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The Children of Zaporozhye Streets: Life Without The Childhood

May 30, 2007, 5:10 5618 Author: Svetlana Chumachenko www.deti.zp.ua It looks like only the priests and volunteers of the Catholic church care about the life of the homeless in Zaporozhye

We all remember the question that the adults used to ask to us. “What do you want to be when you are an adult?” Looks like there is nothing more natural and widespread than dreaming of your future profession. All children dream. Do you still think so? I had a possibility to get acquainted with the children that are not asked such questions. They think that it is just stupid. How can one think of dreaming, when he needs to find something to eat, a place to spend a night at, to fight off the same people as the he is that also consider the place to be their? Waifs and strays have said goodbye to their childhood a long time ago, they are now doing the adult business…

It is a bright sunny Saturday, I am at the catholic church. Though it is still only 10 a.m. the homeless start gathering here. In an hour the monks will be treating them with the free lunch. Such meals take place here several times a week. Not only the homeless, but also the people that are financially insecure come to have a meal here. There are not less children here than the adults. I enter the kitchen. And I see the very unusual sight – a reverend father, that is wearing the black priest’s garments, is cooking borsch. Some other frats are helping him. At the kitchen there also are the religious women. They will be laying the table, wash the dishes and give the seconds to the homeless. That is what they do 4 times a week from 11 till 14 o’clock. Everyone is working here absolutely free, they volunteer. I went out. Immediately there appeared a queue here. In the dining room there are only several tables, that’s why the meal is taking a lot of time. Someone is already standing with dishes and saucepans, cause after the lunch they can take away some soup and potatoes.

It is quiet and calm in the queue. The fights and yelling are uncommon here. Irrespective of age or sex everyone is patiently waiting for the moment when he or she can enter the dining room. Photo taken by S. Chumachenko.

So far there aren’t many children here, only 3 or 4 of them. They are not very fond of communicating. They tell that the journalists and the social service of the city often come here, but no one helps. Some adults came up to me and advised to be careful with the cell phone, camera and the voice recorder. As they explained, I should fear the teenagers, cause when they are in group, they are uncontrolled. Also I was told that there is no hierarchy among the street people, everyone is by himself. The adults do not take advantage of the young. On the contrary, the younger and stronger teenagers can beat the adults and take away the money or food.

My address isn’t the house or the street…

The smiling girl Karina with blond hair ran up to me. She found out that the journalist came and decided to get acquainted. But first of all she asked me to give her a sheet of paper. It turned out that she likes to draw very much and it’s exactly what she does in her free time. Karina is not a homeless child, she has two elder sisters that have their own families and visit her not very often. Mother and the elder brother are always on a spree, that’s why the girl is studying at the orphanage. She is ten now, but has no idea of what her address is or her orphanage #. When I asked her, if she wanted to live in the orphanage permanently, she answered that did not want to, cause it was boring there.

She was coming here to meet the other kids and have something to eat. There is nothing to eat at home, that’s why she and her alcoholic mother always come here. I paid attention to Karina’s shoes – the small nice brown shoes that are decorated with beads – the ones like that are not sold in Zaporozhye. Karina told that the footwear and the clothes is given to her by the churchmen. Later in the private talk Padre Alex told me that the money for the meals, the purchase of footwear and the clothes, disposable diapers and the baby food are received only from the foreign supporters, the religious people from Poland, Germany, France. Unfortunately, the local authorities and financial leviathans don’t help in the business.

Karina liked it when I took photos of her. She asked me to necessarily bring her the photo and to present her an album to keep her photos there.

It’s difficult for me to imagine Karina’s future. In her 10 y.o. she can hardly speak, it is difficult for her to chose the right words, and the speech defect is sometimes noticeable. The girl goes to the 2nd form. She has neither a favorite subject nor hobby. She doesn’t even know what she will be when she grows up. She loves her mom a lot, not even taking into account that her mother abuses alcohol, and the girl wants to live only with her mom. But she doesn’t love her father: “He is a heavy drinker and he took all the things out of the house to find the money. He likes to bring home some naked women, we usually take them to get away, but they yell and tell the bad words.” Karina turned out to be the only person who was gladly answering all of my questions. She hasn’t yet lost her childish sincerity and she has nothing to hide. But the elder children are more difficult to contact with – they already do not trust the adults and one can feel, that they are ashamed of being homeless in their heart.

Lena’s story, the other girl, is not much different from Karina’s. She is 14 and she studies at the orphanage #4. Her mother abuses alcohol. In her family there are two more children of nearly the same age as Lena. They are 15 and 16 y.o. All of them came here to communicate and to eat. Lena told me that she also has no wish to go to the orphanage instead of living at home. “In the orphanage everyone is under lock, but at home I do whatever I like.” As well as Karina she doesn’t think of what is awaiting for her in the future. But this doesn’t worry her much. Of course she informs that she wants to go and study to become a barber, but it’s difficult to believe in, because she is 14 and studies only in the 7th form. To her age she should be studying at the 9th form already. She was twice left at the same class to study for the second year. Now her main aim is to find some food, money for the cigarettes and clothes. She told me that there are not many drug addicts among the children, but absolutely everyone is smoking.

A lot of children came up to me, but only some of them spoke to me. Some of them got shy, others started being rude. Yes, a lot of them don`t wish to change their life, cause they experienced the wind of freedom too early. And now it is difficult to be framed by the family or society. But what is the price of the independence? Might that be not independence but the loneliness? Under the mask of farce the pain and offence is felt, the struggle for soul warmth and communication. Every child is a small tiny plant, and if it would be suddenly taken to coldness and frost, instead of the beautiful flower there will appear an ugly prickle. Those, who contacted the homeless, can feel such prickles in the child’s soul. They hurt the heart and make us adults feel blame for the adult childhood of these kids.

Here the laws of force are in charge. The new guy (on the left) hit somebody in the queue. The worldly-wise Dima went to teach him a lesson. He was beating him in the face of everyone until he saw the blood. Then the new one was observed by everyone in the queue. Even the adults are afraid when the young are in a crowd. I was advised not to take photos of the fight in aid of my own safety. After the fight Dima came up to me and asked for the camera to check, if I was taking photos of it or not.

I want to be a killer

- I love such life – the 15-year old Zhen’ka is telling me. – Just take a look at me. Do I look like a homeless one?

- No, you do not – I reply. And indeed, Zhen’ka is wearing the normal clothes, he has a haircut, looks fine, out of his pocket there are the earphones of the Media Player seen. – Do you live in the street?

- Yes, at the heat pipeline.

- How do you earn a living? Do you do something?

- I visit the kiosks and the stores. Even in the local police departments they know me – the guy is smiling. – They even don`t ask my surname. When I go to some shop, eat as much as I can, then I can not eat food for three days. I always take the sausage, cheese and the tanned food.

- Zhen’ka, what profession would you like to chose?

- I want to be a killer. They earn much and work a little.

Several times Dima came up to me. It is clearly seen that he is incontestable authority here, even the adults are afraid of him. He studies at the educational establishments in Pologakh but he can not refuse living the free life. He was categorically refusing to talk and take photos. He says that once he was filmed for the TV program and the teachers saw him later. Dima did not wish to contact, though he was asking a number of questions to me. It is difficult to imagine that Dima might be a mechanic or a carpenter. Looks like he will go on developing his criminal “talents”, and perhaps in a couple of years we will be reading about the robberies and armed attack, committed by a gang of unkown.

Who enriches the gene pool of Ukraine

A young pregnant woman drew my attention who was smoking one cigarette after another in spite of her pregnancy. Liana is 23 y.o. and after the unsuccessful apartment selling she appeared at the street both with her mother. In fact she grew up in the orphanage of Berdyansk. After finishing it she entered the university, but she was dismissed from the 2nd course of the university. She is sure that now it is already too late to study.

- Liana, is that your first pregnancy?

- No, I have already 3 children.

- Where are they?

- The elder ones are in the orphanages, the younger one is in “Solnishko”.

- Did you gave them away by your own will?

- No, the social service took them away. I didn’t want to give them away. I want to bring up the children on my own. And I have no intentions to give this one away (she is pointing on her belly). At the moment I am having the temporary place of residence registration. I have found the living in Tokmak. When the child will be born, I will start working, and my mom will be taking care of the baby.

- Are you deprived of paternal rights?

- No, there was no hearing of a case yet.

- Do you work now?

- Yes, I am a secondary assistant at the construction. I help to unload, build, to put out the rubbish.

- Liana, how happened that you decided to be pregnant? Besides you have no permanent place to live.

- It just so happened.

- And what about having the safe sexual relationship?

- Having the safe sexual relationship is expensive… I went to consult at the clinic, the loop costs a lot, as well as the contraceptive. Everything now costs a lot…

- How long have you gone with the child?

- I have no idea. That might be 4 or 5 months. I have no money for the ultrasound investigation. Sister Maria promised to help with it. But for some reason she is not today in the church.

- Do they accept you in the maternity homes?

- No, the refuse to. Last time I was giving birth to a child almost at the railway station. The doctors in the ambulance that arrived refused to take me. But I had an argument with them and told them to write the refusal. Only after that they took me to the maternity house. I do not attend the maternity welfare centre, because all of them always shout at me over there. This happens because I gave birth to a child just in April, and they had to do the cesarean section. And they also told me that I shouldn’t get pregnant for 2 or 3 more years. But I am pregnant now though not a single year has yet passed.

- Aren’t you aware that smoking can harm the baby’s health?

- No, each of my children was born healthy. All of them are health and normal, none of them was having the Down’s syndrome.

- Did you consult to anybody concerning the living?

- Yes, I did. But they are not able to help me. The social service does not give us the living. I have no money to litigate with the cheaters, that took away our apartment. I wanted to arrange a meeting with Kartashov, (the supervisor of Zaporozhye – the author`s remark) but the secretary refused to write my name down – she told me that Kartashov does not give the apartments to the homeless.

Both with her another husband Liana is now living at the railway stations and in the hatchways of the heating main. They together work at the constructions. They receive the food and the clothes in the Catholic church. Liana is planning to bring up the fourth child that will be born in the end of the summer by herself. Her three children are now living in the orphanages.

After the talk with Liana I was experiencing the shock. How many children will she manage to give birth to, that will be exactly such unnecessarily homeless as she is? How many kids would demonstrate theis first steps, first smiles to the nurses of “Solnishko”, but not to mom and dad? What’s the problem? In the lack of money for contraceptive? Or just in the indifference to their own fate and the fate of the children? Liana is not the only woman who acts so, who gives birth to the child and then gives them away. There are the champions in it, who born 11 children (!). This chain of actions is passed from one generation to another. The people who finished the orphanage but didn’t succeed in their life give birth to absolutely the same people, that exactly repeat the parent’s life.

No two ways about it?

One can feel that these children can not be called kids anymore. In crowd the borders of age are disappearing. All the homeless are communicating on a first-name basis. The guys do not share the details of their life. They tell me only about the pros of such life: they have freedom, independence. The adults turned out to be more talkative, and they told that a lot of people here abuse alcohol and blaze (smoke drugs), also there are the inject drug users.

The teenagers start gathering by 13 o'clock. They are not standing in the queue for having lunch, they first go to have a smoke break, communicate to their friends, discuss the latest news. When one starts coming to them, they separate and leave. Looks like their talks are not for strangers.

"It is forbidden to come drunken to the church, that's why today they are sober today" - my interlocutor Dima informs. They can also say that they have a home and a living. Yes, they have the parents, but what kind of parents? Children do not escape from the good family. Usually the one escapes only from the families, where parents abuse alcohol and beat the children. Very often the homeless spend night at the railroad stations and in the heat trace hatches. They have no wish to be in orphanages - there is discipline over there, the forcing to do something, they are forced to live according to the schedule, and here they have freedom.

It happens sometimes that these children are unable to survive in winter. The just freeze in the streets, or they just have no food. Children can also die of influenza - cause they have no money for antibiotics.

These kids have to work like the adults. The free food is available only in this church. In other churches the child can have a dish of soup only for work. They work as hard as we do, work with spades and hoes. The orthodox priests somehow are not very indulgent to the homeless.

"The problem is that our government does not take care of the children at all. The rights of the child abroad are the most important. There the family would be found to a child, all of the illnesses will be cured and the parents will be punished. Besides, for children abroad an account is set up in the bank, and the social allowance is compounded to the account. The person will be able to receive it no matter where he or she is, in the family - his or her own or host family, hospital or school. In our country the allowance is spent by parents for alcohol or the orphanages spend it for their own needs" - my talker turned out to be indeed very intelligent.

Dima also informed me, that a lot of them are involved into pilfering, and sometimes they are organized into bands and attack the lone passers-by. Militia know about it, but they can not prevent it.

Sometimes militia together with the social service come to church to take the children to orphanages. They take mostly the small children. I thought over the way of how to solve the kids' problems. Bringning them clothes and food would mean the encouraging of their way of living, it means let them live in the street. Today the government offers only one solvation for such kids - that is the orphanage, with the further assignment to orphanages. But a lot of children have escaped the orphanages for a number of times already. One can understand them - it is difficult to come to the group life from family life. In group everyone lives according to their own rules. That's why the children prefer to live at liberty.

The only variant that is possible in this situation might be the creation of the rehabilitation centre where the children could have a place to stay at, would have been provided with some food, clothes and what is most important – with attention and care. In a few months a foster family could have been searched for such child. Padre Alex told me, that such centres exist in Poland. They are created by the churches, and such an establishment was planned to be built in Zaporozhye. But looks like the authorities do not wish to give the land for this. But as for now, we can see hundreds of spavined children; hundreds of the homeless children that continue living in the hatchways of the heating main and find the food in the garbage bins. Neither the parents nor the government or society takes care about the homeless children. Every day they struggle for survival, living according to the saying: God helps him who helps himself.

These children are not embarrassed to take pictures. And also they always ask to present them a couple of photos.

While the reverend fathers are cooking the meals, the homeless are doing their business – some of them are having a haircut, others are reading a book. In the church you can not only have a meal, but also take a shower. The churchmen give soap, shampoo and sponges to those, who wish to take it home. The homeless asked me not to tell about this church, because “everyone will be coming here and we would not have enough food for us”.

The volunteers have to wash hundreds of dishes and spoons a day. All of them are performed with accurate disinfection.

The elder people and the old ones are the first to come into the dining room. That’s the rule here. The teenagers come in later. Unfortunately, all of the people who were having meals refused to be taken picture of, but I managed to make one picture.

Translated by Natasha Guzenko

Happy Child foundation - effective help to the most needy children of the Zaporozhye region, Ukraine, since 2004

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Cerebral palsy, spastic diplegia

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