For Needy, Agency Offers Lifeline

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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KIEV, Ukraine - Kiev is one of the greenest cities in Europe, but Anatoly Kravets and his wife have not been out of their one-bedroom apartment for the past year.

The apartment is a third-floor walk-up, and Anatoly had one of his legs amputated last year, leaving him confined to a clunky red wheelchair that does not fit through the door. His wife, Tamara Kolesnik, is a wisp of her former self. Bedridden after 10 years with Parkinson’s disease and a recent stroke, she has been left unable to communicate by using anything more than a quiet howl.

If the couple had moved to Israel or America, like many other Ukrainian Jews, it’s likely they would be in a nursing home — and Kravets’s leg probably would have been relieved of its infections before he had to amputate it. But here in Ukraine, that has not been possible. The state provides only a single weekly visit from a state social worker who brings them groceries.

Indeed, one wonders how the couple would manage to survive without the 49 hours of home care they receive each week from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Even this is hardly enough. Kravets says that after the home-care worker leaves, Parkinson’s attacks will often pitch Kolesnik to the floor. When this happens, he can do nothing to help her.

“Sometimes as soon as someone leaves, there is another crisis,” Kravets said. “I did not expect it to happen this way.”

The Kravetses are two of the 220,000 elderly being cared for by the Joint, which is supported with funding from American Jewish federations and from Holocaust restitution and reparations funds. In turn, the Joint funds local charities, known as Hesed agencies, which provide home care and food delivery. In the disarray of post-Soviet Ukrainian society, people like Kravets and his wife are left to rely on an American charity to keep them alive.

The couple was not always in such a tough state. Kravets still has the handsome face of the newscaster he was in Azerbaijan. Kolesnik was an economist. During World War II, Kolesnik’s family escaped from the Nazis to Uzbekistan — which is why today her home care can be paid for with Holocaust restitution and reparation funds.

The expenditure of Holocaust restitution money on needy survivors in the former Soviet Union has been controversial. In recent debates over the distribution of certain Holocaust funds, American Holocaust survivors have said they should receive an amount at least equal to that going to survivors in the former Soviet Union. The judge overseeing the funds rejected that argument and decided to send a majority of any funds to Russian and Ukrainian survivors. He said that even with the funds, the Soviet survivors would not have the same level of care that is available to every elderly person in America.

Kravets and Kolesnik have heard from a friend who immigrated in the early 1990s how much better things are for American survivors.

“She even wrote me that there is a car that they can sometimes use, set up to take them around,” Kravets said. “In comparison with our situation, that is heaven on earth.”

Ukraine and Russia have universal health care, but for anything more than a checkup there are waiting lists stretching months ahead. Home medical care is available to most Ukrainians only if they can pay for it privately. For the Kravetses, who receive $130 in pension money each month, this would be impossible.

The primary obstacle for the Jewish agencies that administer the health care is avoiding resentment among non-Jewish neighbors. The director of Kiev’s Hesed agency, Dmitriy Donskoy, said that on occasion his organization has provided services to non-Jewish elderly people living in communal apartments with Jews. Not to do so, he said, would be inhumane.

“These people would not have diapers or washing or food,” Donskoy said. “These people would die.”

Nathaniel Popper traveled to Ukraine on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists. The Fellowship is funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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