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Ukraine's street children PDF Print E-mail

by Cassandra Jardine

ukraine_kids_front.jpgMairead Burke a young volunteer with the Daughters of Charity in Ukraine came home to spend Christmas with her family but in the New Year returned to Ukraine to continue her work with homeless children. Here, journalist Cassandra Jardine tells us a little bit about life in Kharkiv and how thousands of street children rely on help to survive.

There are the street children of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, just 40 minutes from the border with Russia. As many as 200,000 such unaccounted –for children live rough in a country where daytime temperatures can be -20C (-4F). They live in subterranean dens under the manholes that cover the maintenance points for the city’s heating system, where conditions are cramped, insanitary and dangerous-many are burnt by the scalding pipes. But it is their means of survival in a country beset by the problems of adaptation after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

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Following the pro-West Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine’s stock market became, in 2007, the best performing in the world. A minority can afford to shop in the branches of Chanel and Gucci that adorn the major city centres, but the poor have not benefited. Jobs and housing are no longer guaranteed and in Kharkiv, which once made tanks for the Soviet army, unemployment is high. Vodka is cheap (2 Euros a litre) but food prices have rocketed, and health care is free only in theory. Rows with Russia over the country’s gas supply-in 2006 and again earlier this month-add to the uncertaintly. Many parents, unable to care for their children, consign them to impersonal orphanages where heads are shaved to avoid nits and days are ruled by the bell.

Twelve year old Artom is one child among thousands in Kharkiv to have chosen the freedom of the streets over the regimentation of the orphanage. A lively, cheeky-looking boy, he says that he never knew his father, his mother drinks and his stepfather is ‘not kind’, so he was put in the orphanage three years ago. Soon after, he escaped to live underground where he was found by Father Vitaliy, a Catholic priest working for the Depaul Foundation.

Fr. Vitaliy takes me to the manhole where he first met such children four years ago. It is hidden away on rubbish-strewn wasteland behind a government building facing on to the second largest square in Europe, wide enough for tanks to parade. Beneath the metal cover the space is dark, cramped and smelly but at least –unless the gas is cut off-it is warm. ‘When I first learnt there were children down there, I knocked on the cover’, he remembers. ‘To begin with they didn’t trust me, they thought I would take them back to the orphanages, but I came back daily and handed down bread’.

ukraine_kids_01.jpgChildren like Artom’s first need is for food. With the help of the Scottish charity Mary’s Meals, founded by Magnus Mac-Farlane-Barrow, Fr. Vitaliy has gradually been able to lure those children back into some semblance of a normal life. every night a minibus tours the city, making five stops to dispense free meals to street children. Each stop appears to be in the middle of nowhere, but out of the darkness they appear; first checking for police, then sneaking into the dining area of the bus.

Chicken and rice is the menu on the night I go out, accompanied by several cups of tea or milk, a pile of buttered bread and a chocolate wafer. Some like 15 year old Vlodimir are so hungry that they devour three helpings in 15 minutes. While they do so, volunteers find out more about their lives and tell them about the day centre where they can get a shower, see a doctor and apply for the papers they need to get into education or a legitimate job. Clutching another bowlful for later, once again, they disappear into the night.

As always with Mary’s Meals-which operates in many of the world’s most troubled and poverty-stricken countries-the meal is the lure, but the long-term aim is to halt the cycle of deprivation. Persuading their young clients that education offers a better future than criminality has been easier than convincing government officials that no nefarious or evangelistic agenda lies behind this work.

Charity is a foreign concept in a country where, until recently, the state was the only source of help outside the family and the Orthodox church concerns itself with the next life rather than social projects. Tax authorities frown on business which make charitable donations. Even the idea of volunteering is viewed with suspicion in places where the expression used to mean forced labour.

Officials have accused Fr. Vitaliy of helping criminals. Twice he has been arrested. The day centre has been closed down. Bureaucracy is such that  42 pieces of  paperwork must be filled in for each meal cooked. But, with the help of Mary’s Meals, and his considerable charm(when not helping others he likes to roar around on his motorbike)he has gradually proved to the authorities that something good –that could be copied elsewhere-is happening in Kharkiv. This autumn he was awarded a national medal for his work in preventing children becoming criminals.

Only a few children are now living underground, but the problem is far from solved. Most have been driven to living in squalor above ground-six to a room-because the police prey upon them. ‘If they haven’t achieved a success rate of 95% in solving crimes’, Fr. Vitaliy explains, ‘street children get blamed. In the Soviet era the acquittal rate was 3%; currently it is 0.1%. Twenty six of the 350 young people who come to us for meals are in prison. One murderer was recently caught after 15 years on the run but two others are in prison for his crimes’.

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Artom no longer dares to return to his old underground home. He was sleeping on a shelf at the night-market in exchange for working long hours sweeping up. Now he is sharing a room with(and doing all the washing for) other former street children, including a young family having their second baby. Stas, the 20 year-old father, has poor sight but earns 1 Euro for every 1,500 matchboxes he makes. Some children agree to return to orphangages on condition that Fr. Vitaliy’s volunteers keep in touch with them. Artom won’t do that even though he says he wants to become an artist, but he has a place in school if he agrees to live at a hostel.

Olga, 20, is happy in a hostel where she has a room to herself. ‘I hope to be an example of how people can change’ she says.  ‘My mother put me in an orphanage when I was seven because she has TB. I left when I was 10 to live with my friends. We drank, sniffed glue and begged. I started coming to the minibus for food and then to the day centre for showers. I realised that I wanted to change; I didn’t want to become a prostitute’. (Ukraine is a major source of trafficked women).

Two years ago Olga was a sad sight, her arms covered in cuts from self-harming, her front teeth missing after she had a fall. Pretty now, having been through detox and dental work, she hopes to  become a cook once she finishes her education.