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Tales from the Pale Some Jews in Former Soviet Union Suffer Because of ‘fortunate Geography’

September 10, 2004
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Tanya Izyaeva lives with her father and grandmother in a garbage-filled shack in this former spa town about two hours from the Chechen border. Tanya, 6, was born soon after her parents fled war-torn Dagestan for southern Russia, along with more than 1 million other refugees from their homeland and neighboring Chechnya.

Tanya can’t read. She is not able to register for school because the identity documents required by the Russian government were lost in the family’s flight.

The Izyaeva family is one of 64 Jewish refugee families helped by Hesed Bencion, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-supported Jewish welfare agency in Pyatigorsk.

All of these people escaped the terrible violence that exploded 10 years ago in Dagestan and Chechnya. They are “the poorest of the poor,” according to the director of the Hesed, Larissa Ildatova.

But they are caught up in a tragic bureaucratic tangle. They are not consi! dered refugees by the Russian government, since both Chechnya and Dagestan are technically part of Russia. They have “compelled immigrant” status, and are not eligible for state compensation.

This year, those criteria became even more restricted. Today, says Ildatova, virtually all the money the Pyatigorsk Hesed has to work with comes from restitution funds, principally from the Claims Conference and the Swiss bank settlement, which because of legal decisions must be used only for camp survivors and Jews who lived under Nazi occupation.

These newer refugees are, ironically, victims of their own fortunate geography. The Chechen capital of Grozny was burned and bombed by the Nazis, but not technically occupied, Ildatova says. Therefore, these refugees are not eligible for the restitution funds.

This heartache plays out all through the former Soviet Union, through no fault of any of the parties involved. Currently, $40 million of the JDC’s $60 million annual welfare! budget for the FSU comes from Switzerland and Germany, restitution mo ney whose disbursement is tightly controlled.

Just $20 million comes from the North American Jewish federation system, “unrestricted money” that may be used for Jewish welfare and renewal anywhere it is needed.

That’s the money Ildatova and other Hesed directors want more of, so they can decide, on the ground, where the need is greatest.

But by last year, as the Swiss and German restitution monies provided an ever larger percentage of the JDC’s overall welfare budget, the JDC was forced to revamp its funding criteria to create a two-tiered system: Nazi victims, a strictly defined category of people who receive more goods and services; and non-Nazi victims, who receive less.

That formula was dictated entirely by the technical restrictions placed on the Swiss and German funds, JDC officials emphasize. As a result, the 174 Hesed centers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus can no longer provide equal services to all their needy clients. The new system went into operatio! n Jan. 1.

Pyatigorsk’s Hesed was established in June 2000. It serves 1,200 clients in the North Caucasus region, about one-tenth of the total Jewish population, as well as the 8,000 Jews of Dagestan and the six known Jews in Chechnya.

“This used to be a wealthy region,” Ildatova says.

Pyatigorsk and its surrounding spa towns are where the 19th-century czarist aristocracy and, later, the Communist elite, built their vacation homes. The prosperity ended when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Jews who could afford it began leaving for Israel, Germany or the United States; the poor remained behind, their ranks swollen by the new, even more penniless refugees from the east. In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the region the poorest in the country.

Ildatova is herself a refugee from Dagestan; two other women working in her office fled Chechnya. They are former aid recipients who have turned around to help the more recent arrivals.

Sasha Danie! lova, 32, was a family doctor in Grozny before fleeing in 1995 with he r infant daughter. Her mother arrived later. They now live in Pyatigorsk with relatives — nine people in three rooms — where Sasha runs the Hesed’s home care program. She cares for about 90 clients, some of whom are the only Jews in their village.

“So many people were killed in the Chechen and Dagestani wars, it’s rare to find an entire family among the refugees,” she says. “These people have lost family members, the children can’t go to school because their parents don’t have the money to pay for it — public school is no longer free in Russia. We try to put them in the Jewish school, which is free, whenever we can.”

The Hesed is able to work around the tighter funding restrictions thanks to the JDC’s new Children’s Initiative, Danielova says, specifically its emergency S.O.S. program and the children-at-risk project.

“We are able to help the entire family through the children,” she explains. “We can give them clothes and shoes, medicines and medical help, and! other basics.”

It’s not just the refugees who suffer, but every needy Jew who used to receive aid through the Hesed network.

“Under the old system, we could serve almost all the needy through our various programs,” Ildotova adds. “Today just 100 of our clients have a right to our help, and 600 don’t.”

She lays out what that means in human terms. “I have a client, a 48-year-old diabetic man, a complete invalid. Until January, we provided him with medicine, food, and other help. Now all I’m allowed to do is give him a little fruit every week.”

Tatiana Minjoraya, director of the Hesed in Rostov-on-Don, a 12-hour train ride from Pyatigorsk, says half her clients don’t meet the new criteria. And she’s not going to fool around with the categories — the donor agencies require strict accounting of their monies, and auditors scrutinize her books three times a year.

While international Jewish organization worked hard to secure restitution funding for the most needy ! Holocaust survivors, and she appreciates the good will behind those ef forts, Minjoraya can’t help but express frustration at the absurd and tragic situations it has created.

“I have an elderly couple — he’s Jewish and she isn’t,” she begins. “He died, and what am I supposed to do with her? We promised to help her when he was alive, but according to the new criteria, we can’t. How can I look this woman in the face and say, ‘Sorry, your husband is dead and you’re on your own now?’ “

This article is a part of a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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