Help for Ukraine's street kids, from two US women

In the narrow space around the pipes in a Kiev sewer, 15 ragged children sleep huddled together for warmth. They range from 9-year-old Artyom Selivanov, the tough ringleader, to 16-year-old Natasha Dzuley, who crouches in a corner, clutching a small cloth doll.

"Wake up!" Artyom's brother Denis calls from the street above. "The aunties are here, and they brought food." Slowly, the children roll out, coughing from the stench of sewage and sweat and the glue they sniff to keep their hunger at bay.

Denis's "aunties" are American missionaries Jane Hyatt and Barbara Klaiber, who have devoted the past four years to a lonely struggle to feed Kiev's unwanted youth.

The children in the sewers say they don't trust adults, then add, "except Auntie Jane and Auntie Barbara."

The two women, who come from different American churches, are united by their cause. Their soup kitchen can give 30 to 40 children a bowl of soup each day. A house they have staffed with Ukrainian teachers provides the only nongovernmental shelter for street children in the country, though so far it only houses five.

Ms. Hyatt and Ms. Klaiber also walk the streets and bring bread and milk to the children's hideouts. Denis and Artyom take the bread and pass it out, while the women learn that Natasha is several months pregnant. She and another girl have started to work for a prostitution ring.

"We will come back again, but I'm not sure what we can do," Hyatt says, shaking her head. "What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. There are so many of them."

American 'Aunties'

Hyatt says she used to live a comfortable middle-class life in Atlanta, Ga. But eight years ago, she was invited to teach a seminar for church workers in the Ukraine and ended up staying. Klaiber left upstate New York 15 years ago to become a Swiss citizen and work on a series of risky Christian projects, including smuggling Bibles into China.

"When I first visited this country, I knew in my heart that Ukraine was where I was supposed to be," Hyatt says. "I started working with street children, because I can imagine what this country will be like if something is not done about these children now. They have no future without education."

A glimmer of hope

For Klaiber and Hyatt every day is a crisis, with children often coming to their apartment in the middle of the night. Stas Gorchenko came to them at 3 o'clock in the morning with a gash in his leg. He now studies at a school desk at The Ark, the little house that serves as a shelter. "My mother told me she didn't want me and threw me out," he says with a shrug when asked why he ended up living on the street. Even living in the sewers for two years, he was still able to finish the fifth grade and then find his way to the shelter.

"This is a good start," Klaiber says. "If they want to go to college, that is in the realm of possibility. We have a 13-year-old who didn't know the alphabet, but then finished the sixth grade in one year. It all depends on their motivation."

Stas, surrounded by warmth and the laughter of other children at The Ark, has become a gifted artist, sketching the faces of his teachers and classmates in exact detail. "When I grow up, I'll be an architect and also invent a new and better kind of electric engine," he says with a grin. He then hugs Hyatt fiercely and won't let go for several minutes.

He is one of the lucky ones. Local analysts estimate that as many as 100,000 children live in the sewers and doorways of Ukraine's capital, while some 800,000 children are homeless across the country.

Forced from their homes and families by poverty, alcoholism, and violence, they eke out an existence by begging, stealing, and working as porters or prostitutes.

Although the Ukrainian economy grew faster than any other in Europe last year, its problems are growing equally fast. The government-sponsored Institute for Social Research estimates that 10 percent of Ukrainian children are homeless, orphaned, or abandoned.

"At this rate, I would expect the worst for the next 50 years," warns German economist Stefan Lutz of the Economics Education Research Center in Kiev. "If 10 percent of the children in this country are growing up without families or education, that will have a significant impact on the productive capacity of the country."

The government's feeble efforts to help have had little impact, as the numbers of homeless rise each year. Police often arrest street children and bring them to government shelters, where they are held in quarantine until they can be sent to one of the chronically under-funded state orphanages.

Out of sight, out of mind

"Before big holidays, it is necessary to clean the beggars off the streets so they won't bother anyone," says Tatiana Galchinska, head of the Maykovskovo Street Quarantine in Kiev. "Then we have two or three children to a cot."

Given a chance, many children run away, citing starvation and abuse in the government homes. Although physical punishment is officially forbidden, Kurt Vinion, the photographer working on this article, witnessed a child being beaten at the government's showcase shelter at Maykovskovo.

The Ark, which is the only shelter children can enter in Kiev without passing through the Maykovskovo quarantine, functions on a budget of about $80 per month from US and Swiss churches. It is only legally allowed to keep Stas and the other children for 18 months. Then, they must be placed in either a government institution or with a Ukrainian family. Hyatt says her goal is to expand the house and find Ukrainian funding to partner with foreign aid.

"It won't be easy," she says. "Most Ukrainians don't want to see or can't see these children around their own problems, but there are exceptions."

One such exception is Stella Petrushenko, a social worker at the Kiev department of social affairs. Two years ago, after homeless children began approaching her on the street asking for help, she noted that her district had no program to deal with them. She told this to her superior and was fired.

Helping, a sandwich at a time

Undaunted, Ms. Petrushenko began taking sandwiches and old clothes to the children in her neighborhood on her own, while living on $24 per month from another job. "My friends tell me this is a lost cause, but I can't simply do nothing," she says. "If we don't do something about it now, we will pay for abandoning this generation sooner or later, when they grow up to be angry."

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