“These explosions are all so terrible,” said Anna Churilyana, a blind 90-year old woman in Odessa, Ukraine. In the Washington Post story, “To evacuate or not? In Odessa, some older residents cannot flee war,” Churilyana talked about Russia’s bombing campaign, saying, “I can’t see them, but I can feel them with my whole body.” Evacuating her home isn’t feasible; Churilyana is forced to cover her windows to protect against explosions. Volunteers provide nonperishable food, allowing her to eat. Sadly, her story, since Russia invaded Ukraine, is all too common.
According to the European Disability Forum, there are over 7 million people aged 60+ in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion has brought unfathomable consequences to all Ukrainians, including seniors. Older people have suffered from social isolation, and a lack of clean water and medical supplies. Recently, HelpAge International, a nonprofit global network of organizations dedicated to older people, conducted a survey of the conditions facing seniors in Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine. According to the results:
- 99% of respondents don’t want to be evacuated.
- 91% have mobility issues, live alone and need assistance with getting food.
- 79% lack access to clean drinking water because of shelling and airstrikes.
- 34% require immediate medication to treat chronic diseases like diabetes, blood pressure and pain relief.
- 75% need hygiene supplies like toothpaste, soap, adult briefs and toilet paper.
- 91% are without electricity, which is problematic given the freezing cold weather and therefore require thermal blankets.
Seniors have been forced to sleep in subway stations and metro cars, deep underground to avoid the bombing. Agence France-Presse reported on Valentyna Katkova, a 77-year-old woman from Kyiv, who, as of March 19, slept in a metro station for a month. “And I, like an old one, am here. That’s because I’ve had a stroke, a heart attack — so here I am, sleeping in the carriage,” Katkova said. The mayor of Kyiv indicated that upwards of 15,000 people are using the subway stations for shelter. According to Bloomberg News, because Kyiv’s subway stations were built during the Cold War they can double as bomb shelters. For example, the Arsenalna station goes 346 feet underground, making it the deepest station in the world. Fortunately, civil defense preparedness continued after Ukrainian independence in 1991, providing for sufficient drinking water fountains and bathrooms throughout the metro system.
Not surprisingly, problems also extend to Ukrainian seniors who are refugees. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that, as of April 24, over 5.2 million refugees have left Ukraine because of the war. Between March 4 and 6 HelpAge International interviewed 105 older people (50 +) who are refugees to learn more about their plight. People reported their needs extend to medical assistance, hygiene supplies and clothing, just to name a few. While working with refugees in Moldova, HelpAge assisted a family making up four generations. This family included a great grandmother who is 93 years old, a grandmother who is 75 years old, a granddaughter and a baby two weeks old. HelpAge indicated the great-grandmother evacuated quickly and consequently left her medication at home.
Working at B’nai B’rith International, I have been able to witness firsthand the enormous impact nonprofit organizations have on people who need assistance the most. As a humanitarian organization, B’nai B’rith’s aid for Ukrainians began immediately after the fighting started. We have sent warm clothes, food, hygiene items, baby formula, medicines and comforting aids such as stuffed teddy bears for children. In addition, we have sent funds to Moldova to assist with temporary housing and other essentials for refugees crossing to safety in Moldova. Also, B’nai B’rith safeguarded a small measure of Jewish continuity, with a shipment of Passover specialty foods delivered to the B’nai B’rith Leopolis Lodge in Lviv, including Matzoh, gefilte fish and cookies.
A volunteer team from B’nai B’rith International recently returned from Poland, where they provided on-the-ground humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees. Andrea Cure, B’nai B’rith director of development; Edyta Szemiel, chief financial officer of B’nai B’rith; and Alina Bricman, B’nai B’rith director of EU Affairs, traveled to multiple cities across Poland and worked with other organizations to provide vital aid to the millions of Ukrainian refugees flowing over the border.
“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to help in even the smallest ways,” Cure said. “To hand a weary mom a cup of tea in a train station, to give a B’nai B’rith bear to a little boy who had to leave all his toys behind—these little interactions and exchanges were meaningful beyond words.”
Szemiel spoke with refugees whose thoughts remained with their elderly parents in Ukraine, because seniors too often are unable to evacuate because of mobility and other medical reasons. As the war continues, B’nai B’rith will continue to work with aid teams in Ukraine and at various border crossings to assess and meet immediate and longer-term needs.
There are no words to describe the horror taking place in Ukraine. An unprovoked attack by Russia that leaves Ukraine in ruins has zero justification. People being displaced from their homes, sleeping in metro stations and living every day in horror is heartbreaking. While humanitarian organizations like B’nai B’rith have made tremendous strides providing assistance to people, the only way to truly end the suffering is to find the means to end hostilities.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.