June 12, 2009

Briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of Former Soviet Union Programs

Dear all,

A) Poverty. Much of our work, and a large number of our resources, are directed at alleviating poverty among FSU Jews. It is the basis for our work with Hesed and the elderly, and Jewish Family Services for children.

But we rarely pause to consider how poverty is defined. What are the factors that indicate poverty?

On one level we are speaking about eligibility for services. Faced with enormous need, many different cultures, different levels of professional expertise among locals, and varying notions of acceptable standards in the countries in which we work, how do we determine who needs help in some sort of standard way? In creating an assessment tool, what does the intake worker need to look for?

The answers to this question will not only address the eligibility issue; they will also help determine the kinds of interventions that are used, allocations of funds, and much more.

When we began working in the FSU "poverty" (read: need) was determined very simply by income (generally pension level). The assumption was that seniors spent their earning years in the USSR, and they had no assets, as private property was forbidden. They also had no savings- salaries were generally geared at meeting needs. Given cradle to grave government care (at least in theory), there was no need to save for the unexpected. Thus, there was a poverty level and a pension level, both very clearly determined and easily established. All we had to do was to make the adjustments per country so that we could meet some sort of standard across the FSU.

This system was a good start, but fundamentally unfair. For example, the "material needs" of the bed bound are by definition greater than those of the healthy mobile retirees. Also, as we entered into the realm of children at risk, other factors came into play. We refined our assessment tools and began to take into account the following, each of which makes its own contribution to the determination of poverty:

1. Housing. The Soviet housing situation was a disaster. Construction was generally very poor, and there were chronic housing shortages. Multi generational families shared miniscule apartments. The ability to move was almost non existent. A dysfunctional family rarely had the option to separate into smaller units. An abusive parent stayed with spouse and children. An alcoholic or emotionally unstable individual continued to share close quarters with all ages. The ill were given no privacy, and so on. Because of this, a link between low income and this form of poverty is not absolute. There may be tremendous need for assistance in a family with an income above poverty levels, because the living situation exacerbates an already problematic family dynamic.

Sub standard levels of housing can mean outdoor plumbing, even for an elderly person with limited mobility, a well rather than running water, and general physical deterioration in decrepit settings.

All of this leads to the following findings:

*Families with children are half as likely to have sufficient housing as the rest of the population

*53% of the elderly in Ukraine are in housing that is considered inadequate by international standards

*Only 11% of families with children living in rural areas in Russia have normative amounts of living space

As noted in a recent report by our staff, thousands of Jewish children and tens of thousands of Jewish elderly live in insufficient/unhealthy/unsafe housing.

So, even if income is above the poverty line, an individual or family may need considerable help as evidenced by their living conditions.

2. Healthcare. The classic statistic demonstrating the healthcare predicament in the FSU is Russia's male expectancy of under 60 years, Russia being in the best situation of the FSU countries. But this is only a symptom. The problem is the virtual collapse of the healthcare system. Medicines are expensive or unavailable, hospitals are overcrowded and collect fees many cannot even contemplate, there is almost no health care insurance, etc. Thus, while income is an indicator of poverty, even people with reasonable income may need assistance to pay for basic health service.

3. The unraveling of the social fabric. The Soviets failed at many things. The one thing they succeeded to do was to sabotage traditional family life. If we bemoan the fate of the family and its values in western societies, we are confronted with a much greater problem in the FSU countries. Single parent families are the norm, and a single income often does not suffice to provide minimum assistance. Moreover, progressive ideas like childcare made available so that a parent can work, are rare. Thus, if there is not another generation eg a grandparent with discretionary time, the single parent is responsible for childcare, cannot work, and the poverty is perpetuated. Here again, the income level is not enough to tell a story. A family in this kind of situation needs all kinds of assistance that extends far beyond income supplementation.

There is much more to discuss, and many more examples to cite as evidence that determining whom to help, and how, is a complicated issue. Much of our efforts in training local professionals is committed to helping them develop the tools they need to make these determinations.

B) Ohotchee is a village with about two dozen homes, about 120 kilometers from Kharkov, Ukraine. It is accessible only by unpaved road- about 2 kilometers off the main east/west artery in Ukraine. The homes in the village stand alone. They are pre war structures, tiny, wooden buildings. Many have dirt floors, and leaky roofs.

The village has one main unpaved road, and the houses are on either side the length of the street. The dirt road is often muddy, and impassable with a standard vehicle. Roosters, dogs and rats roam freely.

Ohotchee has one Jewish resident. Her name is Anna Karabut. She is 70 years old and lives alone. Her house has two rooms. The paint on the wall is peeling and the roof beams are exposed. There is no central heating system, running water, telephone, toilet, or plumbing system. There is an outhouse in the yard. To cook meals, and to keep warm in the winter, Anna lights up a furnace. She draws water from the village well, about 75 yards from her house.

Anna has no living relatives. She cares of herself as best she can.

She was born in 1939 in another small village not far away. Her father was an electrician, and her mother a kindergarten teacher. When World War Two began Anna's father was drafted immediately into the Red Army, and her mother took her back to Ohotchee where her maternal grandparents lived.

The village was occupied in late 1941, and the villagers were expelled, as they were suspected of harboring anti German sympathies. Anna was sent with her mother to a concentration camp in Poland, the name of which she no longer remembers. In 1943 she and her mother were liberated by the Soviet Army and they returned to Ohotchee. Her father returned from the front in 1945, but he had been wounded several months previously, and died shortly thereafter of his wounds.

Anna found work on a collective farm. She was married for a short time, and widowed at a young age. She stayed on the collective farm after her husband's death, and returned to Ohotchee, her childhood home, about 20 years ago.

Today she receives a monthly pension of equivalent to about 95 USD. She is not well, and can manage for herself only with great difficulty. Occasionally a young neighbor helps her draw water. In the harsh Ukrainian winter it is a challenge for her to get out.

Five years ago she was referred to the Kharkov Hesed quite by accident. A friend had arranged for her to visit a specialist in Kharkov, and in a waiting room she met a Hesed volunteer. The woman passed on Anna's information to the Hesed intake people and she was added to the list of stops of the Hesed mobile. The truck makes stops in the region every three weeks or so, bringing food and medicine, and other necessities to Jews living in isolated areas. Anna receives food and medicine, winter relief, money for wood to heat her house, and fresh food sets. She adamantly refuses to move to the larger city. The Hesed has now also arranged for a telephone to be put in her house, the only one in the village, so that they can stay in touch with her and hear in real time if she has any unexpected problems.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that absent the help of the Hesed, Anna's life would be totally unbearable, if she would have survived this long at all.

Shabbat Shalom,

P.S. Take a moment to watch this video from the JCC in Dnepropetrovsk:

Though in Russian, I am sure you will enjoy this modern Jewish cultural gem. It's from our JCC in Dnepropetrovsk. Don't focus on the Russian – listen to the music and look at the faces. It's a play the children created for Purim.

No comments: