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Ukraine: Kyiv's Street Children Find Guardian Angels

Kyiv, 21 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On a weekly sortie into a rundown Kyiv suburb, a small group of teenagers lugs bags of bread and bouillon cubes to a street corner, where some younger children stand waiting. The contrast between the two groups is stark. The first is clean, well-dressed and smiling. The second is dusty, rumpled and ill-clad in oversized sweaters that don't keep out the chilly Spring air.

The older group has come from schools, homes and youth clubs around Kyiv on a charitable mission that has evolved into regularly scheduled meetings with the younger kids, who have clambered out from under a railway platform.

"I'm already tired of bouillon," sighs seven-year-old Yura, lowering his grubby face to a steaming cup nevertheless. The orphan has been living beneath the station platform in Svyatoshino district for three years, he says. "If you're used to it, it's OK on the streets," he says. "But getting used to it is hard."

Yura's teenage benefactors cannot get used to leaving Ukraine's street children to that fate. Since January, the group has trudged out each week to offer drug-addled and abandoned youngsters a sympathetic ear and some hot food. "I like children, and I can't stand seeing them feeling bad," says volunteer Andrei Tvardievich.

When the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a report on Ukraine's street children last November, social workers and government officials were shocked by the statistics on physical and sexual abuse, drug use, illiteracy and other hardships. One-third of the 350 children questioned in Kyiv and Odessa said they were hungry every day. Ninety percent said they relied on prayer, vodka or glue-sniffing to get them through illnesses. Most startling was the discovery that only a small minority were orphans. The majority came from dysfunctional families, where alcoholic or abusive parents had either thrown their children out, or forced them to flee ill-treatment and poverty.

Now, the same teenage volunteers who befriended street children to gather information for the report are leading a campaign to bring some immediate relief to their almost-peers. "The best way to help them is to teach them how to survive in such conditions," said Anton Shklyar, 16. "If they don't want to return to their families, we give them information and help."

The outreach group operates with no budget or sponsors, gathering clothing and supplies from youth clubs around the city. Sergei Bakharev, a university student who leads the team, pays for food out of his own pocket, to be reimbursed by UNICEF at a later date. The volunteers plan to distribute medical kits supplied by the Red Cross in the near future; another project is to teach kids how to sew. Their ultimate aim is to help the children get back into school.

Since the UNICEF report was released, street children have rarely been out of the headlines.

Kyiv has only one temporary shelter for street children, a 50-bed facility opened in January. Otherwise, the city relies on a drastically underfunded network of orphanages and 'internats,' boarding schools for underprivileged children and wards of the state.

Social workers acknowledge that children used to living on their own do not adapt well to controlled environments, from which they regularly escape. "When children go to the shelter they can get food, clothes, medical aid, education," said Bakharev. "But they still leave, because they feel they're limited, they can't earn their own money, they're imprisoned by four walls."

Nevertheless, UNICEF and the city social services department have drawn up several more long-term plans to cope with the growing problem of street children. The proposed solutions range from returning them to their families, under the supervision of teachers and social workers, to sending them to 'internats.' A new system of foster families is currently being tested in Donetsk, said Bakharev.

Some children find the idea of shelter and schooling appealing, but are prevented from getting help by the rules of the system. Twelve-year-old Seryozha said his parents refuse to enroll him in an 'internat,' but regularly throw him out of the house. "I wanted to be in an internat. There you don't get any homework, you get five meals a day, sometimes you even get sweets from humanitarian aid," he said.

Seryozha's idealized picture is a long way from the reality of state-run homes, which are overcrowded and understaffed and fail to prepare children for life outside an institution.

"The 'internats' are in terrible condition," Bakharev said. "Then, there is the problem of what to do with them after the 'internat.' These institutions don't provide the children with any profession to secure their future. What happens is that many internat graduates don't even know how to pay for their flats."

On the streets after running away from an 'internat,' where he lived for eight years and says he was beaten, Sergei speaks of a recurring -- often glue-fumes inspired -- dream.

"The only thing I want is nice parents," he says. "If I get in a nice family, I promise I'll quit smoking, sniffing glue and using bad language, and I'll study hard. If I promise to quit, and if I respect the family, they'll take me."

Lily Hyde is a Kyiv-based journalist, who specializes in social-welfare issues, and, who routinely contributes to RFE/RL.