In Ukraine, thousands of Jews will spend Pesach as refugees - or under fire


Pesach will have extra meaning this year for thousands of Jews forced to flee their homes by the fighting in Ukraine.

They will mark the festival as refugees, having gone through an exodus every bit as dangerous as the one undertaken by their biblical ancestors.

Around 11,000 members of the Donetsk Jewish community have made the perilous journey from the war-torn region to safety, 140 miles from the conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russian separatists.

They are the lucky ones. The war has claimed at least 6,000 lives, among them many Jews.

One refugee, Kateryna Kamarevtseva, narrowly escaped death when she was caught in the crossfire between the two sides.

She decided to flee her village, Oleksandrivka, but her husband refused to leave with her, wanting to protect the family home. She fears she may never see him again.

It is down to sheer good fortune that she is still alive. She said: "On one side of our village there was one army, and on the other side there was another. So we were in the middle.

"I was carrying one of our goats to the grassland so it could feed. I don't know which army it was, Ukrainian or Russian, but they started
shooting at me, and the goat saved me from the bullet. It went into the neck of the goat, and didn't hit me."

Mrs Kamarevtseva, 43, was keen to point out random shootings were common. "A girl came to our village for sugar and soldiers shot her. Her hand was connected only by skin to her arm."

At a certain point, it was no longer possible to go outside. "When the shooting started from tanks and cannons, I hid in the basement with my daughter and her two daughters for six months."

Mrs Kamarevtseva's grandchildren were two months and 18 months old, and suffered in the humid basement.

During a brief break above ground, rockets landed on their street. "There was no time to get to the basement. The walls shook; it hit three houses down from us. It was scary. God saved us."

Despite the constant threat of death, her daughter did not want to abandon the family home.

"My daughter was afraid of leaving her house - no-one wants to leave their nest. I told her: 'If you don't want to save your life, save the lives of your little children.'"

After tanks appeared on their road, her daughter relented. In January, the family embarked on a dangerous, 125-mile-long exodus from Oleksandrivka, a farming village in the Donetsk region, to the industrial city of Zaporozhye.

Through tears, she described the journey. "Our way here was terrible. It was very scary. I was very afraid for my granddaughters. The rockets started to fly and my older granddaughter was screaming 'Granny, granny!' They were flying just over our heads.

"When we got on to the bus and went over the potholes filled with snow, they sounded like gunshots to us.

"We arrived at the central bus station in Donetsk city and had to wait for an hour, which was so scary. They were firing grad rockets over us, and one rocket landed just by the station."

When asked about her husband, Sergei, Mrs Kamarevtseva said, holding back a sob: "He didn't want to give up what he worked for. For me, family is more important."

Her new home, Zaporozhye, a city of 770,000, is a common destination for Jews who have fled the fighting. It is now home to 85,000 of the 1.2 million refugees scattered across Ukraine.

After arriving in the city, Mrs Kamarevtseva enrolled in World Jewish Relief's £1m Livelihood Development Programme (LDP), which was crucial to her survival.

The project was started in 2012 to help Ukrainians become better qualified for employment, but has been specially tailored to refugees, with psychological help now a crucial part of the ten-day course.

Mrs Kamarevtseva, a former part-time postwoman, wanted to become a professional hairdresser and get the full-time job she needed to support herself in a new city, but was unable to do so.

"I had only 300 hryvnia (about £8) when I came here, and couldn't afford training. WJR gave me a ten-day training course, vocational training and paid for the travel to get there."

She now works as a hairdresser - one of the 67 per cent of participants who got a full-time job after graduation. On average, those workers now earn nearly three times as much per month as they did before the course.

Despite wanting to return to her village, Mrs Kamarevtseva has now accepted that Zaporozhye is her home. The place she once loved does not exist any more.

"I miss my home. I am used to working here, but I miss my farm animals, my tulips I planted in autumn in the shape of a Magen David. I want to see how they turned out.

"But all the Donetsk buildings are occupied. I am not planning to go back."

In her new city, residents' spirits appear to have been broken by rising unemployment and seemingly endless instability. The war that no-one saw coming has already lasted longer than anyone thought it would, bringing with it death and destruction.

Zaporozhye, a hub for metal industries and car manufacturing, has no visible scars from the conflict, but the fighting looms large.

Wages are down while prices for food, petrol and utilities skyrocket to anywhere between two and seven times their original value.

The landscape is flat and grim, with low shacks made of corrugated iron and wood lining the main roads.

Anya, who has worked at the Jewish Community Centre in Zaporozhye for 16 years, said that the effects of the fighting had been devastating.

"This situation has broken the country in two parts. They were the same people, and now they are almost enemies. Families who live partly in Russia and partly in Ukraine can't speak to each other any more.

"The propaganda here was very much against those in [the warzone] and the propaganda there was against Ukraine.

"There are much fewer cars already than there used to be because people cannot afford them. The war has no end we can see.

"My one-year-old son's basic medicine, to fight infections and keep him alive, has increased seven times in price since the conflict began. And those in the conflict zone are still starving."

Ukraine's yellow-and-blue flag is designed to evoke a field of sunflowers below a clear sky, but for now, dark clouds hang overhead.

Denis Denisenko, the newly appointed director of World Jewish Relief in Ukraine, said the conflict could last for five, seven or even 10 years.

Although he has relocated to Kiev, Mr Denisenko remembers watching his football team, Shakhtar Donetsk, play at home just as tanks started rolling through the streets behind where he was sitting in the stands.

"It was very scary," he admitted. Donetsk now play 800km away in Lviv, while their Donbass Arena - one of the grounds used in the 2012 European Championships - is regularly under shell fire.

His parents are still in Donetsk, as well as his grandmother. He said he was worried about them, especially his father, who has to drive 190 miles to Dnepropetrovsk to withdraw money for basic supplies.

"It is my personal history there. That is my motivation to do this job, to personally influence the situation. Some agencies talk a lot about the services they provide, but it's all talk.

"You can make strong arguments to push an agency when your own family, your own friends in this territory need help, and you don't have much time to provide it. It gives me extra motivation."

He placed most the blame for the war on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he said was giving weapons, tanks and money to rebels, but added his own government was prolonging the war by limiting reinforcements and services.

"They call it an 'anti-terrorist operation' and take money from taxpayers like me, and the pensions of those in Donetsk, to fund the war. The fighting benefits big companies, but hurts normal people."

This drains an economy already suffering from inflation and a massively devalued currency. In a climate where money is scarce and basic necessities even more so, the government often worsens the situation by stopping WJR from delivering food and medical aid to survivors in Donetsk.

"They direct us, it is hard to get away from them. They always create some argument, for instance that we are providing services for the terrorists.

"Even when we show all the documents for our clients and IDs, they create another argument saying we have no license to deliver services to places like Donetsk.

"The political system is totally corrupt. You have two choices as a politician in Ukraine: be corrupt or be killed."

Some refugees like Mrs Kamarevtseva, traumatised and suffering, have a chance to create a new life away from the fighting with the help of the community. For the thousands left behind, there are only dark days ahead.

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