International Women’s Day: Standing with the Women of Ukraine
This International Women’s Day, it only seems appropriate that we should be amplifying the voices and stories of some of the incredible women we work with in Ukraine. Julia, Oksana and Lilya’s lives have been torn apart by the war – from day to day, we don’t even know if they are safe from the Russian advances.
The women of Ukraine are faced with a terrible choice right now – with men of fighting age unable to leave the country, Ukrainian women have to decide whether to stay or go. Neither choice is easy. Some have no choice but to stay. This International Women’s Day, we are thinking of them – those who have fled, and those who have stayed – not just in Ukraine but around the world, from Syria and Afghanistan to Yemen and Bangladesh.
Julia has worked with World Jewish Relief for almost nine years. She runs on of our partner organisations, 2U, in Kyiv. Her organization supports lonely older people by providing food, medication, PPE – her volunteers are companions, too. The volunteers do their best to listen to them, to share their fears and thoughts. Julia said;
Of course, we can’t change the entire world but to return the taste of life and relieve solitude is something we are able to do for those who are most in need.
Now, in Kyiv, Julia is trying to operate under Russian shelling. Life for her, and her organization, changed overnight. Most of her team fled Kyiv when the invasion began, so she has been left with a skeleton staff, but is still managing to reach our most vulnerable participants. Last week, they managed to coordinate a big delivery of hot food and supplies to older people. Even in the direst of circumstances, Julia carries on. She and her team are saving lives; but, she said, ‘I am just as scared as everyone here.’
“I did not expect the extent to which my husband and I had very different political views, and different ideas about our future. We lived in Donetsk. Of course, I was scared for my children and for myself, I was pregnant at that moment. I didn’t see any opportunity for us to stay in Donetsk, when there was shooting very close and everything exploded. I made a decision to leave, without any hesitation and my husband decided to stay. And so it happened – with two children, pregnant I arrived to Dnipro alone, and he stayed in Donetsk.”
Life in Dnipro was hard for Oksana. Landlords did not want to rent to someone from Donetsk, and employers did not want to offer a pregnant single mother a job.
“At night I would cry into my pillow, and in the morning again I would face a bunch of new problems. I could not get any assistance from my husband as he lives in the area not controlled by the Ukrainian government.”
Oksana eventually moved to Kriviy Rih. Here, she connected with World Jewish Relief, and we helped her get a stable job. Finally Oksana was able to provide for her children, and begin to rebuild her life.
Last time we spoke to Oksana, it was September 2021. We asked her what her plans were for Rosh Hashanah. “I will be celebrating at home with children, they love to feast on honey and apples, and of course I will cook a lot of tasty things for our next year to be full and abundant.”
Now Kriviy Rih is being bombarded by Russians. Oksana, who left everything she had behind in 2014, may have to do so again. We don’t know yet where she is.
Liliya grew up in a small village in the Ukrainian mountains with her parents and older sister. One day, the Germans came and began killing people at will. Liliya’s father tried to hide in some trees, but was killed. To this day they don’t know where his grave is. Her mother and sister were also murdered. Liliya only survived because a friend of her mother’s – Olga – took her in, changed her name and pretended to the Germans that she was her daughter, and not Jewish. “Everyone in the village knew. They kept the secret.”
Liliya’s uncle moved her to Kharkiv, when she was 13 years old. She had lost everything to the war.
Liliya remembers vivid details from these events; the geography of the village, all the various ladies who looked after her. But now, her short term memory is beginning to fail her. Liliya has dementia. She becomes sad when she thinks about it.
It’s scary when I can’t remember things.
Liliya lives with her daughter in Kharkiv. Before the war broke out, our specially trained dementia carer would visit often, helping Liliya keep her mind active, keeping her company and making sure her daughter knew how to look after her.
Now, Kharkiv is being shelled by Russia. There are thousands of people living there like Liliya, who are too vulnerable to flee. Our partners are doing their best to care for them, but even trying to keep people fed involves risking their lives.
Today, we are thinking of the women of Ukraine. The choices they are having to make, and the ones they are unable to make. The lives they are having to leave behind, again. The horrors of war they are being forced to live, and relive.
Often, due to the nature of society and gendered roles, women experience life, and particularly disasters, in a different way to men. With an organisational commitment to prioritising the needs of women and girls within our programmes, World Jewish Relief is making sure we hear the voices of those like Oksana and Lilya. Through acknowledging and addressing the diverse lived experience of all genders on our programmes, we are able to tailor our interventions to be more equitable, and improve the experiences of women in dangerous conditions around the world.