Most people asked me the same thing on my return from Ukraine.
“Did you have a good time?” before the swift realisation that this was not necessarily the best question.
“Well, was it what you expected?” they tried instead.
Truth is, I’m not sure what I was expecting.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time living in Russia and travelling through Siberia and the parts of Ukraine I saw – Krivoy Rog, Zaporozhye and Dnepopetrovsk – struck me as quite similar.
Roads are bad but not impossible, pavements exist but aren’t quite straight (and offer little help if you’re in a wheelchair or have mobility issues) and huge Soviet-era monstrosities dominate the city landscape. Unique to Ukraine though, stunning fields of yellow sunflowers dominate the country as you drive from town to town.
Despite being a country five times the size of the UK, Ukraine has a population of just 46 million and shrinking, with an average life expectancy of just 62 for men (depending on estimates, and around 75 for women). There is no shortage of space and there are huge natural resources (iron ore in particular). Ukraine used to be known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ as it produced 25% of all agricultural products in the former Soviet Union. Today, however, the country is held back by a whole host of factors, with bad government and widespread corruption being right up there.
There are some incredibly wealthy people in Ukraine – the oligarchs sit top of the pile – but at the bottom of the pyramid sit millions of the country’s poor, including tens of thousands of Jews. The haves and have-nots contrast is very apparent and there is only a slowly-emerging middle class.
The Ukrainian 2001 census puts the number of Jews at 71,500 but as more people become comfortable acknowledging their Jewish heritage (which was often kept hidden under communist rule), that number is much higher today. World Jewish Relief put the figure at around 350,000 Jews, or perhaps even more, meaning Ukraine has the fifth largest Jewish population in the world, behind Israel, USA, Canada and France.
Ukraine’s aging population means that 40% of people are classified as pensioners (compared with around 20% in the UK). This puts huge constrains on the state where healthcare is supposedly free and available to all citizens, but in reality is extremely neglected and very expensive for many who need it.
Rising unemployment, combined with high inflation, mean the cost of living for the thousands of elderly people we support is becoming increasingly difficult as pensioners struggle to afford basic foodstuffs and heating for their apartment.
World Jewish Relief provides food and medicines which literally keep people alive, as well as repairing some of the most run-down houses to provide insulation in winter. The support reaches thousands and thousands of Ukrainians – mostly Jews, but by no means all.
I’d like to introduce you to a couple of people I met there.
Meet Natalya. She looks much older than her 59 years. Her father was killed at a young age in a mining tragedy. Twelve years ago her husband died of a heart attack. She had to borrow money for his funeral.
Their son married and had a child, but he met another woman and eloped to Russia leaving his wife and son behind. The mother of his child also met someone new and abandoned her son, leaving Natalya to look after her grandson, despite her meagre pension (she no longer works) of just £75 per month. That’s £75 per month, not per week.
To put that amount into perspective, once she has paid her accommodation costs, she’s left with less than £2 per day to live on, in a place where food costs are not much lower than in the UK. Any sudden additional expenditure – medicines, things for her grandson, repairs to her home – also has to come out of this money. It’s basically impossible.
Natalya’s house is very old, the walls are all cracked and the windows are crooked which allows freezing drafts to enter during winter. The floors are no longer covered as the old linoleum has been used to insulate the doors.
After the death of her husband, she didn’t have enough money to pay for her gas supply so the state cut her off. Natalya now has to burn wood in a small stove to keep warm resulting in smoke blackening the walls and the permanent smell of burnt wood everywhere.
She also suffers from a number of chronic diseases including coronary heart disease and hypertension but cannot afford the expensive medicines.
Thanks to the support of World Jewish Relief, Natalya receives a food card for her basic goods, medicines which would otherwise be unaffordable and regular visits from community workers to combat the isolation she feels.
“World Jewish Relief is the only one which supports me,” she said. “Not the Ukrainian government. I don’t know how I would manage without it.”
Imagine a modest two bedroom flat. Add in a small lounge, kitchen, bathroom and toilet. Now divide the space up for three families to live in. You’ll have to use the lounge as another bedroom. Put the modest two bedroom flat onto the seventh floor of an enormous, soulless, high-rise Soviet-era tower block, with crumbling concrete graffiti, a lift which doesn’t work and a staircase so smelly it makes your eyes water due to the rotten sewage seeping out of the broken pipes in thirty degree heat.
The communal corridor separating the three bedrooms is almost completely dark (it’s unclear whether this is due to a lack of wiring or need for new bulbs, but the families can’t afford their electricity bills anyway). There’s also no floor to speak of, it’s a combination of dirty lino, broken concrete and mud. The wallpaper, where there was any to begin with, has almost entirely peeled away. The rusty toilet hadn’t been cleaned for years and the bathroom was mouldy and dirty. The appliances in the kitchen were in urgent need of replacing.
Now meet Dzhemma. She is 20 years old and lives in one of the three bedrooms with her two-month old baby. The bedroom is her sleeping area, lounge and dining room rolled into one. It was the largest room in the flat, but lacked curtains, lighting and wallpaper. The floor is broken and on a slant. Little insulation means that in winter the room is freezing cold. Dzhemma’s bed is a very old couch which is barely still standing. Her baby sleeps with her.
Though this was a saddening, shocking scene – at least to me – it wasn’t what disturbed me the most. When I met other families we support, they were each able to articulate a hope for the future. Whether it was relatively simple such as a proper bed or double-glazing, they could all identify something they needed to improve their lives. Dzhemma could not come up with anything because she had no concept of hope. She was born in that apartment, had lived there for twenty years and expects to stay there, perhaps forever. Urban poverty eats away at people’s consciousness and destroys even the concept that a better future is possible.
Natalya and Dzhemma are just two of the people I met, each person with their own complex situation.
There are thousands more stories to share. I could have also have told you about Lyudmila, who has lived in her apartment (bedroom and kitchen, no bathroom, outdoor communal toilet) for over sixty years. We recently installed a toilet (admittedly in her kitchen, but where else could it have gone?) and changed her life. “I no longer need to die,” she said to me.
If you’d like to learn more, ‘like’ our Facebook page and look at the photos we’ve put up there.