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Olga Kurylenko interview: My mission to shut down orphanages

November 10, 2021, 19:22 180 Author: Francisca Kellett thetimes “Ukraine has more than 100,000 children living in 600 orphanages – and 92 per cent of them aren’t orphans”

Olga Kurylenko interview: My mission to shut down orphanages

Olga Kurylenko is stressed. No, it’s worse than that, she’s “overwhelmed”. The Ukrainian actress arrives late and apologetic to our Zoom call, with a curt “I’m OK” when I ask how she is. She’s busy, she says. Always too busy, always with too much going on. She looks around the room as though she’s already worrying about what she has to do next. Did she survive lockdown OK? “Lockdown?” she says, eyes wide, almost incredulous. “I enjoyed lockdown! I needed to take a break. I could spend more time with my child, I could stop travelling and stay in one place. This is what I like.”

What she doesn’t like, I can’t help thinking, is what she’s doing right now – talking to me. But as our conversation continues, I realise I’ve got that wrong. The 41-year-old actress talks as though she knows me, like we’re friends and she wants to have a little moan about her hectic life. What I thought was curtness is something different. I think it’s . . . honesty? Kurylenko is stressed because she’s on a very brief break from back-to-back filming, because she’s a single mum to her five-year-old son, Alexander, and because she works as the global ambassador for the charity Hope and Homes for Children. About that, she says: “I’ve not done enough recently.” Adding guilt to the stress.

Not that you would know she was stressed from looking at her. Kurylenko looks like a supermodel: long, elegant limbs, ridiculous cheekbones, a very French pout (she spent much of her life in France, but now lives in London). She’s warm. She smiles a lot, and rolls her eyes and scowls and waves her hands around. She’s lovely to talk to – to watch talk, actually – which is probably what film directors think, judging by her schedule.

Olga Kurylenko interview: My mission to shut down orphanages

Kurylenko in 2010 visiting an orphanage in Ukraine

Kurylenko says she’s fallen back into the habit of filming non-stop – four movies already this year – a habit she had hoped to break during lockdown. Most famously she appeared opposite Daniel Craig as the Bond girl Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace, and has had roles in The Death of Stalin, Johnny English Strikes Again, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, and, most recently, Black Widow, the Marvel movie.

But we’re here to talk about her role with Hope and Homes for Children, which works to eliminate orphanages worldwide. Orphanages were phased out in the UK and much of western Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ukraine, however, has more than 100,000 children living in 600 orphanages, Kurylenko tells me. That’s one of the highest rates in the world. But what’s really shocking is that 92 per cent aren’t orphans. They have a living parent who, with the right support, could care for them.

Kurylenko, who for the past 15 years has advocated and raised awareness for the global elimination of orphanages, isn’t an orphan. Her dad “wasn’t around”, and she was raised by her mother and grandmother. But many children with similar backgrounds end up in orphanages. “We were poor; it was difficult,” she says. “When the Soviet Union collapsed it became very tough. There was a shortage of food. My mum would cut up her clothes to make winter clothes for me.”

What she did have is love. “No one will care for you as much as your parents. Even if they make mistakes, they try their best. A stranger in an orphanage – they won’t try their best.”

Olga Kurylenko interview: My mission to shut down orphanages

With Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace

Her break came from a modelling scout when she was 14. “I got so excited that I could earn some money and help my family.” She moved to Paris at 16 and sent everything she earned back home. “I was like a squirrel, saving, saving, saving. I was so scared that there would be no more money. For me it was just survival. I bought myself one pair of black jeans and a yellow sweater and I wore it every single day for weeks, until an agent called me and said, ‘Can you buy something else for castings? You need to change; you’ve been wearing this for months.’ ”

Paris was a lonely time. She was “not a party girl”. Instead she stayed alone in her flat, learning French from a book. She wrote diaries because she had no one to talk to. Modelling bored her: “I wanted something more. I wanted to express myself.” She took acting classes and was encouraged by her teachers to turn professional. Her gamble paid off. She has lost count of how many films she’s acted in and her work ethic hasn’t diminished. “I’m accepting all these jobs and I’m making my schedule so busy,” she says, looking around the room again. “I just can’t help it; it’s in my nature.”

What she hasn’t done in “too long” is go to Ukraine. She became involved with Hope and Homes for Children in 2010, when the charity invited her to Kiev to visit some orphanages. “I was completely ignorant. I just didn’t know. I thought orphanages were good because that’s where kids are placed so they aren’t on the streets and they’re taken care of.” Orphanages, she immediately realised, are not good. “They had nothing. Barely any bed sheets, not one toy, nothing on the walls. There is nothing to do and just one person looking after 30 kids. It’s like a prison. The children are alive but they’re not living.”

And then she went to the baby section. “That broke my heart.” The babies, she tells me, were left in rows of cots, with no human interaction. Some she found rocking on all fours, a sign of psychological damage. “They were rocking themselves to give comfort because no one holds them. It was terrifying. They already know that no one is there to love them.”

Olga Kurylenko interview: My mission to shut down orphanages

At London Fashion Week in September

She posts to her 775,000 Instagram followers about the issues, and has partnered with the British government to create awareness-raising short films to show the reality of orphanages, as well as encouraging UK orphanage donors and gap-year volunteers to redirect their efforts towards helping children to grow up in family environments.

Earlier this year she lobbied the Ukrainian government after it backtracked on the decision to close its state-run orphanages, and called on the EU to put pressure on Ukraine to revive its plans to develop alternative family-care services and reintegrate children into families.

Kurylenko says that the change in policy, which stipulates that “vulnerable” children under three and those with disabilities (which make up 90 per cent of children in its institutions) will remain indefinitely, puts thousands of children at risk of neglect, torture, sexual abuse and trafficking.

“Vulnerable”, she tells me, often just means poor. In many cases, parents lack the funds and the state support to keep their child with them. A child needing physiotherapy in the UK, for example, would receive that support; in Ukraine, they are likely to be taken into care instead. And many are misdiagnosed with disabilities. “They think they are doing the right thing, that their child will be better looked after,” Kurylenko says. There have even been examples of babies being taken away from mothers who can’t breastfeed. Other reasons include substance abuse, conflict, the effect of Covid and the pressures of single parenting – like Kurylenko’s own upbringing. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Next year, she’ll be helping Hope and Homes for Children with a new campaign, partnering with Abta, the travel association, and the UK Border Force to discourage tourists from visiting orphanages abroad or volunteering in overseas orphanages.

This may be just the reason she needs to go back to Ukraine. The only problem is time: she doesn’t have enough. “I want to go back. I need to slow down on work, go back and see what I can do.”

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