I was six years old when my parents and I left Ukraine for the United States; that was 24 years ago. I grew up completely Americanized, attending a Jewish school and summer camp, graduating from a university that afforded me great opportunities, and knowing that I can do just about anything with my life that I put my mind to. But I also grew up hearing about the Soviet Union, stories of shortages and struggles, and nostalgia about the great culture, food, and friends that my parents left behind. There have been more than a few times in my life that I've wondered, what would my life have looked like if we'd never left?
My first time back, I was, miraculously, traveling for JDC—one of the very organizations that had been instrumental in my family’s emigration, along with that of hundreds of thousands of other Soviet Jews. Two decades on, JDC in Ukraine is helping to feed some of the world's poorest Jews, as well as to revitalize Jewish life, which was nearly destroyed by decades of Communist repression.
My trip began with a drive around Kiev, which I was shocked to see looked like a buzzing European metropolis offering every brand of consumer goods, beautifully restored facades, and opulent-looking people smoking in the outdoor cafes. “How different could life here really be?” I wondered.
But then we drove over the bridge to my first home visit in one of Kiev's residential communities (huge areas where hundreds of thousands of people are crammed into Communist-era apartment blocks that seem unchanged despite decades of neglect and increasing dilapidation).
The Lileevy family's apartment is on the ninth floor of one of these Khrushchev-era structures. Cement was visible through the layers of wallpaper and glue that had been peeled from the walls in preparation for a remodeling job that never happened, and webs of electrical wires descended dangerously from the ceiling. There was no furniture in the main room, and it seemed the family's entire trove of belongings (a few furnishings, some children's books, and some clothes) was crammed into the far bedroom where the girls slept.
Valeria, 32, is a single mom to Palina, 12, and Veronika (Nika), 8. Smiling earnestly, she apologizes for the way the apartment looks (though it's been this way for the better part of the girls' lives, I later learn). The girls seem happy to be distracted from their homework, though their mom proudly shares that they are both very good students at the Jewish girls' gymnasium that they attend about an hour from their house. The social worker I've arrived with hands Valeria a food package with some staples and a few Rosh Hashanah treats, and we settle in on the futon.
This family is unable to make ends meet on the 1000 grivna (about $125) Valeria brings home each month. They pay nearly 700 grivna for utilities alone and the rest goes to pay for the school, where the girls eat their three meals a day. They are completely reliant on JDC's assistance for other food, school supplies, winter clothing, and medicine for the girls' recurring medical needs. As a young girl, Valeria attended a performing arts school until she became pregnant with her oldest daughter. She had always wanted to be a mom—but when her relationship didn't work out, single motherhood in these conditions turned out to be a very different story, especially since she had no parents to call on for help.
There is no welfare support system in Ukraine, and when the rent went unpaid and the landlord threatened to throw the family out of the house, the street seemed their only option. Without JDC’s assistance, Valeria would be completely alone.
I quickly realized that this could just as easily have been my life—that many of the circumstances that brought Valeria to this place were as arbitrary as those that had determined my path.
A few days later, I went to visit the apartment building where I had grown up, and it looked just as dilapidated as Valeria's. When I walked into the vestibule and scanned the list of residents above the mailboxes, our family name was still there—unchanged since the day my great grandfather moved into the building in the 1970s. Nothing—not the building's interior, nor the surrounding shops and streets—had changed in the slightest. The answer to what my life could have looked like if we'd never left was staring me right in the face.
Based in New York, Zhanna Veyts is part of JDC’s Global Marketing and Communications Team and has just returned from a two-week visit to Georgia and Ukraine.
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