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February 28, 2022 1:02 pm
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Jewish Aid Worker in Ukrainian City of Odessa Speaks of ‘Anxiety and Fear’ in Face of Ongoing Russian Invasion

avatar by Ben Cohen

Residents of the city of Odessa line up to use an ATM on the fourth day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Reuters/TASS

Residents of Odessa, Ukraine’s third-largest city, were bracing themselves for a difficult week as the Russian invasion of its southern neighbor entered its fifth day on Monday, a Jewish humanitarian aid worker told The Algemeiner.

Inna V. — a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Odessa whose last name is being withheld for security reasons — said that despite an apparent lull in hostilities in the city on Monday, residents were facing the coming days with anxiety.

“I was outside today and I saw unusually empty streets,” she said, speaking by phone from the Black Sea port city. “But some public transport is working and you can even buy gas at some stations, which was a big problem after the first night of bombing on Feb. 24.”

While the situation in Odessa was not as dire as in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, or Kharkiv, its second-largest city in the northeast, she said, the experience of those cities gives an ominous indication of what may lie in store.

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“Right now, I can’t hear any shelling, I’ve been hearing it over the last several days,” Inna said. “But you know, silence is a very scary thing. For me today, silence doesn’t mean calm, it means anxiety and fear. This is the main feeling.”

Through its network of community centers, known as “cheseds,” as well as schedules of home visits, JDC’s operation in Odessa and its environs caters to more than 5,000 highly vulnerable clients, including over 300 at-risk children, along with Holocaust survivors, infirm and homebound people and individuals with special needs.

“If you talk to the elderly people who went through World War II, they are afraid of war, they are afraid of hunger,” Inna said.

Keeping its clients fed and warm during a bitterly cold winter is a priority for JDC, she said, and the agency is purchasing and distributing non-perishable foodstuffs such as oil, sugar and canned fish, as well as personal care items like diapers. It is also paying special attention to the impact of the war on its clients’ mental health, offering online activities and entertainment as a tonic to the constant stream of war news and the sound of armed conflict in the surrounding streets.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago, we launched a number of online programs — health, arts and crafts, kids programming, and all that is still in progress,” Inna said. “We also have ‘University Without Borders,’ which is a Jewish cultural and historical program.”

Other activities included an online shabbat service that was held last Friday night. “It helps take people away from watching TV all the time, where they can’t find a lot of positive information,” she said.

The New York-based JDC supports nearly 40,000 poor and vulnerable Jews across Ukraine. “We do not know what the days ahead will bring, but JDC will remain a lifeline to these Jews and to Jewish communities,” JDC CEO Ariel Zwang pledged in a statement last week.

Over the weekend, Russian forces launched a concerted push from Crimea into the southern part of Ukraine, targeting Berdyansk, Mariupol, Melitopol and Kherson — cities that lie to Odessa’s east.

Ukrainian forces claimed on Sunday that an attempt by Russian forces to seize Odessa through an amphibious landing had been thwarted.

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