playground 88 248.
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Until three years ago, Jewish outreach in the former Soviet Union offered sparse aid support options for the children, according to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a non-profit social welfare organization that donates roughly $20 million out of its $90m. budget to Jewish welfare projects there.
"We started to receive requests a few years ago from rabbis and community leaders in these Russian-speaking countries for help with the children," explains Eckstein, whose organization has been supporting projects for the elderly for nearly nine years.
"Many of the children had been identified via their grandparents, who were already receiving welfare services from a well-structured collection of organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Chabad and others. We realized then that the children needed help too but that there was no infrastructure for it."
Eckstein, who is on the JDC board of governors, suggested a program be set up to work with Jewish children at risk and offered the JDC $2m. to create its infrastructure. "The aim was for it to match the funds," he says, adding that it has taken until now to get the program fully in motion.
Today in Georgia, the Children's Initiative reaches out to some 800 children, 550 of whom live in the capital, Tbilisi, with the rest scattered around the country. Food aid programs, medical care, day care and treatment for the entire family are just a few of the services available depending on the child's needs.
For Mariam Abramishvili, the Children's Initiative has cared for her in almost every possible way - providing diapers, food, crib, playpen and clothing - since she was born in March 2006.
"When Mariam was born, I took her immediately to the Mazal Tov program [part of the Children's Initiative in Tbilisi] and they took care of both of us," says Cicino, 39, her mother.
The two live together in a run-down apartment block on edge of the capital. Cicino inherited the one-room apartment, which lacks such basic facilities as heat and running water, from her mother.
"When my mother died in 2003, she left me completely alone in the world," says Cicino, who trained as a ballet dancer but who has suffered from chronic health problems since her daughter was born and can no longer work. "When she was alive, my mother helped me socially and spiritually, but since then I have no one to rely on at all."
With no income - Cicino does not qualify for the government's single-mother benefits because she has a "couch and a TV" - she struggles each month to pay the bills provide for her daughter.
"If it was not for the help we get from Hessed I don't know what we would do," says Cicino, wiping the tears from her eyes. "I have no other way of supporting her."
In addition to the basic care she receives from the Jewish community, Cicino last year enrolled Mariam in a Jewish kindergarten at one of the synagogues on the other side of the city.
"It was great for her," she recalls. "We would take the bus most days with another Jewish family that lived nearby and she had a wonderful time. But that family emigrated to Israel this past summer and now I do not have the strength to make the long journey alone."
Since the other Jewish families have left the area, Cicino worries about what the future might hold for Mariam. "My friends who made aliya wanted me to go with them but I've just been too ill to leave. I did start the application process when my mother was still alive, but then she died and I did not have the energy to go through with it. I am still thinking about it and maybe one day I will make it."
Until then, Cicino and Mariam will have to rely on the generosity of the international Jewish community to survive.