This year, World Jewish Relief's Pesach Appeal is for our optical programme. A transformative process that takes vulnerable older people facing loss of vision and blindness from darkness to sight. I experienced a small taste of what they go through during a recent visit to Ukraine...
As I stood at the top of the stairs I started to panic. It had been gloomy in the stairwell when we’d climbed up the seven flights and narrow shafts of light had somehow penetrated through the small, grimy windows on each landing.
On our way up, I had just about managed to make out the poor state of the stairs. The rough surfaces, the chunks of concrete broken off at the corners, the exposed steel and dilapidated handrail.
But in the hour since we’d been in the apartment, enjoying the wonderful Ukrainian hospitality of our host, the sun had set and here I was standing at the top of the stairs in total darkness.
I’m a pretty tough person and as I tell my kids, there’s no reason to be scared of the dark. But the thought of getting myself down these stairs panicked me. And then I remembered my iPhone and fumbling with thick gloves in my big winter coat I retrieved it and breathed a sigh of relief as the torch on my phone lit up the stairs.
With a pinpoint of light, we found our way down, relieved to be out of the darkness as we stepped through the steel front door and into the orange gloom of the streetlights.
Lilia is not so lucky. Twice in the last two years she has fallen down the concrete stairs in her old Soviet apartment block, each time breaking her leg. Ten years ago she lost all sight in her right eye and since then a cataract in her left eye has got progressively worse. Now she struggles to even read a book.
Cataract surgery is the most common operation performed in the UK and you can have it done on the NHS. In Ukraine there is no free state provision for eye care or treatments. The people I met are living on the most meagre pensions and struggle to cover the cost of even basic items like food, medicine and fuel. The cost of ophthalmic surgery may not seem out of reach for us but at ten times the average monthly pension in Ukraine, it is unaffordable for many.
And the results are devastating. Simple everyday tasks like cooking and cleaning become increasingly difficult. Reading a book or watching TV become impossible. Leaving your home is terrifying. And as the world around them fades into darkness so too do the faces of their family, friends and grandchildren. Isolation and depression kick in. For many older people in Ukraine, the fear of losing their sight and going blind is greater than their fear of death.
But as with many of the circumstances I’ve experienced in Eastern Europe, the smallest changes can make the biggest difference. An eye test, a new pair of glasses or simple eye surgery can transform people’s lives for the better giving them back their mobility and independence.
In Kharkiv, north east Ukraine, Vladimir is 74 and lives with his wife in a small apartment. A warm and generous man, his passion is poetry, which he loves to read and write, especially satirical and humorous ones that make people smile. Here he's pictured reading his poems to a group at the Jewish community centre.
Three years ago his eyesight started to deteriorate and within a short space of time he lost the sight in his right eye as a cataract and glaucoma took hold.
Unable to afford surgery, he became withdrawn and frightened, scared to leave the house. He described his difficulties poetically, “objects were cloudy, they could appear and disappear like in a kaleidoscope – it became more difficult for me to write and I struggled to continue my poetry.”
World Jewish Relief’s optical programme helps pay for surgery for people like Vladimir and he told us it has transformed his life. He even laughs when he remembers the moment they removed the bandage and stitches and how the first thing he saw were the meatballs and tea his wife had brought him. “It was wonderful!” he says.
Vladimir having an eye test after his surgery
As part of the support, Vladimir also got an eye test and new glasses so that, “Now I am able to see everything.” And in turn, he brings a smile to the faces of those around him as he recites his poetry.
Not everyone is as lucky as Vladimir. Lilia is eager to have surgery but she told us that with her small pension, she was likely to die before being able to save enough money for the operation.
Lilia on the stairs where she fell and broke her leg
I often think about being back at the top of that dark staircase and am thankful at how easily I was able to find some light. It reminds me of the long struggle many older people like Vladimir endure but how it is possible to help bring them from darkness to sight.
To help us provide life-changing eye surgery, glasses and eye tests for vulnerable older Jewish people in Eastern Europe, like Lilia, this Pesach, please visit www.worldjewishrelief.org/pesach or call 020 8736 1250.
If you’re interested in travelling to see World Jewish Relief’s work in Eastern Europe please get in touch with Rebecca on firstname.lastname@example.org.