In Ukraine, I saw first hand how World Jewish Relief's work providing homecare and empowering people with disabilities is challenging the country's status quo.
The last time Diana tried to go to the shops, she slipped on the concrete staircase and lay on the floor for hours until a neighbour found her. She has been too scared to leave her house since.
I met Diana on one of my first days in Dnipro, Ukraine. It was -13°C when we arrived at her apartment. Armed with thermals, Brunch Bars and the world’s ugliest fuchsia snow boots, I was physically prepared. Mentally, I probably wasn’t.
I had been a Trust Fundraiser at World Jewish Relief for almost two and a half years, and read my fair share of harrowing, often tragic stories about the Jewish people we help across the country. I’d begun to compartmentalise the bleak reality faced by these communities, which I so easily could be part of, had my family not left Eastern Europe during the war. But being there for a week, in the worst winter for six years, made this reality unavoidable.
Diana is 67 years old and has lived alone for the last four years since her husband died. She has multiple sclerosis and, when she lost vision in one eye, she had to give up her job as an Editor for a local newspaper. With no income, she now survives on a pension of £41 a month. Just enough to pay her extortionate heating bills and buy a few basic food items. All four of Diana’s children live abroad and do not support her financially. This is apparently not unusual.
Diana’s MS has caused huge problems with her balance. It has been four months since her fall and the last time she stepped outside her apartment. Living on the sixth floor of an old Soviet tower block with no lift and steep staircases, she is essentially trapped in her house.
Homecare: If we don’t, who will?
Social care in Ukraine has a long way to go; it is virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, government-provided ‘homecare’ consists of strangers coming into your home, making sure your utility bills are paid and sent off, and the occasional delivery of a food package.
One of World Jewish Relief’s largest projects provides homecare for hundreds of older Jewish people across Ukraine, including Diana. Her homecare worker Jenny underwent intensive training to give Diana the care and attention she desperately needs. She comes for 20 hours each week and helps Diana with tasks that are no longer safe for her to do alone, like dressing, bathing, cooking and cleaning. She also brings medicines, which we fund, to make sure Diana is properly managing her condition.
Diana told us that she sits by the phone every day, waiting for one of her children to call her because she can’t afford to call abroad. But the calls rarely come. At times, she admitted, she has even called friends at work “just to hear someone’s voice”.
The homecare programme fills a practical void, but it’s so much more than that. Jenny has become Diana’s family, a “sister”, who connects Diana to the outside world and brings her young boys round to hear about Jewish festivals and sing Diana songs they learned at school. She brings light to a very dark life.
Ukraine: A country decades behind for people with disabilities
Two days later in Kiev, as the city was hit by a heavy snowstorm, I was struck once again by how far behind Ukraine is – this time in its facilities for people with disabilities. Things I barely notice in the UK, like lowered pavements, traffic lights with sound signals or ramps, just don’t exist. As we skidded our way from the icy streets into shops, train stations and cafés with wet, slippery floors, it was impossible not to think of Diana and how much more difficult it would be for her.
A trip later that afternoon showed me that accessibility and inclusion is sadly not a priority in Ukraine, when we visited an isolated institution for adults with disabilities. Set deep in the middle of a forest, it was a stark reminder of the lack of support for those with learning and physical disabilities, older people with conditions like dementia, and those with mental health problems. It reminded me how important our support is in helping members of community to be cared for at home.
Hope for the future
A highlight of my trip was visiting our Yedid project. This is a pioneering programme that gives young adults and adults with disabilities the opportunity to learn skills that can help them live more independently.
We met the group at Marisa’s house, a mother of one of the participants. She has fought to keep her 25 year old son Aleksander at home rather than in an institution, and dedicated her life to looking after him. But, like all parents in her situation, she worries hugely about what will happen to him when she dies.
Through the project, Marisa has taught Aleksander and 17 others practical skills like cooking, growing vegetables, sewing, cleaning and maintaining personal hygiene. These will hopefully equip them to live alone once their parents pass away. As we went in, we were greeted by the group with huge grins on their faces, all proudly showing us the napkins they were hand-stitching. The contrast between them and those I had seen in the institution was not comparable.
Many parts of my trip were unsettling. There was an unshakeable feeling that those we met – Jewish people, with the same history, traditions and songs - could have been us, our parents, our grandparents. But whilst we live here, they are victims of circumstance, trapped in a country that does not provide for them. They rely on us. The alternatives are not acceptable.
But I also left feeling inspired. Our partners, and people like Jenny and Marisa, are passionate about making sure things change. They challenge the status quo. There is a long way to go, but changes are happening and we are investing in them. That makes me hugely proud.