In Donetsk Under Fire, Caring For Those Who Remain

On a recent morning, Sophia, one of JDC's Hesed social welfare caretakers from Donetsk, was visiting a 97-year-old client of hers near the center of the eastern Ukrainian city when a massive explosion shook the building.

February 3, 2015

On a recent morning, Sophia, one of JDC’s Hesed social welfare caretakers from Donetsk, was visiting a 97-year-old client of hers near the center of the eastern Ukrainian city when a massive explosion shook the building.

Running outside, Sophia saw a nearby trolley bus had sustained a direct hit from a mortar shell, killing 13 people and wounding 20 others. Body parts lay scattered across the street as the sounds of screams and sirens filled the air.

Shaken, she resumed her daily duties: cleaning her client, cooking breakfast, and after making sure she was OK, going to her next appointment.

‘I understand I can be killed or injured, but I try not to think about it,’ she said of her work, which takes her to some of the most dangerous parts of the war-torn city. ‘I just run and pray. So far it’s worked.’

Since violence erupted in Ukraine last year, many caretakers and volunteers working for JDC’s Hesed social welfare center network like Sophia have risked their lives treating thousands of homebound and frail elderly around Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine today, JDC and the staff of the Hesed network is caring for more than 4,500 Jews who remain. Some have ridden bicycles through active war zones. Others traversed their way past gunmen manning barricades and checkpoints. Though their work saves the lives of countless people, the heroism of these men and women goes largely unsung.

‘The dangers facing many caretakers and volunteers working in eastern Ukraine are extreme,’ said JDC’s Former Soviet Union Director Michal Frank. ‘They provide our clients with essential food, medicine, and other necessities. Without their visits, people would die. They are true heroes and deserve to be recognized for their courage.’

Sophia — who had previously been employed by the Tochmash factory — began her career as a caretaker 15 years ago when clients of the kiosk she was working for told her about JDC’s local Hesed. She successfully applied for a position and her life has never been the same.

‘Caring for these people gives me strength and courage,’ said the 66-year-old, who lives alone and has no children. ‘They need me, and that makes my life worthwhile.’

Her job is difficult and demanding during peaceful times: cleaning, scrubbing, cooking, carrying goods, taking care of elderly and needy individuals who have often been neglected or abandoned. Since fighting broke out, another, potentially deadly element of difficulty has been added.

Mark, an 83-year-old client of Sophia’s, lives in the neighborhood closest to the Donetsk airport.

Over the past few months, the once-shimmering facility that reopened in 2012 for a soccer tournament has been reduced to rubble as government and rebel forces have battled over it bitterly.

Reaching Mark’s home requires traveling to the least safe part of town where gunfire and shelling are a constant. He has no gas, water, or electricity. His phone is cut off and the only way to get there is by foot. Sophia carries all of Mark’s food and medicine herself. When incoming rounds are heard, as they so often are, Mark and Sophia take cover in his basement. Sophia has had to spend three nights there because of gunfire outside.

‘If not for me, who will come and help?’ she said. ‘When I remember his eyes and arms, I feel for him. It’s as though he were a child of mine, who needs caring for.’

Earlier this month, Sophia was the sole person to visit an 86-year-old client who lives in a dangerous part of town by the train station on her birthday. They had tea and spoke about happier times. Sophia has even allowed for a client whose apartment is not safe to move in with her.

‘During the shelling we support each other so we aren’t as scared,’ she said.

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