In Frigid Ukraine, Stepping Up For Jews

January 13, 2015


Though motherhood is an uncomplicated source of joy for many women, 41-year-old Ella Belenky’s happiness at giving birth to twin boys was tempered with deep worry: How would she provide for them?

Deaf and a client since 2003 of JDC’s Hesed social welfare center in Donetsk — the eastern Ukrainian city at the center of the country’s current crisis—Ella’s life was upended in 2013 when a large tree fell on and severely damaged her home. Since then, she’s been living with a neighbor, another deaf person.

In May 2014, Ella gave birth to twin boys, Alik and Artem. As a single mother with special needs lacking a steady income, a sturdy home, and support from her family, Ella’s situation became especially difficult when the Ukrainian conflict spread to her home city of Donetsk, a metropolis of about one million people located about two hours from the border with Russia.

Once the Ukrainian government cut off social welfare payments to the part of the country under the control of pro-Russian forces, Ella lost the small income she had depended on—her disability allowance. She also was unable to register for a special maternity dispensation—now available only outside the conflict zone, a move too dangerous for the young Belenky family to make under current circumstances.

Ella and her babies now live with her neighbor in a one-room house too small for anything but the most basic of furniture. JDC provides baby food and diapers, highchairs and a playpen, and winter relief—warm shoes for Ella and warm snowsuits for Alik and Artem.

JDC has significantly expanded its Winter Relief Program in Ukraine this year in response to a harsh winter worsened by the country’s energy crisis, skyrocketing costs, ongoing unrest, and the growing needs of displaced Jews.

The ramp-up of services — including window repairs and replacements, subsidies for utility payments, and the provision of extra fuel — represents a seven-fold increase in JDC’s Ukraine Winter Relief budget.

“While winter relief is a lifeline for tens of thousands of Jews in need in any given year, it’s even more essential in Ukraine where utility prices have soared and the crisis has continued with no end in sight,” said Michal Frank, director of JDC’s Former Soviet Union department. “We have proudly stood by the Jews of Ukraine during this period and, together with our invaluable partners, have redoubled our efforts to ensure this winter is imbued with the warmth of Jewish solidarity and mutual care.”

JDC is also evaluating the possibility of assigning a social worker to pay home visits to the Belenky family to ensure the healthy growth of Alik and Artem, who are currently growing up without hearing daily conversations or other auditory stimulation — developmental necessities for children their age.

“I’m so grateful to JDC for this vital assistance,” Ella says. “Without it, it would literally be impossible for us to survive.”

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