Our envoy Robert Waterman, was recently sent by HabAid on a mercy mission to the Ukraine to help extremely poor and orphaned children in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. Here is a brief transcript from his early report and initial feelings on returning from the mission.
A few very random tired thoughts from the visit to the Ukraine and Zhitomir
I started my trip in Kiev, which seems like a vibrant city although less expensive than London, but within the normal range. From Kiev I went to Zhytomyr and it is without doubt a desperate place and something and somewhere I have never experienced before. Although I visited on a similar mission two years ago, I did not stay in Zhytomyr and so did not appreciate the situation. Now having stayed there I can truly appreciate the desperate situation the town is in. It is hard to appreciate the state of the economy in this part of the country, but it is absolutely dire and I have never experienced anything like it before.
There are about 5,000 Jewish people in Zhytomyr and almost without exception they are all very poor. I particularly went to a Jewish school which looks after orphaned children amongst its more normal pupils. the school feeds the orphaned children with a budget equivalent to 33 pence per child per day. The non-orphaned children are given a grant by the government which was successfully negotiated by the school. The government give each family the equivalent of $10 US a year per child to help with school meals, but as this is given directly to the parents who are themselves so poor, the money often doesn’t reach the school as the family keep it to help the family to live.
Maybe a way of helping you understand the economy there is on my first visit to the Ukraine some years years ago, I got 11 Hryvnia to the Pound. On my visit two years ago I got 19 Hryvnia to the Pound and this time I got 33 Hryvnia. So there is rampant inflation and this is against a weaker Pound as well. As an example, a Cappuccino would cost me the equivalent of 40p in a coffee shop. A 30 minute cab ride is around £1.50. Before I left for the Ukraine, I was told that the local Cosmonaut museum was well worth a visit. i asked the orphanage if I could take the children for a special visit only to find out that the museum was closed on Mondays (the only day I could do it before returning to the UK). I was able to get in touch with the museum who said they were happy to open it especially for the children. the museum would also provide a translator for me and arrange a private tour. When I asked how much the cost for all of this would be, I was told all in that it would work out to £6 in total! The reality is that whilst these simple pleasures are so cheap for us, they are totally out of reach for for the Jewish community in Zhitomir.
So it came to the main purpose of my trip to take the children to shops so that I could buy them much needed clothes and shoes. As we were all walking to the store I felt something brush my hand. It was a small child from the orphanage asking to hold my hand. The mixed emotion overwhelmed me as on one hand I felt uplifted by what we were doing, on the other I was saddened as no child anywhere should want for food or love.
Later that evening the Children made impromptu speeches thanking us and HabAid over dinner at the orphanage. They also said that our help although important, is much more significant in other ways. It’s not only that we buy them shoes and clothes and let them chose them, it shows the children that people and more specifically Jewish people, care for them and that they are part of something much bigger and more beautiful than their difficult situation in Zhytomyr and the Ukraine.