled windows. The view from inside is even more depressing with many families and older people living in dilapidated homes, often without proper heating, bathing or cooking facilities. Inflation is high and even affording the basics can be an enormous struggle.

Krivoy Rog apartment building Typical Apartment Building, Kryvyi Rih

It’s no wonder so many of the younger generation have chosen to leave, Arkady tells us, moving away to find work in other, more prosperous cities. We meet some of those who have decided to stay or don’t have any other option, supported by a World Jewish Relief programme that helps them get back into the job market or establish their own businesses. It’s quite a different experience for the older people in the Jewish community.

Growing older is never easy. Even in the UK, advancing age comes with its challenges. In Ukraine, it can be a constant struggle. With non-existent social services, virtually no state support and no savings, many older people in the Jewish community are having to choose between eating, staying warm and being able to afford to buy medicine. As well as the physical hardship, many older Jews in Ukraine face crippling loneliness, isolation and depression. Large numbers are widowed and they are often either childless or left behind when family members move away or abroad. 

The lucky ones are those we meet in the Jewish Community Centre. A place where they can meet friends, stay warm, sing, dance and join in with the array of social and cultural activities funded by World Jewish Relief. It’s older Jews who are unable to get to the centre, for whom life can be even more unbearable. Unable to leave their homes without support, they’re cut off from their friends, family and community. Suffering from illness and often immobile, they are unable to care for themselves and with very few visitors, they have virtually no opportunity to speak to or see their family or friends and depression is frighteningly common.

Activities for older people at the Jewish community centre Krivoy Rog Activities at JCC

Living alone in a small, one room rundown apartment is Lyubov Steinbach, 68 years old. She studied languages at University and worked as an English teacher and translator for many years. Life has been tough for Lyubov. She has had rheumatoid arthritis for many years, which means it’s severely painful to even move around her own home and she can’t leave her home because getting down the flight of stairs in her block of flats is impossible to manage alone. She has also become blind in one eye.

Lyubov can’t take care of herself. Simple tasks like warming up food or pouring a glass of water are impossible for her to do on her own. Bathing, dressing and cooking are unimaginable without someone to help. Like many older people in Ukraine, she has no children, family or friends to help care for her, and the cost of hiring help is much too high for state pensioners like Lyubov to afford. She is terrified of being left alone in her home - being bedridden and without any help, she is certain she would die alone from starvation.

Iryna helps Lyubov with washing Iryna with Lyubov

World Jewish Relief’s work supporting older people in Eastern Europe helps to ensure that people like Lyubov aren’t left alone to cope by themselves. Every day, Lyubov welcomes Iryna into her home. Iryna is home care worker, funded by World Jewish Relief and provided by the local Jewish welfare service, Hesed. Not too far removed from a fairy godmother, Iryna cooks Lyubov’s meals, washes her, does her laundry and cleans her apartment. She’ll also do the shopping and deliver food and medicine.

But just as importantly, she provides Lyubov with vital regular companionship, bringing news of family, friends and the wider Jewish community. For Lyubov, this is her only connection to the outside world and without Iryna’s visits she wouldn’t see anyone for weeks. She can’t praise Iryna highly enough. She talks about looking forward to her visits and continually stresses how she wouldn’t have survived had it not been for Iryna and the moral and physical support she provides as a home care worker.  

Home care workers enable older Jewish people to retain their dignity and help combat the devastating loneliness, fear and isolation they experience on a daily basis. “Because of my pain, I cannot take care of myself. I am so grateful for my home care worker Iryna and for all the things she does for me,” says Lyubov. “I’m also grateful for Hesed. Without Hesed’s assistance, I could not survive.” 

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