Ukraine cleans up its act for Euro 2012 but not for its poor

By Ekaterina Mitiaev, June 14, 2012
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Fifteen year old Ukrainian twins Sergei and Dmitry Goraschenko have always dreamed of being professional footballers. They spend every spare minute playing impromptu games with their friends, so the arrival of some of the world's best players on their doorstep should be cause for celebration.

But Sergei and Dmitry won't be at any Euro 2012 games. The boys live with their 23-year-old sister Elena, who has severe learning disabilities, and parents Svetlana and Vitaliy, who earn around €230 a month from sporadic work as a cook and a driver respectively. This barely covers the family's most basic costs. Their home is a tiny, damp building with no indoor toilet or water supply, on the outskirts of Dnepropetrovsk. They rely on World Jewish Relief for clothes, medicine, and coal. At €30, even the cheapest tickets are out of reach. Instead, the twins will try to find someone in their neighbourhood who has a television.

The Ukrainian government has reportedly spent around €8 billion preparing for the tournament, and is desperate to use the spotlight to promote Ukraine as a hospitable country that has embarked on the path of reform. Yet this is simply not the reality for a huge section of the Ukrainian population. The Goraschenkos are just one of thousands of Jewish families living in desperate circumstances; 35 per cent of Ukrainians live below the poverty line and 14 per cent struggle even to feed themselves. Older people, and those with disabilities, face particular difficulties.

Named the world's fourth worst performing economy in 2010 by Forbes, 21 years of independence has failed to bring any prosperity to the Ukraine's vulnerable. The country is held back by weak institutions, its failure to modernise its industrial complex and, especially, by corruption. Recently, much has been reported about ongoing antisemitism. Nobody can deny that this is a problem, but for many of those we work with, poverty is an even more significant issue.

Should the conscientious football fan switch off the TV?

WJR has worked in the country for 15 years, supplementing meagre pensions, providing nutritional, medical and winter relief and improving the living conditions of those in dilapidated homes. So far, none of the investment in stadiums and roads has trickled down to affect the lives of people we work with.

So what is the conscientious football fan to do? Switch off the television in protest? No. This won't help people living in poverty. Instead, we should be using Euro 2012 to express our solidarity.

To understand the situation in the Ukraine you have to understand its tragic history. The Jewish community, as well as society at large, has faced decades of turmoil and hardship. Before the Holocaust, the population was already suffering enormously as a result of forced agricultural collectivisation and artificial famine. The clash between the Nazis and Soviets saw unprecedented mass-murder of civilians, with more than seven million lives lost during the conflict, including 34,000 Jews shot dead at Babi Yar. By the time the gas chambers at Auschwitz became operational in 1943, most of the million Ukrainian Jewish victims had already been killed.

Sergei and Dmitry's ancestors survived the Holocaust, but for five decades could not talk publicly about their experiences. Surviving the occupation was not deemed to be heroic; victims were often seen as traitors by Soviet authorities and treated accordingly. Forgotten casualties of two brutal dictatorships, these people were denied even their right to remembrance. This meant that Jewish identities were buried for decades; the simple fact that Ukrainians are embracing their Jewish family history is progress indeed.

There is much we can do to improve the lives of people like Sergei and Dmitry. Meeting the day to day needs of the vulnerable through our partner organisations on the ground is desperately important. WJR is also expanding its Livelihood Development Programme, to equip people with the skills needed to secure better employment, and lift themselves out of poverty.

Beyond this, there is incredible value in simply raising awareness; in ensuring that the world knows what the situation is like on the ground. The path of reform and development is complex, and spreading the word about the difficulties people face can only hasten the process.

So when you sit down to watch England play Sweden today, spare a thought for Sergei and Dmitry. Let's use Euro 2012 to celebrate our passion for football, while shining a light on the poverty that blights the lives of ordinary Ukrainians.

Ekaterina Mitiaev is the WJR programmes performance adviser.

Last updated: 11:43am, June 14 2012