Thursday, October 27, 2005

Kiev's homeless kids find hope

From the Christian Science Monitor, 14 May 2003:

Off the street and into the Ark: Kiev's homeless kids find hope

By Arie Farnam.

On a sunny Saturday morning, Irina and Igor rake wood debris and leaves around an old house on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. At ages 12 and 13, the two are remarkably enthusiastic as they go about their task.

"This is our new home and it is really wonderful," Igor says, grinning broadly as he brushes wood chips off of his shirt. "I always wanted a family, and here we are very much like a family."

Until recently, these two youngsters were among some 100,000 abandoned and homeless children in Kiev, sleeping under bridges or in heating shafts and begging or stealing food to survive. Their lives changed when they were taken in by a children's shelter founded by American ex-patriates Jane Hyatt and Barbara Klaiber. Given a warm bed, clean clothes, healthy food, and frequent hugs, the children were also able to attend school for the first time.

That was two years ago, when the shelter, aptly named "the Ark," first opened. Since then both the home and its children have progressed. Irina has made it through the third grade, and Igor has passed state exams to enter the fifth.

The Ark has gone from a cramped rental house to a 10-acre property with eight buildings, thanks to a Swiss grant and donations from charities and individuals in the United States, including Monitor readers. Although the site, a former sanatorium, is in dire need of renovation after 20 years of disuse, eight children have already moved in. Once the compound is fully reconstructed, which will cost about $350,000, the Ark will be able to take in as many as 100 children.

"There is fresh air here and a lot of room to build forts and ride bikes," Igor adds, while he watches Ms. Hyatt trot around the makeshift playground bouncing 9-year-old Pav-lina on her shoulders. "I am going to plant a garden with cabbage and carrots, so we can have a few rabbits.

"There is sure a lot of work to do," Igor adds. "The roof on the kitchen has a big hole in it, and several of the buildings are really falling down, but we will fix it all up."

Igor points out where he lives in the one fully functional building on the property. He and another boy share a room with a bunk bed, a compact bathroom, and a window with a forest view.

In the cozy common room, Alyosha, an older boy, plays hymns on a piano. A hand-drawn sign on the front door bears the names of the children and the message "We're home!"

For Igor, whose mother abandoned him to beg on the streets of Kiev for three years, that is no small boast. Irina, too, found herself on the streets with her two sisters after their mother was put in prison when she was six years old. The three girls spent the next six years struggling to survive on their own during Ukraine's darkest years of economic upheaval following the USSR's collapse. All three are now at the Ark.

"I am glad we are away from all that and that my little sister is safe here," she says. "We can go to school here. We aren't hungry any more, and also the caregivers here are kind to us."

Sergei Mikitin, one of three Ukrainian adults hired to care for the children, says Irina has changed a lot since she came to the shelter.

"During such a long time on the street, she experienced terrible things - hunger, drugs, and physical abuse. When she first came here she was like a wild cat. No one could get close to her because she would lash out and scratch you. She was so afraid and angry. She ran away a few times but she kept coming back and trying to change her life for the better.

"Now, after two very difficult years, she is starting to thaw," Mr. Mikitin says. "She gives the other kids hugs. It is little miracles like that that keep me going in this job."

Mikitin, who has also worked at several state orphanages, says the Ark is unique in Kiev, where the overburdened state shelters house children behind bars and pay little attention to their emotional needs.

"The atmosphere in state shelters is often very aggressive," he says. "The big kids beat up the little ones, and the caregivers often don't behave any better. The orphanages are very crowded and the children don't get good quality education or food. The number of homeless children has risen to frightening levels and the state social system simply can't cope."

According to Ukrainian sociologists, Kiev has more homeless children today than during the desolate years just after World War II - some as young as three or four. It was this situation that the two American women felt compelled to battle.

Five years ago, they started a soup kitchen to feed street kids, and from there they began plans for the shelter. Their goal is that the Ark will eventually offer services ranging from addiction rehabilitation and care for children just off the street to education and vocational training over the long term.

"Living in Kiev, you can't help seeing the need, when there are children tugging on your sleeve every day in the market," Ms. Klaiber says, as two of the children hug her with their heads nestled into her coat. "There came a point when the burden of these kids weighed on my heart so much that I decided I had to do this."

The two women say they know dozens of children on the streets who want to live at the shelter as soon as there is room for them, including 14-year-old Denis and his younger brother Artyom, whom Monitor readers met last year when they were living in a Kiev sewer. The two boys are near the top of the list, but next in line is 8-year-old Yulia, who has to beg for food because her mother has joined a prostitution ring.

Most of the children on the street still have at least one parent, though these mothers and fathers are often overwhelmed by alcohol or drug addictions or simply too poor to support their children.

"This society has been through a series of shocks, especially after the Russian crisis in 1998," Hyatt says. "Many families fell apart as a result."

The phenomenon of street children in this former Soviet republic has so far only affected one generation, she says, adding: "We have to do everything we can to stop it before this despair is passed on to another generation."

During the past year, the two Americans have been able to reunite five children with their families. In most instances, the reunions took place after Hyatt and Klaiber helped the alcoholic parents get into treatment programs and the families obtained housing. In one case the Ark helped by hiring one of the fathers - who is not an alcoholic - to do maintenance at the shelter.

Interested readers can contact the shelter at: The Ark c/o Father's Care; 3754 Canvasback Ct.; Marietta, GA 30062


Loves Bridge

Street Children - Russia Pangaea

'Child by child,' group aids homeless street kids CNNfyi


8 April 2002

Help for Ukraine's street kids.
By Arie Farnam

In the narrow space around the pipes in a Kiev sewer, 15 ragged children sleep huddled together for warmth. They range from 9-year-old Artyom Selivanov, the tough ringleader, to 16-year-old Natasha Dzuley, who crouches in a corner, clutching a small cloth doll.

"Wake up!" Artyom's brother Denis calls from the street above. "The aunties are here, and they brought food." Slowly, the children roll out, coughing from the stench of sewage and sweat and the glue they sniff to keep their hunger at bay.

Denis's "aunties" are American missionaries Jane Hyatt and Barbara Klaiber, who have devoted the past four years to a lonely struggle to feed Kiev's unwanted youth.

The children in the sewers say they don't trust adults, then add, "except Auntie Jane and Auntie Barbara."

The two women, who come from different American churches, are united by their cause. Their soup kitchen can give 30 to 40 children a bowl of soup each day. A house they have staffed with Ukrainian teachers provides the only nongovernmental shelter for street children in the country, though so far it only houses five.

Ms. Hyatt and Ms. Klaiber also walk the streets and bring bread and milk to the children's hideouts. Denis and Artyom take the bread and pass it out, while the women learn that Natasha is several months pregnant. She and another girl have started to work for a prostitution ring.

"We will come back again, but I'm not sure what we can do," Hyatt says, shaking her head. "What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. There are so many of them."

American 'Aunties'

Hyatt says she used to live a comfortable middle-class life in Atlanta, Ga. But eight years ago, she was invited to teach a seminar for church workers in the Ukraine and ended up staying. Klaiber left upstate New York 15 years ago to become a Swiss citizen and work on a series of risky Christian projects, including smuggling Bibles into China.

"When I first visited this country, I knew in my heart that Ukraine was where I was supposed to be," Hyatt says. "I started working with street children, because I can imagine what this country will be like if something is not done about these children now. They have no future without education."

A glimmer of hope

For Klaiber and Hyatt every day is a crisis, with children often coming to their apartment in the middle of the night. Stas Gorchenko came to them at 3 o'clock in the morning with a gash in his leg. He now studies at a school desk at The Ark, the little house that serves as a shelter.

"My mother told me she didn't want me and threw me out," he says with a shrug when asked why he ended up living on the street. Even living in the sewers for two years, he was still able to finish the fifth grade and then find his way to the shelter.

"This is a good start," Klaiber says. "If they want to go to college, that is in the realm of possibility. We have a 13-year-old who didn't know the alphabet, but then finished the sixth grade in one year. It all depends on their motivation."

Stas, surrounded by warmth and the laughter of other children at The Ark, has become a gifted artist, sketching the faces of his teachers and classmates in exact detail. "When I grow up, I'll be an architect and also invent a new and better kind of electric engine," he says with a grin. He then hugs Hyatt fiercely and won't let go for several minutes.

He is one of the lucky ones. Local analysts estimate that as many as 100,000 children live in the sewers and doorways of Ukraine's capital, while some 800,000 children are homeless across the country.

Forced from their homes and families by poverty, alcoholism, and violence, they eke out an existence by begging, stealing, and working as porters or prostitutes.

Although the Ukrainian economy grew faster than any other in Europe last year, its problems are growing equally fast. The government-sponsored Institute for Social Research estimates that 10 percent of Ukrainian children are homeless, orphaned, or abandoned.

"At this rate, I would expect the worst for the next 50 years," warns German economist Stefan Lutz of the Economics Education Research Center in Kiev. "If 10 percent of the children in this country are growing up without families or education, that will have a significant impact on the productive capacity of the country."

The government's feeble efforts to help have had little impact, as the numbers of homeless rise each year. Police often arrest street children and bring them to government shelters, where they are held in quarantine until they can be sent to one of the chronically under-funded state orphanages.

Out of sight, out of mind

"Before big holidays, it is necessary to clean the beggars off the streets so they won't bother anyone," says Tatiana Galchinska, head of the Maykovskovo Street Quarantine in Kiev. "Then we have two or three children to a cot."

Given a chance, many children run away, citing starvation and abuse in the government homes. Although physical punishment is officially forbidden, Kurt Vinion, the photographer working on this article, witnessed a child being beaten at the government's showcase shelter at Maykovskovo.

The Ark, which is the only shelter children can enter in Kiev without passing through the Maykovskovo quarantine, functions on a budget of about $80 per month from US and Swiss churches. It is only legally allowed to keep Stas and the other children for 18 months. Then, they must be placed in either a government institution or with a Ukrainian family. Hyatt says her goal is to expand the house and find Ukrainian funding to partner with foreign aid.

"It won't be easy," she says. "Most Ukrainians don't want to see or can't see these children around their own problems, but there are exceptions."

One such exception is Stella Petrushenko, a social worker at the Kiev department of social affairs. Two years ago, after homeless children began approaching her on the street asking for help, she noted that her district had no program to deal with them. She told this to her superior and was fired.

Helping, a sandwich at a time

Undaunted, Ms. Petrushenko began taking sandwiches and old clothes to the children in her neighborhood on her own, while living on $24 per month from another job. "My friends tell me this is a lost cause, but I can't simply do nothing," she says. "If we don't do something about it now, we will pay for abandoning this generation sooner or later, when they grow up to be angry."



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