Shrapnel, right there in her garden.
That’s when Mary Zilberman, 79, knew she and her husband, Leonid, 82, had to flee Lugansk, the eastern Ukrainian city that—along with Donetsk—is at the center of the battle for control between Ukraine and separatist forces.
The Zilberman family owned three apartments in their home city, but in Kharkov, where they sought refuge and have now lived for two years, Mary and Leonid share a small one-bedroom apartment just off Yuri Gagarin Boulevard with their daughter and her husband, who spend each night on the couch.
Back in Lugansk, the Zilbermans were celebrated volunteers in the Jewish community, helping JDC start the city’s Hesed social welfare center and coordinating the region’s most successful iteration of Warm Homes, a social program for elderly Jews.
Now they’re on the other side, two among the thousands of Jewish Ukrainian internally displaced people (IDPs) forced by war to turn to JDC for rent assistance, winter relief, and more.
“We dream of going back, but each year the distance between us and that dream gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” Leonid says with a rueful sigh. “So we live here, and we breathe this air. Hesed keeps us alive now.”
JDC currently serves about 300 Jewish IDPs in Kharkov, the city’s toughest humanitarian cases that remain from the peak of about 600 in the summer of 2014. Across the region in the first half of 2016, JDC assisted some 2,000 people, the neediest remaining IDPs from a peak of about 4,000.
But it’s important to realize the situation for these vulnerable Jewish elderly and families hasn’t gotten any easier, cautions Zoya Krypitskaya, the social services coordinator at the Kharkov Hesed.
“They don’t feel like they live in the here and now. They live with their pasts. They live with their memories,” she says. “They think about what they used to do, the friends they used to have … and they always compare. Their lives are full of disappointment.”
Six hours west, Valeriya Kvasha strolls through Kiev’s Beiteinu center, JDC’s program for children and families at risk in the Ukrainian capital, picking up toys, smiling at toddlers, and chatting with colleagues.
A scientific engineer by training, Valeriya, 41, now works as the IDP coordinator at Beiteinu, serving as a case manager for clients who’ve fled the violence in the east.
She should know: Her family fled, too, taking one of the last trains out of Lugansk in July 2014.
“People come to me and say, ‘You really understand this because you’ve been in my situation,’” she says with a glint of pride in her eyes. “They trust me.”
Valeriya is glad to have her job—“for me, the Jewish community means stability now,” she says—but it hasn’t been an easy road.
When she, her husband, and their two sons came to Kiev, they stayed with distant cousins who soon encouraged them to leave, hinting that they were beginning to overstay their welcome.
The family struggled to find an apartment, as landlord after landlord biased against IDPs turned them down.
“You’ll steal my furniture and take it somewhere else,” Valeriya remembered one man saying.
Now they have an apartment, outfitted with household supplies, clothes, and toiletries, thanks to the JDC staff at Beiteinu. The family continues to receive winter relief, rent assistance, and psychosocial support.
But even for a family with a softer landing in their new city than most, each day is a painful reminder of what has been lost.
“Our childhood stopped,” Valeriya’s eldest, Nikita, 18, says. “We became adults quickly.”
Valeriya laughs quickly and bitterly, as if she’s heard a mean-spirited joke.
“We had a car, an apartment, a country house, back in Lugansk. We were going to buy an apartment for Nikita when he started university,” she said. “But that plan’s ruined. We live with a new reality now.”