This past week I was in New York on business and experienced the city’s storied holiday season in full swing—Christmas lights twinkling, the bustling holiday market in Union Square, and my friends and family in the Jewish community preparing to celebrate Chanukah, our festival of lights. As I was picking out a gift to take back to my daughter, surrounded by the abundance of the season, I was struck not by the endless toys and games, but instead recalled children and families around the world whose holiday time is marked not by presents and comforting food, but poverty and despair.
It remains a sad a fact that millions of children and families are without the resources needed to afford life’s basics, including food, medicine, clothing, and safe housing. According to UNICEF, more than half the people in extreme poverty worldwide are children and only one third have a social safety net to care for them. In my work, I see this situation play out across the globe, but especially where my focus lies in the former Soviet Union.
Take 14-year-old Tanya Dunaeva and her 16-year-old brother, Sasha, who live in Moldova, a former communist country and one of Europe’s poorest today. They were raised by their father and grandmother until both passed away. Their mother and older sister live abroad – like thousands of other Moldovans who work tirelessly to send remittances home – and can only just afford to send a small amount of money to the children. Residing in the remote city of Beltsy, the children must make due with a dilapidated two-room home far from public transportation and a primitive outhouse in the yard. They have no running water, their only source of heat is a furnace, and the monthly support they must live on is about $110. Of that, $38 is used for rising utility costs that have increased as much as 70 percent in some parts of the country.
Tanya and Sasha – like countless other youth in similar circumstances worldwide – might have been forgotten. But thanks to a network of local social welfare centers created and supported by my organization – the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the international Jewish relief agency – these children, and thousands of others, receive food and medical assistance, daycare and counseling, educational supplies, winter clothing, bedding, and fuel, and connections to a community which offers them comfort and support when they have no one else to help them. And those who aid them know their difficulty: of the 13 professional staff we have who work with at-risk children and families in Moldova, four are former clients. These women don’t just provide aid; they offer the empathy that comes from knowing what it means to struggle to make ends meet.
We need more of that kind of care for children and families facing hopelessness today. And to be sure, this challenge doesn’t just exist where I work or in the developing world. Nearly half of children in the U.S. live dangerously close to the poverty line, according to research from the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. To address this issue, we must redouble efforts to bring together the various players from government, the nonprofit sector, philanthropic leadership, and everyday citizens who donate millions every year to aid children and families in need.
But, above all, we must start at home and educate our own families and communities about this plight. Indeed, were it not for a twist of fate, it could well be us or our children struggling for sustenance, clean water, medicine, or the loving embrace of someone who will empower them to reach a better future.
So as you fill your stockings, kindle the menorah candles, and gather in the warmth of family, community, and the timeless ideals of this season, take one moment for a child in desperate need – thousands of miles away or even in your own backyard – and ensure they experience the joy that comes from feeling cared for. Pass your light onto those feeling left alone in the darkness—it’s an enduring gift they will never forget.
Michal Frank is the Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution’s (JDC) Former Soviet Union operation.