By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
Last Purim, Masha Shumatskaya was delivering mishloach manot to elderly Jews in her home city of Donetsk, Ukraine, when she and her friends encountered a separatist rally in front of a nearby government building.
“It was a bit scary to be next to the crowd of thousands of people who were pretty aggressive,” she said. But, she added, “It was nothing compared to the situation we have now.”
Now, the city of Donetsk is under rebel control. Shumatskaya, who had lost her job as an English teacher, fled to Kharkov, a large Ukrainian city slightly farther west of the war-torn eastern border with Russia.
“I would never have thought that I’d become a war refugee,” she said.
The crisis in Ukraine picked up with a revolution last February following the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych, who began leaning toward Russia as an economic ally over the European Union. Fighting on the eastern border with pro-Russian separatists increased last summer, leading to the deterioration of circumstances and a lack of food, medicine, water, and fuel. As of November, the Lugansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine were declared People’s Republics. With the breakdown of truce talks at the beginning of this year, violence increased again, killing at least 30 people in Mariupol.
Shumatskaya, 23, visited Seattle last week as a guest of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. With flawless English (she is also fluent in Hebrew, Polish, and Russian in addition to her native Ukrainian), Shumatskaya met with JDC supporters in the area to describe the situation.
The JDC has provided assistance to Jews in the former Soviet Union since the fall of communism. It has been in Ukraine — the third largest home to Jews in Europe — since 1989 to assist elderly and needy Jews and build community and leadership opportunities among young people. Once again, the JDC is providing critical support to the thousands of Jews of Donetsk through food and medicine deliveries. On February 11, the JDC evacuated an unprecedented 130 Jewish children, elderly and their families to Dnepropetrovsk, where the organization is providing housing, food, and counseling services for the time being.
Shumatskaya took refuge with friends in Kharkov she knew from her Jewish communal work, such as the JDC’s Metsuda leadership development program. Her parents remain in Donetsk, and her father refuses to leave his house near the Donetsk airport, a strategic point that was obliterated by fighting and eventually fell to the rebels. Shumatskaya considers him stubborn, but recognizes that for many Ukrainians, a home is the only thing they own. If he abandons his home, it could be looted and he might never get it back.
Those who remain in the conflict zone have no access to money since the banks closed, and take shelter in cellars when shelling occurs. Due to the overall devaluation of Ukrainian currency, inaccessible pensions, and inflation, access to food is limited. The area has been sealed by checkpoints. People in Donetsk are starving.
“There are unfortunately tons of people in the Lugansk region [on the border with Russia] who stay in their houses, and they don’t want to leave,” she said. “Without JDC’s assistance, I guess they wouldn’t have survived.”
When Shumatskaya arrived to Kharkov, she started calling Jews back in Donetsk to assess their needs and get them JDC aid. After she found a job teaching English again, she continued to volunteer by collecting money to send to Donetsk and helping organize a family camp for refugees with her fellow Metsuda graduates.
“The results of this camp were amazing,” she said. People from Poltava helped find jobs for the refugees, and the mothers were treated to a spa day.
“We helped them feel as if nothing had happened in their lives,” she said.
The JDC has a strict policy of not commenting on politics. Its job is to aid and save Jewish lives. Ultimately, says Shumatskaya, Ukrainians just want the fighting to stop.
Despite some provocation and rumors about anti-Semitism coming out of the conflict, Shumatskaya said Ukrainian Jews are not being targeted.
“Thanks God, nothing like this,” she said. “The war is enough.”