By Arie Farnam, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
for April 8, 2002
KIEV, UKRAINE - 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
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."
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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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