For Teen Fleeing War-Torn Donetsk, A Safe Haven in New City

January 12, 2016

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Before the war came, 14-year-old Elizaveta Pedash was an average Jewish teenager in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Then everything changed.

Liza, her infant sister Sophia, and her parents — her mother, pregnant; her father, forced to leave behind the small business in Donetsk that was his passion — were driven from their hometown by incessant shelling.

They managed to escape to Zaporozhye, about three hours west, but one of Liza’s close friends from school was not so lucky. She was killed by missile fire soon after the Pedash family left town, a tragedy that sunk Liza into a deep depression for months.

Upon their arrival in Zaporozhye, JDC took care of the family, providing them with a rented apartment to live in, food subsidies, clothes for Liza, and medical care for her parents. When Liza’s mother gave birth — to a daughter, Svetlana — JDC gave the family clothes, medicine, diapers, and a stroller for the baby.

“Without the help of JDC, my family — and thousands of other internally displaced people in Ukraine — would not have survived,” Liza’s mother said.

Liza’s first connection with her new city’s Jewish community was at a JDC family retreat. Buoyed by her positive experience with the weekend’s teen programming, she began to become an active participant in the city’s Jewish teen club.

This past summer, Liza and some of her new friends from the Zaporozhye Jewish community attended Szarvas, JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation’s pioneering international Jewish summer camp in rural Hungary.

Joining with some 2,000 peers from dozens of countries, Liza’s passion for her Jewish identity was sparked.

“When I came home, I shared my ideas with the teen club coordinator and now, I’m help with children’s activities in our community,” Liza said. “Next summer, I’m going to become a madricha (counselor) at our Jewish Community Center (JCC) family retreat.”

Inspired by a JDC leadership seminar for Jewish teens, Liza also plans to build her own community project — a new program on Jewish art at the JCC.

Liza’s life changed completely when war broke out in Donetsk. But now, thanks to JDC and the Jewish community of her new city, she’s beginning to imagine a path forward.

“The war made me leave my city and lose my friends, home, and everything I belonged to. But the Jewish community of Zaporozhye has helped me return to normal life and find new friends — basically, it’s helped me come alive again,” she said. “I’m so happy to have a chance to give back to the community that welcomed us at the hardest moment of my life.”

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