Boxes of delight for suffering children
Every Christmas, charity Samaritans Purse sends millions of shoeboxes full of presents to the children of poor, war-torn countries to give them something to smile about. EADT writer Steve Mellen and photographer James Fletcher travelled across Europe to the Ukraine to see first hand how hard life can be for those left behind since the Soviet Union crumbled and witness the joy a simple gift can bring.
“I WANT a job, a house and a wife,” Miroslav told me the day after Christmas, his words emerging from his frozen lips between sips of hot sugary tea. “One day I want beautiful children too.”
These are fine ambitions, but he's unlikely to see them realised. If he'd set a target of living beyond 20, even staying alive until next week, those would be more realistic hopes, but the odds are still stacked against them.
That's because Miroslav lives under a manhole cover next to a railway line in Odessa, sharing a tiny chamber just under street level with several other teenagers, one of whom has hepatitis and all of whom risk disease and danger daily. A month before our visit, he had a sister who occupied the same cramped living space, but she was killed in a pitched battle when the group ran into another gang of street kids.
Our visit was supervised by workers from local charity 'Mission Possible' who bring the group food five days a week. We needed our Ukrainian escorts because the city's militia sometimes visit this part of town to hand out beatings to the homeless, a symptom of the fact that in many former Soviet countries, there is a refusal by the authorities to acknowledge the problem exists, and a desire to drive it further underground.
In Kiev, the capital of this fledgling democracy, the government estimates there are 28,000 street children, yet charities put the number at nearer 100,000.
Money mingles with misery in the streets of Eastern Europe. A short walk from Miroslav's home is the mayoral residence of Odessa. Every winter night, in temperatures which can reach minus 20, the companions in the manhole huddle together for warmth a stone's throw from one of the wealthiest ports on the Black Sea.
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And for every homeless child or abandoned baby, there is someone else driving a Mercedes or strutting about town in a fur coat. In Kiev, a stunning city, expensive cars purr through the centre while in the slab-like grey apartment blocks of the suburbs those left behind when the state-run industries collapsed get by on state handouts that have all but vanished.
Capitalism has brought great riches, but the survival-of-the-fittest nature of economic change has naturally left those on the margins of society needing help more than ever. Ukraine is one of the better examples - the so-called 'Orange Revolution' of last year ushered in a new era of hope - but promises down the line mean little to those with nothing to eat today.
Across town from Miroslav I spoke to pastor Yura, of the First Odessa Pentecostal church. For him too, the release from Moscow's control has brought with it the touch of a double-edged sword.
“In the old days there was much persecution of believers, our meetings were restricted and they would discourage any young people from coming to church, they wanted to portray the image of religion as being something only for the old and weak. Now we have our freedom, but when the Soviet era stopped so did a lot of the factories.
“Now we have families who have no jobs living in the places they used to work, sometimes in just one room.”
He told me this standing in a street that, if you didn't know you were in the Ukraine, tricked the eyes into believing they were looking at a South African shanty town. In one building a family of five were living in room no bigger than the lounge in many western houses. The smell of stale clothes and urine hung in the air so thick that our western nostrils struggled to cope.
Yura and his congregation are paying the heating bills of the worst-hit families, and this year hundreds of shoeboxes - gifts from Samaritan's Purse - were handed out at the end of their Christmas Day service into eager hands.
To the outsider, a cardboard container with presents and sweets may seem a drop in the ocean, but as Ian MacLeod, head of operations and logistics at Samaritan's Purse, explained how the boxes open doors through which information can flow, and for the children they are a sign that somewhere, someone cares.
“We work with organisations on the ground, and we can feed back what we've seen and, where possible, get something done,” said MacLeod. In Odessa he noted that Denis, one of Miroslav's fellow street kids, sat shivering in sub-zero temperatures in a pair of sandals with no socks.
There is longer-term hope for Denis though, beyond just a new pair of shoes. The tea I saw him and his friends drinking was provided by Mission Possible (MP), who work with homeless or vulnerable children across Eastern Europe.
Slava and Sasha, who co-ordinate the feeding programme for the charity, are two men who have seen things we in the west cannot imagine. One drug dependent-mother once screamed at Sasha: “Buy my son, only $60!”.
Valentyna Patsula, a MP director, got involved after seeing a small boy huddled in a sack at Odessa rail station - “This is like a scream of the soul,” she told Samaritan's Purse visitors last year. The children call her 'Tyotva' which means 'auntie'.
In Odessa, a place where the authorities are embarrassed by the problem of homeless children, work is well underway on a day/night shelter which MP workers want to develop as an agency for fostering children into families.
This is a great need, because some of the children we saw are not victims of the actions of some far-off bureaucrat, but of those closest to them.
South-east of Odessa is the Crimean peninsula, and on the outskirts of the city of Simferopol sits Yolochka Hospital where there are three wards for abandoned babies. Some abandoned because both parents died of Aids, some abandoned because they had Down's Syndrome, and others just abandoned for no good reason - that is assuming you can find a good reason to leave a child under one year old to fend for itself.
A few miles from there is the Logopaedics boarding school for children with speech defects. Over half of the children there are orphans, and it was a place where the arrival of hundreds of shoeboxes, some packed by children in the west the same age as those at the school, generated huge excitement.
In one of the dormitories I sat with seven year-old Ivan as he murmured away happily in Ukranian, showing me the toy BMW he was now the proud owner of. Before running off down the corridor to race his new toy, he pressed into my hand several sweets from the box he'd just opened, and amazing show of generosity from someone who had, according to staff at the school, been looking forward to getting his box for months.
In Simferopol, as in Odessa, I met volunteers with a heart for the helpless all around them. Vladimir Barilo, pastor of the Evangelical Faith Church, and his wife Elena, director of the Good Samaritan charity, combine their efforts to provide feeding programmes, support for the homeless and oversee the distribution of Christmas shoeboxes throughout the region
And, as in other areas of the Ukraine, their work fills the void left by the state. The local government in Simferopol publicly states that its two shelters (one for the city and one for the rest of the region) with a joint capacity for 100 children, are enough. Not surprisingly, Elena disagrees, although she doesn't have the figures to prove her point.
Back in Odessa, in the children's hospital, I watched 15 year-old cerebral palsey victim Jaim smile up from the floor of the ward where, sat amid the wrapping paper of his shoebox, he demonstrated how he could use his big toe to operate his mobile phone, and work a computer.
Fighting against the odds, just like Miroslav down by the docks.