Working Together to Help a Family in Need in Ukraine

Dov Ben-Shimon

I paid a home visit to a family in Zaporozhe, Ukraine, last month that remains etched in my mind. Their difficult living situation is typical of the thousands of needy children and families who are benefiting today from Jewish Family Service (JFS) programs that JDC helped communities establish and the critical assistance they provide with support from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews/JDC Partnership for Children in the Former Soviet Union.

This family shares an old private house with their upstairs neighbors, remote relatives with whom they have an extremely tense relationship. The house is in very poor condition and lacks basic conveniences; the family shares an outhouse with their neighbors. JFS will begin a repair program before next summer; the priority is to install a shower to replace the sink or bowl the family must use now.

Inna, the Hesed caseworker who accompanied me, visits the family once a month, keeping in touch between visits through weekly phone calls. The house is in a dirty, abandoned, and neglected area in the far south of the city. We got lost going there because Inna normally takes public transport and there aren’t any good maps available to chart one’s way through “unofficial” roads and residential areas.

Marina, age 34, is a single mother raising two children: 11-year-old Bogdan and 4-year-old Ruslana. Bogdan suffers from a number of serious chronic diseases, including epilepsy, and Ruslana also has health issues. Despite his problems, Bogdan loves soccer and is an enthusiastic player and fan. Forced to stay home to look after her frequently ill son and young daughter, Marina could not work for many years, and the family survived on the grandmother’s very modest pension.

In fact, our connection to the family began with the grandmother, Yevdokiya.  She is ill and is a client of the local Hesed, which is part of the network of Jewish welfare centers that JDC helped establish and support.  When Bogdan was born, Yevdokiya’s caseworker told the family about the options available to them through JFS, and she told JFS about the family.

The family subsequently began receiving food aid, warm bedding, and clothing and school supplies for Bogdan, as well as medicines for both children. Inna’s main challenge has been finding the funds to support the family’s frequent need for medical care.

Marina signed up for the “Mothers for a Better Future” program at the local Jewish Community Center (JCC), taking classes in computer and work entry skills. She learned how to write a resume and be interviewed, and got all-important moral support. Recently, she landed a job in a convenience store that has boosted her confidence, and brought the family’s combined income to about $200 a month. Unfortunately, Marina must take costly private transportation to get to work, cutting into that still-meager income. But she's built a good relationship with her boss, so if one of the kids is sick she has some flexibility. She works hard.

Bogdan and his sister can’t go to the Jewish summer camp because of their health issues. They come to JCC activities and programs, though this is difficult because of the distance and the need to pay for private transport. On our visit, Bogdan helps me go shopping; he carries the bags. “I don’t think there are other Jews in the neighborhood, “ he tells me. “There are some here who are anti-Semitic and say something about us getting help. I don’t care. But my mother doesn’t like that.”

A sweet friendly kid with a wide smile, Bogdan still has problems, and Marina finds Inna’s help invaluable. “When I don’t know what to do she's there,” says Marina. “I can call her.” When Ruslana was in the hospital, Inna mediated with the staff, bringing in medicines that they didn’t have in hand. And Inna has organized volunteers to stay with the children when Marina needs to work a night shift.

Inna has been working for Hesed for nine years. Herself a beneficiary of JFS programs, she became a community volunteer, helping other families in the Home Management Support program. Seeing how people loved being with her and how much she loved her work, JFS staff members invited Inna to make social work her careerl. They signed her up for a distance learning training course given by Solomon University in Kiev—and Inna became another JDC success story.

To learn more about JDC programs in Ukraine, visit: http://www.jdc.org/where-we-work/former-soviet-union/ukraine.html.

A senior member of JDC’s professional staff, Dov Ben-Shimon makes periodic visits to the field to gain a first-hand perspective on current needs from JDC program beneficiaries and staff members.

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