What future for Ekaterina?

In Rustavi, once the industrial capital of Georgia, a desperate Jewish community faces crime and poverty.

Ekaterina family 248.88 (photo credit: Shimon Levy)
Ekaterina family 248.88
(photo credit: Shimon Levy)
Vilgelmina Gudkova apologizes almost immediately for the lack of space and light in her sparse apartment. She does, however, manage to find enough mismatched chairs and stools for our Israeli entourage to be seated and once we take over the room, which doubles as a bedroom and living room, she shakes her head again. "This is one of the rare occasions that we have electricity," says the 65-year-old grandmother, gesturing to the bare light bulb that glows dully from the peeling concrete ceiling. Then, as if she's already had enough of talking about her dire living conditions, Vilgelmina forces our attention onto her granddaughter, Ekaterina, 14, a stunning blonde, blue-eyed beauty who shares the meager abode with her grandmother and mother, Nina. "She's an A student, and just look at how she lives." From the worn-out wooden floorboards to the cardboard-covered windows, the Gudkova apartment would most likely be condemned if held up to Western standards, but the two connecting rooms that lack any basic facilities - including a kitchen or bathroom - have been home to Ekaterina for the past six years. Even the toilet, which is a communal affair utilized by some 100 other residents on this floor, is just a hole in the ground with no running water or door. "We have to cough so that our neighbors know we are using it," says an unsmiling Nina, 34, who suffers from a chronic illness. "I am embarrassed to even show it to you." "We don't really live here, we just exist," sighs Vilgelmina, explaining that residents on the floors below had shut off the building's water supply because the corroded pipes were leaking into their apartments. "Now we have to walk for five minutes and use a public tap. It's a good thing that I am still strong," she says, making a show of her muscles. "I used to be a champion sprinter in my younger days." It's lucky, too, that the Gudkova family has Jewish roots and it is this connection that affords the three women their only income. All three are clients of the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee run-Hessed Center in this bleak Soviet-created Georgian town, 25 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tbilisi. The Hessed Center has been running Jewish outreach programs and social services since the mid-1990s and today it serves roughly 200 Jewish families in Rustavi and a further 500 in surrounding areas. There are no government-provided social benefits in Georgia, apart from old-age pensions that run $20 to $50 a month. Most of those cared for by the JDC operation, which provides a wide range of social welfare services such as food packages and healthcare, are pensioners, but there are roughly 50 Jewish children eligible for assistance through the recently established Children's Initiative. Run jointly by JDC and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), the $6.2 million program works as a practical backup to Jewish renewal efforts in the former Soviet Union and in many cases is used as a basic form of subsistence for an entire family. In the case of the Gudkova women, the food aid credit card, winter relief efforts - additional blankets - and a subsidized weekly trip to the local bathhouse literally allow the family to survive the harsh conditions here. "We don't mention the help we get to any of our neighbors. We think it is best to just keep quiet so that they do not get jealous," says Nina, who sometimes sells scrap metal on the streets to make some additional money. "But if we did not have this help I don't know how we would survive." IT IS difficult not to notice this post-modern concrete town of some 110,000 residents when it suddenly appears jutting out of the bleak Georgian landscape, despite the fact that the three huge concrete signs - in Georgian, Russian and English - announcing that you've reached Rustavi are not exactly inviting. Located about a half-hour drive from Tbilisi along a nondescript single-lane highway, the imposing apartment blocks are fronted by an enormous steel statue of a horse that belies their modern Russian roots. Although the exteriors were repainted a few years ago to impress the visiting US President George W. Bush, the colors only serve to expose the severe decay underneath. There is a definite feeling of desperation hanging in the air. This depressing grayness was not always so, says Prof. Boris Belenkov, an English teacher at the local college, who assists his wife, Tamara Uroeva, in running Rustavi's Hessed Center. "It was once the industrial capital of Georgia," says Belenkov, who hopes to move to Israel in the coming years and join his son. "People migrated from across the Soviet Union to work here and many of the engineers who came to run the factories were Jews." They were not Sephardic Jews, like the indigenous Georgian Jewish population, he says, but rather the Ashkenazi elite from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and more northern Soviet states. Observing Judaism here was not a matter of course during those years and there was no synagogue here, he says, adding "that was the Soviet way." Information from Georgia's official parliamentary Web site explains that Rustavi, which was established in 1948 as part of the Soviet government's industrialization process, once housed major iron, steel and chemical plants. It was also considered an important railway station on the Tbilisi-Baku line. "People here had good jobs and were paid high salaries," says Belenkov, who was born and raised in the town. "Life here, back then, really flourished." Vilgelmina, who was born in the Ural Mountains and moved to Rustavi as a child, also recalls that period fondly. "We lived in a beautiful apartment and I earned a good salary. In the summers, we would take vacations all over the region," says the former elementary school teacher, whose father was killed during World War II and whose mother suffered mental problems. "When my mother was hospitalized, my aunt invited me and my siblings to come here and live with her. We had a perfectly happy life. Things were completely different than how they are today." The collapse of the Soviet Union was disastrous for Rustavi, however. The local economy, which had been integrated with the Soviet, fell apart and left the people in extreme circumstances. With most of the industrial plants now closed, more than 65 percent of Rustavi's residents are unemployed and there is high crime and acute poverty. "Those who came from the area were lucky; they had relatives in nearby villages and farms whom they could fall back on for help with food and other support," explains Belenkov, who saw the population shrink from 160,000 in 1991 to less than 110,000 today. "However, those who came from other parts of Russia were left with nothing. Many people have moved on in search of better conditions." Of the roughly 200 Jewish families that live in Rustavi, more than two-thirds are receiving Jewish welfare services and assistance from an assortment of international Jewish organizations coordinated by the Hessed Center. The Jewish community today is made up mainly of elderly people whose offspring have emigrated to Israel. THE GUDKOVA family is unique, points out Belenkov's wife Tamara Uroeva, who has been running Hessed activities in Rustavi since the beginning. "All three generations of the family are clients of ours and Ekaterina has been on our Hessed list since the age of five or six. "She was originally our client because there were indications that she had a diabetes problem, but she has since been taken off the medication and now we provide her with other assistance." Aside from the basic food packages and other rudimentary services, Uroeva says that Hessed has bought the young student a desk and allows her access to the Internet at the Hessed Center. "She also regularly attends Jewish summer camps and has been to several teen conferences in the country's capital," she says. "Everything I learned there was interesting," says Ekaterina, who has been sitting shyly observing this interview. "I made lots of Jewish friends in Tbilisi and Gori and we all keep in touch often." Asked what part of her Jewish education she has enjoyed, Ekaterina responds immediately: "I love Jewish poetry and lighting the Shabbat candles with my grandmother." Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the IFCJ, explains that the aim of the Children's Initiative in the former Soviet Union in general and in Georgia in particular is to "make sure that they maintain a Jewish life and receive the basic needs in order to develop and learn. "Our donors, mostly Christians who love Israel and the Jewish people, even in these harsh economic times, continue to contribute as they understand the importance of this assistance to a society that is helpless without it." While Jewish renewal and ending poverty and starvation are certainly noble goals, our tour guide and translator in Rustavi points out another concern facing young women, both Jews and non-Jews: human trafficking. "It chills me to see Ekaterina living here. It could eventually become very dangerous for her," warns Alexander Jinjikhashvili, who also coordinates Jewish renewal programs in Georgia for the JDC. "She is so beautiful and does not look typically Georgian. Crime here is very high and white slavers could try to take her." Asked why the family does not consider emigrating to Israel, Uroeva says it's not as simple a solution as it seems. "Israel's Interior Ministry is very strict about who can make aliya," she explains. "Its not as easy as it was 15 years ago, and this family is missing some of its documentation to prove they are Jewish. We've written a letter explaining the situation and hopefully it will help them." In the meantime, Ekaterina, her mother and grandmother must continue to endure the Third-World conditions of their life and hope that their Jewish roots will continue to help them subsist.