Masha Shumatskaya’s visit here was part of an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee tour of North American cities. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
All Masha Shumatskaya wants is for the fighting to stop so she can go home. The 24-year-old Jewish Ukrainian English teacher was living and working happily in the city of Donetsk until April 2014, when pro-Russian separatists arrived two hours north of her hometown and declared their intention to form a people’s republic.
Until that moment, her life had been quite ordinary. Shumatskaya, a slender beauty with gentle eyes, was one of some 15,000 Jews in Donetsk, a city that boasts a Jewish community centre, a Chabad-run synagogue, a kosher café and various Jewish youth and cultural groups. “I never once experienced antisemitism growing up there,” she said. “I was never afraid to say I was a Jew.”
By May 2014, the pro-Russian separatists had moved into Donetsk and were threatening the safety of civilians. They bombed the Donetsk airport and the violence forced the closure of many schools and business offices in the city. Shumatskaya and her friends began making plans to move to other cities in Ukraine, such as Kiev, Odessa and Kharkov. She chose Kharkov, five hours’ drive from Donetsk, leaving her parents behind.
But Shumatskaya is one of the lucky ones. There are some 7,000 Jews still living in the war zone in Ukraine, many of them elderly. They’re dependent on the Joint Distribution Committee’s aid for food, medical support, rental subsidies and basic necessities.
Shumatskaya was in Vancouver recently as a guest of JDC, where she met with Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver representatives and media to tell her story. With her was Michael Novick, executive director of the American Jewish JDC in Bellevue, Wash. “The situation in Ukraine has become a high priority for the JDC,” he said. “It’s not just the Jews, mostly elderly, still living in the conflict zone, but also the 2,500 Jews who’ve fled and need assistance, and another 60,000 Jews we’ve been helping all along with basic humanitarian supplies.” The JDC estimates the cost of its monthly relief for these Jews to be more than $387,000 US.
The political unrest has had widespread effect. The Ukrainian economy has plummeted, the purchasing power of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has dropped more than 50 percent and inflation is between 25 and 30 percent. “A year ago, the average pension of an elderly person we were assisting was equivalent to $150 US. Today, that same pension is only worth $50 US,” Novick said. “People have lost their jobs, their businesses, and Jews who could previously take care of their own families are now coming to the JDC’s Hesed welfare centres.”
The JDC has 32 Hesed welfare centres in Ukraine, and 160 of them across the former Soviet Union. Among those Jews requiring their services in Ukraine, Novick said they represent “the poorest Jews on earth, living in really dire conditions. For them, the lifeline provided by Hesed in terms of supplemental, basic humanitarian assistance, is vital.”
He added that the emergency funds being supplied by JDC are not part of its budget. “But the situation in Ukraine is so dire that we’re not waiting – we’re simply spending money and hoping that individuals, federations and foundations that meet Masha and hear about this story will come to our assistance.”
Shumatskaya’s 10-day visit to North America included stops in Seattle, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York. Last year, JFGV made a $25,000 grant to JDC for its various programs.
As she looked to the future, Shumatskaya was uncertain what it would hold for her. “I feel attached to Ukraine and I feel some responsibility to help with what’s going on there,” she said. “If I had to leave Kharkov I don’t know where I’d go. But I know that I don’t want to become a war refugee again. Once in my life was quite enough.”
Her message to Vancouver’s Jewish community is twofold: a reminder that Jews are responsible for each other, and one of gratitude for the support she and her fellow Ukrainian Jews have all ready received.
“Without that support we literally would not have survived,” she said. “I wish we could finish this need for assistance fast, but it’s out of our hands. We’re praying every day that we can live in a peaceful country without the assistance provided by the JDC.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.