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

Eight children have moved into the new shelter as efforts by two US women progress.

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.

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