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James Libson

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It's All to Play for in Ukraine

Posted: 29/05/2012 00:00

Over the next few weeks, the world's eyes will begin to turn on Eastern Europe for the UEFA Euro 2012 football championships that are taking place across Poland and the Ukraine.

Both countries are keen to show off the best of what they have to offer, and we are already starting to see images of shiny new football stadiums on our TVs and in our newspapers, demonstrating the astonishing speed at which both countries are developing.

What you're less likely to see on TV are the ongoing effects of the region's turbulent past.

I visited Ukraine earlier this year, travelling to the towns of Dnepropetrovsk and Krivoy Rog to see the work of World Jewish Relief, the charity of which I am chairman. My impression was of a country eager to modernise, yet where not everybody is seeing the benefits.

The weather was cold, and the landscape undeniably bleak. The town of Krivoy Rog is polluted and difficult to get around; it is 170km long because it established itself along an iron seam as mines were built and closed down.

I went to visit the home of the Zlotin family. The mother, Ludmilla, is struggling to bring up her two daughters, Lena and Anya, in a damp, dilapidated home that is suffering the after effects of a fire and has no running water. Lena likes to play music and showed me the instrument she's learning, a traditional Ukrainian 47 stringed hand held harp, and her younger sister told me she loves to dance. But both of them are suffering at school. To have any chance in life, they need an improvement in their physical surroundings.

The next day, I visited Yaakov Mirson. I could have spent a week listening to his stories. Although he's 82 years old, he remembers everything with astonishing clarity. Born into a Yiddish speaking Jewish farming cooperative, he and his family fled to Uzbekistan to escape the advance of the Nazis in the Second World War, before returning to their homeland many years later.

When he retired in 1990, after working first in the army then the steel industry, he was given a special certificate with a picture of Lenin on it that he showed me proudly. He had given his life to the service of his country, but with the fall of communism his pension was eviscerated, leaving him with virtually nothing to live on.

It should have been desperately sad, but it wasn't. He was such a remarkable man, without a hint of self pity, that it was impossible not to leave full of wonder for his spirit. Without the support he gets from international aid organisations, it is extremely unlikely he would be alive. Although it is now hard for him to get out, living alone on the fifth floor, his homecare worker must surely be the lifeline that keeps him going, both mentally and physically.

I left with that feeling well known to anyone relatively privileged who visits a poorer country; that belief that there must be more we can do. World Jewish Relief can support Yaakov so that he's not housebound for the rest of his life; it can repair Lena and Anya's home. Each individual solution is affordable and within reach, and that's why World Jewish Relief is running a campaign around Euro 2012 to increase awareness of the situation and raise funds to make a difference.

Despite this entrenched poverty, something miraculous is happening in Ukraine. This is a region where any semblance of Jewish life was extinguished first by the Holocaust, then by 50 years of communism. People had buried their family history for generations to protect themselves, and traditions were gradually forgotten. But now, the Jewish community is starting to come back to life. Since the fall of communism people have grasped the opportunity to get to know the traditions of their ancestors with both hands.

In Krivoy Rog, the process was jumpstarted by the opening of a Jewish Community Centre in 2009, which runs social and educational activities for people of all ages. People are embracing their roots, whilst forming community links that enrich the life of the whole town.

What's clear is that Ukraine is changing. It's taking on the challenges of the future whilst simultaneously rediscovering its past. I have no doubt the region has a bright future ahead of it. I only hope that we can prevent as many people as possible - people like Lana, Anya and Yaakov - from falling through the cracks that exist in the present.

 
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