Returning Home; My reflections from eastern Ukraine

My recent trip to eastern Ukraine was an opportunity to see World Jewish Relief's work and to explore my own family history and ancestoral ties to Ukraine. 

World Jewish Relief is well known for its disaster response around the world, but it is the charity’s invaluable work with Jewish communities in eastern Europe that I, and nine other young professionals, experienced first-hand whilst on a Young World Jewish Relief 'Insight Trip' earlier this year. 

As we landed in Dnipro in eastern Ukraine in the late afternoon we were introduced to Lena, a graduate of World Jewish Relief’s Livelihood Development Programme (LDP). She was enthusiastically snapping photos of us, and as she lit up the enveloping darkness with her camera, I suddenly remembered why she seemed familiar. I had watched a video about her story.  She arrived in Kryvyi Rih with her husband and young son, having fled her native Donetsk as the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated in 2014. The Livelihood Development Programme helped Lena nurture her talents, establish herself as a photographer and build a more secure future for her family. Realising that this future was the present we had just arrived at warmed me as the bus took us from snow-covered Dnipro to our destination.

Lena's story

We spent our first day in Kryvyi Rih (“Curved Horn”), the iron ore mining capital of Europe and at 75km in length, the continent’s longest city. The city is immensely proud of its rich industrial heritage but also shoulders the brunt of the consequences of the high mining activity in the area without seeing significant economic return. 

The Livelihood Development Programme, designed by World Jewish Relief and implemented by local partner organisations helps participants achieve a sustainable livelihood. Originally launched in 2012 to work with local Jewish families, the programme quickly expanded to accommodate and integrate the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) arriving in Kryvyi Rih from war-torn eastern Ukraine. One of the LDP graduates, Galina, a highly educated speech therapist, came to the city from Donetsk with her frail, elderly mother and her daughter, who has complex special needs. She shared with us that World Jewish Relief was the only organisation to offer her the emotional support she needed after the trauma she had experienced. With this support, she could work on developing her skills and continued her journey as a speech therapist.  

The biggest takeaway for me about the Livelihood Development Programme is the way that the World Jewish Relief community takes the time to really understand the individual needs of the participants and what’s important to them. Whether it is helping a participant acquire a driving licence and equipment so they can expand their business, or supporting a participant in setting up a sewing workshop and mentoring others, World Jewish Relief helps people achieve a sustainable income by giving them the confidence to leverage their individual capabilities and skills. 

meeting LDP graduates 2Members of the Young World Jewish Relief Insight Trip hearing from LDP        graduates in Kryvyi Rih. 

World Jewish Relief also extensively supports the elderly, who are often some of the most vulnerable members of the community. As there is very little and often no social security support at all, inspiring homecare workers visit the elderly and aim to relieve some of the economic hardships and burden of loneliness they face. Participants are visited in their homes on a weekly basis and receive some essential products as part of World Jewish Relief’s initiatives.

One participant, Alexandra, a vivacious and lively woman in her 70s with no family left locally, warmly welcomed us into her home and duly ordered us to eat her homemade cake (which was of course delicious). She recounted her life of service to the local community and was even cajoled to show off her singing skills as she mesmerised us with a Yiddish rendition of ‘Tumbalalaika’, an old Jewish folk song that I didn’t realize was also familiar to me until I started humming along. Alexandra, who a few years prior, used to help an elderly woman in need, expressed her happiness that someone was now doing the same for her. Paying it forward is a theme that resonates loudly across all the World Jewish Relief programmes that we saw.  

DSC 0961                Meeting participants of the 'Warm Home' project in Dnipro.  

On the second day, we returned to Dnipro, a city formerly known as Dnipropetrovsk and renamed in 2016 as part of Ukraine’s drive to de-communise the country. Our first stop was to head to Ada’s house, a participant in ‘Warm Homes’. The programme brings together groups of elderly locals at one of their houses, giving them the opportunity to socialise. Often, they would otherwise be unable to do so due to physical disability or other constraints. The group we visited was celebrating a birthday, and we merrily chatted while I indulged in delicious homemade Napoleon cake (grandma, if you’re reading this – yours is still my favourite). The men and women sitting around the table were all highly educated, with distinguished careers in education, business and industry behind them, in spite of the struggles of anti-Semitism many of them had endured living in the Soviet Union.  I left Ada’s 'Warm Home' feeling energized and hopeful, and certain that that is how the programme participants feel too.

We went on to visit the Jewish museum housed inside the Menorah Centre in Dnipro. True to its name, the complex consists of seven towers that resemble a menorah when viewed from afar. The museum contains highly interactive exhibits and colourful artifacts of Jewish life locally throughout past centuries, and more recently through the pogroms and the Holocaust. As I studied the map showing the arduous train journeys that many Jews took out of eastern Europe to escape the Nazis, I thought of my own paternal grandparents who took similar routes out of Odessa and Kharkiv respectively with their families to Central Asia. Despite the current Ukranian Jewish community being a fraction of its pre-war population, extensive efforts are being poured into re-building and preserving its heritage. World Jewish Relief is supporting this community’s effort by ensuring that no one is left behind.

The trip to eastern Ukraine, incredibly well organized and thought out, gave me an insight into the amazing work done by World Jewish Relief and left me with the sense that the charity is truly a bedrock of the community. As a Russian speaker, I had the privilege of really being able to connect with programme participants on a personal level. Upon returning to London and as I shared highlights of the trip with my own family, I learnt that my great-uncle in-law grew up in Dnipro. No wonder I really felt at home.

If you are a young professional and would like the opportunity to visit World Jewish Relief projects in eastern Europe, please contact Sam Schryer to find out about the next Young World Jewish Relief Insight Trip.

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