Children from a shelter in Odessa. Photo: Mission Odessa
They’re the unlikely casualties of a country at war and plunged into recession, but Ukraine’s children are not forgotten nor forfeited. In Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea, a small shelter solely run by volunteers is giving children displaced by the conflict in the East or abandoned by their parents a second chance to find a home.
Natashka rides her bike in circles around the plastic swing in the shelter’s playground but never strays too far from the man who helped raise her most of her life. She’s only eight years old, and already sporty.
“I taught her how to ride a bike and she was quick to learn, and now she doesn’t stop but she always makes sure I’m watching,” says Sergey Kostin, head of children’s shelter Way Home in Odessa.
“She likes to kick a ball around too with the older kids.”
Natashka is a social orphan. Her parents surrendered her to the children’s centre a few years ago when they could no longer provide for her. They visit regularly and keep up with what’s going on, Sergey says. The young Ukrainian girl is one of hundreds of children that Sergey has taken under his wing in the last 20 years.
“We see kids everyday whose parents can’t look after them because they have no money or are scared that they will end up in the streets doing drugs, or worse,” he says.
“For me, it’s about giving them a second chance at life while they’re still young, a way home.”
Ukraine’ secret shame
It’s estimated there are more than 100,000 orphans in Ukraine, but only about 20% of them are orphans in the traditional sense- children who’ve lost both parents. Like Natashka, the rest are social orphans.
The Way Home shelter was established in 1996, originally taking in children from the former Soviet Union. Today, it’s still a place for ostracised kids whose families are affected by drugs, alcohol and poverty.
The modest sanctuary is home to more than 30 disadvantaged children and teenagers from Odessa, Zaporizhia and other parts of Eastern Ukraine. It’s a small space, with eight small colourful rooms with a couple of wooden bunk beds in each. The names Yulia, Kristlov, Anastcia and what seems like millions of others are carved into the plastered walls in the hall leading to the bedrooms. No attempts were made to cover them.
Sergey laughs, “let kids be kids.”
He says he sometimes finds it hard to believe that some so young can be dealt a bad hand. The youngest child in the shelter is only six years old, also a social orphan. Some are abandoned by their alcoholic or poverty-stricken parents, or willingly surrendered to the centre to escape a life of debauchery. Others are forgotten casualties of the war, whose parents either died in the conflict or decided to stay and fight.
Children of the war
Every day, Sergey witnesses the “real” impact of the conflict some 900 kilometers away East in the Donbas region between Ukrainian forces and Russia backed separatists. Half a million children are affected by the war, and some 10,000 now live in Odessa, according to UNICEF.
“You can tell those (children) who come from the conflict zone, because they’re not scared of anything,” Sergey says.
“Every day, I see or hear about kids who struggle to cope with loss, and we remember that it is why we are here to help them.
“They’re the real victims of the war, not us.”
Children from a shelter in Odessa. Photo: Mission to Odessa
Sex trade is also on the rise in Odessa as the city gains popularity as a tourist destination, while crime and drug use have long been a dark feature of the city’s history as a pied-a-terre for sailors and foreigners. More than half a million people are drug users in Ukraine, according to UNAIDS.
Some marginalised families prefer to leave their children behind to taking the risk of subjecting them to a life of “shame,” says Evan Sgharlov, a volunteer at the Way Home shelter.
“They know their kids have a better chance here than with them, and sometimes that’s a harsh realisation.”
“Sometimes it’s because of alcohol or domestic violence, and sometimes it’s because of money problems, but for us volunteers it’s about ending the cycle.”
The youngest of the cohort attend day care and preschool downstairs near the steel gated entrance. They use stationary and books donated to the shelter. They learn to write and read. The classroom is big enough for playtime, too. In the corner, a little boy no older than seven years old attempts what looks like a handstand.
The shelter also helps teenagers at risk of falling into the same patterns as those before them. Some go there willingly to escape life on the street, and others were forced there by worried families, Evan says.
“When you have nothing like those kids, a life on the street seems to offer rewards. They don’t know what awaits them.
“The teenagers are critical for us before they’re closer to adulthood, and their bad decisions can stay with them much longer.”
Sergey says the shelter’s mission hasn’t changed since it started more than 20 years ago, “rescue children and give them a better life.”