First Displaced, Now Helping Others In Ukraine


The last thing Masha Shumatskaya expected in February 2014, when Ukraine’s Euromaiden Revolution forced a change of government from a corrupt, pro-Russian president to a Ukrainian nationalist, was having to flee her hometown five months later and become one of the more 1 million Ukrainians displaced by war.

But while those developments may have been hard to imagine, it comes as no surprise to those who know her that Shumatskaya, now a refugee, would now be helping other Jews who’ve suffered devastating blows in the past year.

A native of Donetsk, an eastern Ukrainian city close to the Russian border, the 23-year-old is now delivering post-holiday food packages to dozens of elderly and disabled residents of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city and the one to which she fled with her boyfriend in late June.

Shumatskaya and other volunteers are making their deliveries through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which recently brought her to North America for a four-city tour to discuss the organization’s work.

In addition to those packages, which are being delivered after Passover because they contain bread, JDC distributed 48,000 boxes of matzah throughout Ukraine to Jews in need, said Michael Geller, the agency’s spokesman.

Shumatskaya brushed aside any suggestion that it might be odd for a displaced person who’s still struggling financially to be helping other refugees.

“Thank God, I’m not in as bad condition as others,” said Shumatskaya. “I can work.”

A graduate of JDC’s Metsuda young-leadership program and a volunteer for the agency since 2009, Shumatskaya described her experiences in Donetsk, as well as her volunteer work, during a recent visit to New York during a phone interview and by email.

In pre-war Donetsk, Shumatskaya said, it was “easy to be a Jew. We had a synagogue, many Jewish families, and community life.”

It was a city in which Shumatskaya attended Jewish schools throughout her childhood, belonged to a Jewish youth club, and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at a local university. She worked in Donetsk as an English teacher.

But life began to change after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, she recalled, leading to the arrival only weeks later of masked, Russian-backed separatists, checkpoints, and shelling throughout the city.

“There were a lot of moments that I don’t like to remember,” Shumatskaya said. Such as last June, when heavy shelling broke out while she was visiting a local hospital, forcing doctors to evacuate the facility. Shumatskaya couldn’t return home because her own neighborhood was also considered dangerous, so she had to remain near the hospital until “everything was over.”

Other moments ingrained in Shumatskaya’s memory include the night when she had to drag her mattress into a windowless hallway to protect herself from flying glass in case a bomb shattered her windows and having to dodge tanks bearing Russian flags to reach Donetsk’s railway station, episodes she recalled in a recent interview with JTA.

By late spring, Shumatskaya decided she could no longer remain in Donetsk. She and her boyfriend fled the city by train and arrived hours later in Kharkov, which, although troubled, is quiet for now.

Her parents, who are divorced, stayed behind, each awaiting special authorization before they could leave. They each received it a few weeks ago and were finally able to flee the conflict zone, leaving behind much of what they owned. Shumatskaya’s mother is now in Kharkov and planning to make aliyah, while her father, elsewhere in Ukraine, is planning to return to Donetsk. “His home is the only property he owns and he doesn’t want to abandon it,” Shumatskaya said.

When Shumatskaya and her boyfriend arrived in Kharkov, they stayed with a friend for a month and later began renting an apartment, she said, adding that they both received assistance from JDC during their first few months in the city. She’s now working as a private tutor, while her boyfriend works as an assistant in a sporting-goods store, although they’re still struggling financially because of the severe drop in the Ukrainian currency.

But her situation is still far better than that of many Kharkov residents, according to both Shumatskaya and JDC officials.

In a phone interview from her Jerusalem office, the head of JDC’s Ukraine desk, Oksana Galkevitch, painted a picture of what’s happened in the region since the conflict broke out.

In addition to armed conflict in eastern portions of Ukraine, the Ukrainian economy has collapsed, wreaking havoc for residents across the country. Banks and other financial institutions have closed, the government has stopped paying salaries and pensions, and food prices have shot up by as much as 200 percent, said Galkevitch, who was born and raised in Kharkov and whose family remains there. So, too, have fuel costs, another devastating blow for those coping with the Ukrainian winter.

“People are suddenly poor,” Galkevitch said, adding that JDC’s clientele has increased by 2,700 in the past year, up from about 69,000 during peacetime. Many of those new clients are blue-collar or middle-class families who’ve never faced the distress they’re feeling now.

Working in tandem with the local Jewish community and with such groups as the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, JDC provides much of that aid through its 32 social-welfare centers, a network that serves 1,200 locations across Ukraine. But it’s also deployed emergency services since the crisis began, operating what Galkevitch calls a three-front effort.

The first front involved immediately contacting clients in the conflict zone, whose circumstances were an absolute mystery to JDC.

“We either called them, or our volunteers visited them,” with the main goal of simply learning their location, Galkevitch said.

The economic collapse also compelled JDC to revamp its methods and hours of distributing aid in some locations. The agency supports Hesed clients by wiring a sum of money to their bank accounts, which they can access through ATM cards, but the closure of banks in some areas made that no longer possible for some clients.

In place of that aid, JDC is distributing food packages in person, relying on volunteers and staff members who travel to the homes of clients by bus, subway and even bike. More than 5,000 Jews in the conflict zone are now receiving JDC’s aid, said Galkevitch, who added that estimates of the Jewish population there range as high as 23,000.

The agency’s second front involves aiding 2,500 displaced Jews — members of the community who, along with more than a million non-Jewish Ukrainians, have managed to flee the conflict zone.

Guided by a list of questions prepared by JDC, volunteers and staff members visiting the refugees ask them which of their needs are most critical, whether they’ve been accepted by their new community, and if they’re receiving any help from them. The agency then fills in the gaps, providing food, medications, if necessary, and post-trauma therapy.

The third front focused on providing increased winter support, distributing heaters and warm clothing such as sweaters and boots.

A large coalition of foundations and private donors support JDC’s work including the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.

That work, of course, is also advanced by volunteers like Shumatskaya, who raises funds to purchase food before each Jewish holiday, and later delivers those packages, as part of a project she launched three years ago with other Metsuda alumni.

Discussing that effort, JDC’s Geller said “the notion of charity work and volunteerism didn’t exist” during Soviet days, when it was the state itself that supposedly took care of everyone. “What’s significant about Masha and her friends is that [their work] represents a spirit of volunteerism that’s alive and blossoming among young Jews 25 years after the Soviet Union’s fall.”