Monday, March 4, 2013

Home visit to an elderly client in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Last month I visited Dina, a Hesed client in Almaty, Kazakhstan, since 2002.

Dina, 85, was born in the Semey Region of Kazakhstan.  In 1937, her family moved to Kaskelen, not far from Almaty.  She graduated in 1950 from the Kazakh Pedagogical Institute with a major in the natural sciences.  She married in 1953 and in 1955 gave birth to her daughter, and later divorced.  She taught in the local schools until her retirement in 1982.  

She suffers from diabetes and has severe mobility problems; she can't leave the tiny house easily, and walks slowly with a walking-frame.  The house is old, and in desperate need of repairs.  She didn’t have running water or an indoor toilet until last year. It’s freezing cold outside, but her house is warm – and very welcoming.

This is her story …

Dina’s father, Yoni, was a minor official in the Communist Party. One morning he was expelled from the party in a purge. “I only learned about it several years later from my mother. They were afraid to tell me. We went to live with my uncle Mottel - in Shymkent, south of here. That’s what saved my father, he moved to Shymkent and we followed.  That was how you survived in those times – the purges of the late ‘30s - you moved from small place to small place and you stayed quiet.”

“My sister was in kindergarten, I was in second grade. Uncle Mottel disappeared, and Father would come maybe once or twice a week to see us and bring us food and supplies. I was 8 and my sister was 6, and we had to deal with our baby sister – she was eight months old – alone. Just the two of us. Because we had no adults. But we didn’t succeed and she died. So we had to take her out to the forests next to Shymkent and we had to bury her by ourselves.”

Dina starts crying as she tells us the story. Nelly - the wonderful Hesed case worker in the blue-black print shirt - strokes her hand as she speaks. She calls Nelly “my gold and diamonds.”

“When the war started, father went to the army and mother found work sewing army uniforms. We would sleep – me and my sister – on top of a stove oven, it was nice and warm.  We lived in a communal building and a shared apartment. There were lots of refugees from the west (of the Soviet Union, meaning Ukraine and the region), there were three families in our apartment, one of them was Jewish and the woman worked in a sewing factory, and brought my mother with her and that’s how she got the job. But Father didn’t come back from the war.”

“I came to Almaty at age 17 on my own. I was thin and hungry; I was suffering from malnutrition. Because my father was killed in the war I got special permission to live in the city of Almaty.”

Dina was a teacher for 40 years; she’s lived in this small house for 63 years. It has three families, each with a separate entrance. The house was built in 1918 but the city authorities have said that they won't repair it since it should be torn down. The problem is that they won't give her alternative housing.  They'd just throw her into the street. So she stays.

When her grandson was approaching military-draft age, her daughter felt she needed to take him and leave. “But I never thought about leaving. And I thought my daughter would return. This is my home. I couldn’t leave. It’s all I know.”

There's a gas balloon in the kitchen. Nelly asked Dina once why she doesn’t move it somewhere safer. “Well, it hasn’t exploded for forty years so far, so I’m good.” She's still frightened to use the new toilet, installed last year – she was afraid that it might break or crack. This winter was particularly harsh, and Nelly persuaded her to start using it rather than go outside and use the outside-toilet.

“I always knew I was Jewish. We never really talked about it. At work they kept reminding me I was Jewish. I hadn’t heard about Hesed. But the school from where I’d retired did a short movie about education and they asked me to appear in it. The Hesed people saw me on the movie, the school people said to them, she's Jewish and she's alone, you should help her - so they came to me and said, we’re from the mishpocha, we’re from the family, let us help you. I didn’t have anyone. It was really difficult. But now I have Hesed. Now I have Nelly. For eighteen years, since my daughter left, I’ve been living here on my own. Now I have Nelly, so I'm not alone anymore.”
Because of the assistance of our federations and donors, Hesed is able to give her 12 hours per week of homecare, a monthly food basket, her medications, an electric heater, and regular home supplies. We’ve done some home repairs as well.

As we leave she's crying again: “thank you for coming, thank you for helping. We need to take care of each other.”

But this is a different kind of crying from when we arrived. When she started speaking, she was crying from sadness. But when we left she was crying from happiness.

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