Ilya, Lubov and their child Feodor (Teddy) Tokachov in their one room apartment in Kiev.
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
KIEV – I am sitting in a restaurant in Kiev with Pinchas Vishedski, the refugee rabbi of Donetsk.
I first met the rabbi last year in his hometown, during the early stages of this country’s civil war. At the time he still believed he would stand his ground as long as just one Jew remained in the city. He was later forced to flee and now spends his days working to coordinate aid – much of it provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – for his congregants scattered across the length and breadth of this former Soviet republic.
As I listen to the rabbi discuss the difficulties in organizing a caravan of matzot and other Passover supplies through the lines to the separatist capital, I reflect back on my nine trips here over the past two years, most of which were after the country was plunged into chaos in December 2013. Following the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, Russia walked in and annexed the Crimean peninsula and then instigated an armed uprising against Kiev in the mostly Russian-speaking industrial east.
The Jewish communities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Sloviansk were all caught in the middle. Out of the 10,000- 11,000 Jews in Donetsk before the war, about 75% have left – either immigrating to Israel or moving elsewhere in Ukraine – refugees within their own country.
My first stop on this trip was to Kiev’s Beytenu youth center, run by the JDC. Lena Tarasova, the head of family services there, said that so far her organization has helped around 280 families – more than 640 people. Refugees are eligible to receive rent for up to three months after coming to the JDC – and up to six months for families with children or the elderly.
Refugees receive between 5,000-6,000 hryvnias a month, about $250.
The problem, Tarasova tells me, is that people in Kiev will still not rent to refugees from eastern Ukraine – something I’d heard before from a number of the internally displaced.
“The Kiev authorities didn’t help us with work or with anything else,” said Ilya Tokachov, a 26-year-old white collar professional from Luhansk now living in a one-room apartment with his wife, one-year-old son and mother-in-law.
Tokachov, whose father is Jewish and mother is Christian, says he will be making aliya in the coming weeks.
At least 10 of his friends from Luhansk have made the move in the past several months, including one JDC aid worker.
“All my Jewish friends are all in Israel now,” he said.
In the meantime, his entire family lives in one room, which they convert to a bedroom at night.
Vishedski tells me that hunger is a persistent problem in Donetsk. Shortages are also a daily reality among those who have managed to escape the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
According to Tokachov, local businesses may only pay refugee hires half of a normal salary.
“When you look for work here they call you a terrorist [because you are from a rebellious area] and if you should be paid 4,000 [hryvnias] they will only pay you half and say ‘it’s enough we will find someone else from Luhansk who is looking for work,’” he explained.
Vadim Dorofeev, another refugee from Luhansk, told me that while he and his wife, Lienna, have managed to find work in Kiev and the pay they are receiving is roughly the same as they made before the war, inflation has made it nearly impossible to live on even that.
Factoring in the loss of one’s savings, house and car, and the situation here is bleak for all almost those involved. As a result, increasing numbers of Ukrainian Jews are choosing to emigrate.
On Tuesday morning, a flight organized by the IFCJ will take off from Boryspil airport here bringing a planeload of Ukrainian olim. Thousands have come over the last year, making Ukraine second only to France as a source of new immigrants.
As much as many of those here are resistant to uprooting themselves again, as the situation deteriorates, more and more Jews from eastern Ukraine are likely to make the Jewish state home.