Thursday, May 23, 2013

Potemkin Buildings

Yesterday our Baltimore-Odessa Partnership mission visited Yelena, a 16-year old girl in Odessa

Yelena lives with a cousin, Rosa, their aunt, Svetlana, and with Svetlana’s mother and baby son.

They live together in two rooms of a communal apartment, along with five other families. It’s a beautiful building on a main road in Odessa, over a hundred years old. And like so much of Odessa, it’s a Potemkin fa├žade. It looks beautiful and striking on the outside … but on the inside it’s crumbling. The fixtures and steps are falling apart. It probably was a beautiful building before the Revolution. 
But not anymore.

The apartment is on the top floor and it smells awful and needs repairs. Everything’s falling apart. The family can't pay for gas heating, so they use an electric heater to warm up in winter. 
Or they just bundle up with more layers.

Yelena never met her father; her mother left for Kiev to look for a job, and no one has seen her since. 
Rosa is 18. Her mother died and her father is in hospital for long-term psychiatric care. 
Svetlana is 36 but she looks tired, and a lot older. She married for the second time in 2012 and in the summer that same year gave birth to her only son, Igor. A few months later her husband was diagnosed with cancer and died. 
Inna, the girls’ grandmother, is retired. She had a stroke and she's not mobile anymore. She mostly sits on the couch or in bed and cries.

Svetlana is tough. She’s trying to study at University (Law and Finance) with a correspondence course. It’ll take her six years to get her degree but she's sticking with it.  She works several hours a day cleaning offices. She's also a certified bartender and waitress.

The total family income is a little over $450, with Inna’s pension and a small government allowance for baby care and what money Svetlana can bring in.
It’s not enough to feed and clothe a family, especially one with medical bills and little resources.

Yelena starts crying when she talks about Hesed and the help she gets from the Jewish community. Then Inna starts crying too. “Hesed has saved our lives,” she says. “The government won't help people in need. But the Jewish community helps us.” Svetlana is crying now, too, and points to the fridge, which came from Hesed, and says, “I told someone at work about Hesed and they didn’t believe me. They thought I was making it up. How could it be that they just help you, like that? Who could these people be?”

Yelena tries to cheer everyone up, saying that everything is fine, we have a fridge, we have somewhere to live, and we’re not hungry anymore. Meanwhile, Igor is scooting around the dirty apartment, happily playing with us and gripping our hands. He’s got a terrific smile. Yelena is taking care of him today; she’s very responsible.

There are 400 children-at-risk and their families being helped on a daily basis by JDC through Hesed Odessa. Svetlana and her family receive a food card with a monthly allowance for use in the supermarket, vitamin supplements, school supplies and warm clothing for the winter, and diapers, stroller and clothes for Igor.
And they also have Ira, a Hesed case worker, who checks in on them on a regular basis, and helps Svetlana come to activities for youth in the community at minimal or no-cost. She helps them negotiate the city bureaucracy. And most importantly, she shows them that they’re not alone.

As we leave, Svetlana says, “When I become a lawyer I’ll give back as a volunteer. I’ll give free legal advice in Hesed for the clients, for those that need it. Spasiba Bolshoya – thank you so much.”

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