Restoring Dignity to An Elderly Teacher in Kazakhstan

Dov Ben-Shimon

Last month I visited an impoverished 85-year-old Jewish woman named Dina, who lives by herself in a run-down house in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Since 2002, Dina has been receiving assistance from Almaty’s JDC-supported Hesed (Jewish welfare center). She gets 12 hours a week of home care, a monthly food basket, her medications, an electric heater, and regular home supplies. This is what keeps her going, and enables her to maintain the dignity she worked her whole life to achieve.

Dina taught for 40 years in the local schools, retiring in 1982. Today, she suffers from diabetes and can only move about slowly, with the aid of a walking frame. She’s lived in her tiny house for 63 years, and had no running water or indoor toilet until last year. The city authorities have refused to make any additional repairs, saying the house should be torn down. The problem is they won't give Dina any alternative housing. They’d just throw her into the street. So she stays.

Dina starts crying as she begins to tell me her life story, and Nelly, her wonderful Hesed case worker, strokes her hand as she speaks. Dina calls Nelly “my gold and diamonds.”

Dina’s father, Yoni, a minor Communist Party official, was expelled from the party one morning in a purge when she was a little girl. “We went to live with my uncle in Shymkent, south of here,” she relates. That’s what saved my father…that’s how you survived during the purges of the late 1930s—you moved from small place to small place and stayed quiet.”

“When the war started, father went to the army [he never returned] and mother found work sewing army uniforms. We lived in a shared apartment and my sister and I would sleep on top of the oven; it was nice and warm,” she says.

Dina came to Almaty on her own at age 17. “I was thin and hungry, suffering from malnutrition. Because my father was killed in the war I got special permission to live in the city of Almaty.”

Dina married, then divorced, and she raised a daughter alone. When her grandson was approaching draft age, her daughter left the country with him. “But I never thought about leaving. And I thought my daughter would return. This is my home. I couldn’t leave. It’s all I know.”

“I always knew I was Jewish, though we never really talked about it. I hadn’t heard about Hesed. But my school did a short movie about education and asked me to appear in it. The Hesed people saw me in the movie, and the school people said to them, ‘she’s Jewish and she’s alone, you should help her.’ So they came to me and said, ‘we’re from the mishpocha—the family; let us help you.’

Even over time, it was painful for Dina to settle into the reality of sheer loneliness. “I didn’t have anyone. It was really difficult. But now I have Hesed. Now I have Nelly. For 18 years after my daughter left, I was living here on my own. Now I am not alone anymore.”

As Nelly and I leave, Dina starts crying again, but this time it’s from happiness. “Thank you for coming,” she cries, “thank you for helping. We need to take care of each other.”

A senior JDC professional, Dov led a JDC Strategic Partnerships Mission last month to Turkey and Kazakhstan.

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