Ukraine: Street children find guardian angels FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 26 Apr 1998 02:49:05 -0700 (PDT)

    See also: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

    By Lily Hyde

Kyiv, 21 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On a weekly sortie into a rundown Kyiv
suburb, a small group of teenagers lugs bags of bread and bouillon
cubes to a street corner, where some younger children stand waiting.
The contrast between the two groups is stark. The first is clean,
well-dressed and smiling. The second is dusty, rumpled and ill-clad in
oversized sweaters that don't keep out the chilly Spring air.

The older group has come from schools, homes and youth clubs around
Kyiv on a charitable mission that has evolved into regularly scheduled
meetings with the younger kids, who have clambered out from under a
railway platform.

"I'm already tired of bouillon," sighs seven-year-old Yura, lowering
his grubby face to a steaming cup nevertheless. The orphan has been
living beneath the station platform in Svyatoshino district for three
years, he says. "If you're used to it, it's OK on the streets," he
says. "But getting used to it is hard."

Yura's teenage benefactors cannot get used to leaving Ukraine's street
children to that fate. Since January, the group has trudged out each
week to offer drug-addled and abandoned youngsters a sympathetic ear
and some hot food. "I like children, and I can't stand seeing them
feeling bad," says volunteer Andrei Tvardievich.

When the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a report on
Ukraine's street children last November, social workers and government
officials were shocked by the statistics on physical and sexual abuse,
drug use, illiteracy and other hardships. One-third of the 350
children questioned in Kyiv and Odessa said they were hungry every
day. Ninety percent said they relied on prayer, vodka or glue-sniffing
to get them through illnesses. Most startling was the discovery that
only a small minority were orphans. The majority came from
dysfunctional families, where alcoholic or abusive parents had either
thrown their children out, or forced them to flee ill-treatment and

Now, the same teenage volunteers who befriended street children to
gather information for the report are leading a campaign to bring some
immediate relief to their almost-peers. "The best way to help them is
to teach them how to survive in such conditions," said Anton Shklyar,
16. "If they don't want to return to their families, we give them
information and help."

The outreach group operates with no budget or sponsors, gathering
clothing and supplies from youth clubs around the city. Sergei
Bakharev, a university student who leads the team, pays for food out
of his own pocket, to be reimbursed by UNICEF at a later date. The
volunteers plan to distribute medical kits supplied by the Red Cross
in the near future; another project is to teach kids how to sew. Their
ultimate aim is to help the children get back into school.

Since the UNICEF report was released, street children have rarely been
out of the headlines.

Kyiv has only one temporary shelter for street children, a 50-bed
facility opened in January. Otherwise, the city relies on a
drastically underfunded network of orphanages and 'internats,'
boarding schools for underprivileged children and wards of the state.

Social workers acknowledge that children used to living on their own
do not adapt well to controlled environments, from which they
regularly escape. "When children go to the shelter they can get food,
clothes, medical aid, education," said Bakharev. "But they still
leave, because they feel they're limited, they can't earn their own
money, they're imprisoned by four walls."

Nevertheless, UNICEF and the city social services department have
drawn up several more long-term plans to cope with the growing problem
of street children. The proposed solutions range from returning them
to their families, under the supervision of teachers and social
workers, to sending them to 'internats.' A new system of foster
families is currently being tested in Donetsk, said Bakharev.

Some children find the idea of shelter and schooling appealing, but
are prevented from getting help by the rules of the system.
Twelve-year-old Seryozha said his parents refuse to enroll him in an
'internat,' but regularly throw him out of the house. "I wanted to be
in an internat. There you don't get any homework, you get five meals a
day, sometimes you even get sweets from humanitarian aid," he said.

Seryozha's idealized picture is a long way from the reality of
state-run homes, which are overcrowded and understaffed and fail to
prepare children for life outside an institution.

"The 'internats' are in terrible condition," Bakharev said. "Then,
there is the problem of what to do with them after the 'internat.'
These institutions don't provide the children with any profession to
secure their future. What happens is that many internat graduates
don't even know how to pay for their flats."

On the streets after running away from an 'internat,' where he lived
for eight years and says he was beaten, Sergei speaks of a recurring
-- often glue-fumes inspired -- dream.

"The only thing I want is nice parents," he says. "If I get in a nice
family, I promise I'll quit smoking, sniffing glue and using bad
language, and I'll study hard. If I promise to quit, and if I respect
the family, they'll take me."

Lily Hyde is a Kyiv-based journalist, who specializes in
social-welfare issues, and, who routinely contributes to RFE/RL.



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