A woman stands on the street in Ukraine, where a conflict erupted earlier this year.
A woman stands on the street in Ukraine, where a conflict erupted earlier this year.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Imagine a huge family of women spread over thousands of miles in countries throughout a continent. After decades of regular communication, members suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter political conflict. There is shooting, bombing, accusations and denials, outrage and fear and massive dislocation. Refugees are fleeing from one region to another.

This is the situation for members of Project Kesher, an organization that trains primarily Jewish women in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Israel to take on leadership roles in their own cities, where they have spent years building interfaith coalitions to advocate for the safety and status of women and girls.

Suddenly, early this year when the bloody conflict erupted in areas of Ukraine, fault lines threatened to open in the Project Kesher family.

More than 4,000 have died in the Eastern part of Ukraine in the last months. Many have stayed in that conflict area, in part because they are afraid to abandon their homes to looters, but many others have fled to Central and Western Ukraine. Refugee camps are springing up in both Russia and Ukraine.

Though at first the Russian government gave a daily stipend to the refugees in both countries, currencies are falling and money is becoming increasingly tight. A new tax has been levied to pay for the army, and elements in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions are threatening to kill anyone who pays the tax.

"This is simply war. Really war," says one Project Kesher leader, a refugee from the conflict.

What the Project Kesher network of women has going for it is a shared language and shared goals, and the tools of the internet. For 25 years, members have been working together to build a civil society. Twenty-five years ago they had to rely on sparse and expensive telephone connections and take long train rides to get to face-to-face meetings, but now they are connected daily through Skype, email, social media and internet meet-ups.

In November, two young mothers, core leaders in Project Kesher, came to the U.S. to meet with their American counterparts.

Vlada Bystrova Nedak, a Ukrainian, is Project Kesher’s director of international programming. Irina Sklyankina, a Russian, is its international coordinator of Jewish education. They’ve worked closely together for years, and now they talk about the fracturing of their world. They are shocked and angry and worried, but mostly, they’re very busy holding their network together.

Anxious About Their Families

Some Ukrainians, Nedak says, are so anti-Russian; they’ve stopped watching their favorite Russian TV shows. In general, behavior is more aggressive. "We opened the bottle and all the aggressions flew out, even among school kids. We were never as polite as you Americans, but this is something new. It’s because people are anxious about their families."

Both women say there’s a massive media propaganda war between the sides in the conflict, and they have learned not to trust media reports.

But because Project Kesher women throughout the region and non-Jewish members of their coalitions have worked closely together over the years, they can bypass the media.

"By Skype and email and phones, we learn firsthand from each other the truth about what’s going on in a city. And right from the beginning, we didn’t need to urge Project Kesher women to reach out to each other on both sides. Without our pushing it at all, women called others in other cities, across political lines. They didn’t need the staff to tell them; they know on their own that there has to be dialogue. We have to hear each other," she says.

Nedak says that in cases where the government stipends have stopped coming, the Jewish community is working to help refugees meet such everyday needs as food and medicine. "There were refugees in my city, Krivoy Rog, for example, and we gathered furniture, blankets, bed linens, cleaning supplies; anything we thought they would need. We ask no questions, like why are they there without their husbands. They are there, and they need what anyone would need."

Both women say that the tension is greater between supporters of the Ukrainian government and separatists in Eastern Ukraine than between Ukraine and Russia.

Now, as the fighting drags on, Nedak says, "Project Kesher does everything to get people together at one table – just to sit, just to see one another. It’s why we organize these conferences, Skype meetings and webinars between people on both sides in individual cities where there is armed conflict like Makeyevka, Slovyansk, Mariupol and Lugansk. We discuss not politics but people’s shared pain. What they need and what we can do for each other. We, as women, set the tone for our families and when we remember our connections to each other, this ripples out to the community, just the way hate can do."

Continuing Pressure

One continuing source of pressure is the need to preserve money as currencies fall, and this has created an opening for dialogue.

"A Project Kesher leader who runs PK’s financial literacy program in her city in Ukraine saw old people, frightened refugees from Eastern Ukraine, and it made her very angry," Sklyankina says. "We invited her to join a Skype conference with Project Kesher leaders from Eastern Ukraine and Western Ukraine and Russia. She saw that no one had changed, no one was angry at the other leaders. She decided to work on teaching financial literacy to women in the refugee camp in the Dnieperpetrovsk region."

In Rybinsk, Russia, too, Project Kesher convened a multi-ethnic group of Ukrainian and Russian women to discuss women’s financial situations and the need for each woman to be self-sufficient and have "a pillow of safety," as well as ways to save money as currencies collapse.

In the beginning, Sklyankina says, "there were some tensions between Ukrainians and Russians – they sat apart – but after half an hour, talking about our families, we laughed together a little and the tension eased. Women from both sides shared information and expressed their opinions. It became clear how mass media had influenced them. They began to hear each other."

The participants returned home from that meeting and will conduct similar meetings in Western Ukraine, with other ethnic and national communities.

A new part of Project Kesher’s international curriculum is the art of mediation: how to work one-to-one without taking sides. This was the focus of the December general staff meeting for leaders from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Israel. "This won’t be so difficult for us," Sklyankina says. "It’s a woman’s way of solving conflicts."

Do even Nedak and Sklyankina feel tension between themselves and Project Kesher leaders they’ve worked with for years, now on opposite sides of the conflict?

There is a silence. Then Nedak talks about calling a Project Kesher leader who lives in the Donetsk region and sympathizes with the separatists. Her sympathies are on the other side. "I didn’t try to argue with her political position. I just thought about her family and her pain at being separated from her newborn grandchild," she says.

Nedak adds, "We understand now how fragile peace is." She mimes tearing a tissue-thin fabric. "Our grandparents understood this deeply because they lived through the Great War. They were always telling us, ‘Peace, peace,’ and we said, ‘Sure, Grandma.’ Now we feel it in our guts the way they always have."