This posting was originally written as an e-mail on Nov. 21, 2008 by Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of JDC Programs in the Former Soviet Union
Readers of this weekly were introduced to our staff member, Ira Lipsky several months ago. She returned last week to Jerusalem after her first visit to Georgia in the aftermath of the war there this summer. We were all delighted that she is once again traveling; it says volumes about the progress of her son, our favorite soldier Shai.
I found Ira's report so moving that I decided to share it in its entirety, without editing. I believe it is evidence of a promise we made to ourselves as an organization while that war was still raging, and one that the local community associates with JDC to this day. At the time we reassured our local partners that while the memory of the war will fade from the consciousness of the world in short order, JDC would remain behind and deal with its consequences as long as necessary:
"I thought I do not like my city. It always seemed to me too small, too peripheral, too boring" said Nata K., Director of Homecare Services in Hesed Gori. "But you cannot imagine how much I missed it and how much I wanted to come back, when I was watching Gori being bombed on the TV in Tbilisi".
On the morning of August 8, 2008, Nata together with her colleagues from Hesed Gori started their working day as usual. Kitchen workers were cooking lunch for their clients, the doctor was seeing his patients, when a terrible boom was heard; a moment later they found themselves on the floor. The distraught women working at the Hesed ran out of the building and tried to stop passing cars begging them to take them home. It was the summer vacation and all of them had children at home. When she reached her home, Nata opened her apartment door with a clenched heart, and found her 11-years old son hysterically crying. Half an hour earlier, he stood cheerfully on the balcony because he saw a helicopter so close. This same helicopter then dropped a bomb. The blast threw him back into the apartment and down on the floor.
That same evening Nata, her family, relatives and neighbors managed to leave Gori and go to Tbilisi in their neighbors' minivan. Reports indicated that Russian troops were on their way to Gori, and Nata and her entourage joined the exodus. In order to fit all twenty five people into the van, they took out all the chairs, put blankets on the floor and thus they were all able to reach Tbilisi.
Nata's family has a relative in Tbilisi, who has been building a new house on her land plot. Due to the unfinished construction, this relative could give temporary shelter to 31 people. Five kids, the youngest being one year old, were among them. The conditions were hard. In the unfinished building there was neither running water nor electricity. There was no furniture and people slept on the floor. In order to bathe the kids in the evenings, Nata and the other women warmed numerous plastic bottles in the sun for the whole day.
Nata, a very energetic woman, could not just sit and wait. She came to the JDC office for two reasons: to offer her help and to receive help. "We took nothing with us, just our passports", says Nata. "We felt so lost and scared, that we could not think about anything. But this is the same JDC as we have in Gori, so I knew it would be a place of comfort." At the JDC office she received food, hygiene products and some clothes.
When the bombing on Gori ceased, Nata's father-in-law returned to Gori. On August 23rd, when he was sure that it was safe enough for the others to return, he brought his family back home.
When the war broke out, Lamara, a 74 year old Hesed client, hid in the forest together with her grandchildren and daughter in-law. After three days, they managed to find someone who agreed to take them to Tbilisi for the outrageous cost of 50 GEL ($35). Lamara cries every time she thinks of what they went through during those days. Her life was never easy. Her older son drowned in the sea and his body was never found. Her youngest son, who is 40 years old, is an alcoholic and is psychologically in a very bad state and needs very expensive injections to calm him down. Lamara herself has a serious vascular disease and needs very expensive medicine. She must make ends meet with her meager 80 GEL pension – a pension she receives after 31 years working as a chief accountant in Gori. Lamara, a veteran worker, lived for many years without a refrigerator. The old one broke down and she could not afford a new one. In order to preserve the food that she received from Hesed, she put the meal in a dish with cold water. She would change the water every three hours, including at night. After the war, together with additional Food Cards and additional medicines, Lamara received a new refrigerator from Hesed.
"I am happy I am Jewish", says Lamara, "I have a place to come to. They always wait for us at Hesed, it is warm here and the food is very good. Can you imagine, we have meat three times a week?!"
(Ira continues): Though the war is over, we will be feeling the aftermath for many more months. It is not only the Tbilisi-Gori road, which was significantly damaged by tanks tracks and burned trees alongside it. It is not only new settlements for the Georgian refugees from Ossetia. It is a fear you can see in people's eyes, psychological traumas of adults and kids, who are still afraid of any whisper.
Helping people to cope with the psychological impact of the war, is not less important than providing them with food. The JDC-supported 'Knowledge and Information Center' in Tbilisi organized a rehabilitation program for children, parents and grandparents. The program is very successful. Nata said that due to this program not only has her son become less anxious, but she has also learned how to communicate better with her kids. "I understand now that the problems with my son were caused by miscommunication between us. I used wrong words, and now, using the tools that the psychologists gave us at the seminar, I can better hear and understand my son. He notes this and appreciates my efforts."
The rehabilitation project works with different age groups, as both needs and rehabilitation methods differ depending on the age. In addition to the groups, there is individual work with those who need it. The project takes place twice a week and involves 123 participants of different ages: pre-school kids, young teenagers (11-13 years old) and teenagers (14-17 years old), parents and elderly.
JDCs assistance to Gori Jews is ongoing. Together with massive material support (food, medications, wood, furniture, schoolbooks, computers, etc) we are planning to open a children's group at Hesed in 2009. Gori has no quality framework for children and we find it crucial to continue the connection and activities with the community's children in a Jewish framework following the rehabilitation. The Hesed has already prepared a list of 50 kids of different ages. The plan is for the children to come to Hesed three times a week for four hours. The activities will include games, movies for kids, English and computer classes, Jewish subjects.
Since the war has ceased, JDC continues to assist the Jewish community of Gori and other locations in Georgia. A comprehensive plan for assistance in 2009 is currently being prepared.
We move from Georgia and a war, to Kazakhstan and the struggle of its Hesed to deal with the vicissitudes of the current economic situation. What follows is a report received earlier this week from our representative in Alma Ati. It gives a glimpse of the current environment in which the Hasadim of Kazakhstan are working:
"The medicine program in the 4 Hasadim in our country was temporarily suspended this week until the end of December. The main reason is the cost of drugs. The average cost has risen in real terms 73% since early September, and most are not available in shops.
Our country is very dependent on feed for livestock. The cost of that feed has skyrocketed due to the difficulty in getting credit. The credit freeze, in turn, has caused key banks to fail, and therefore foreign currency to import drugs is not available.
Today, the government announced a 76% increase in the price of heating fuel. This impacts our Hesed facilities and of course our clients. We are currently surveying their needs and will provide emergency help where needed."
A difficult situation, to be sure. It is impressive, though, that local professionals are looking to find their own solutions to the problems. They are informing JDC, but not relating to JDC as the panacea. This is a major step forward, that we should note and see as an accomplishment of our efforts over the past 15 years. Now, hopefully, some relief for this situation can be found.
Asher Ostrin is Executive Director of JDC Programs in the Former Soviet Union