Street Child World Cup recently traveled to Kharkiv, Ukraine ahead of UEFA Euro 2012 to catch up with our Ukrainian team from Durban 2010 and our partner organisation Depaul International.
Observer article in words by Jo Griffin in Kharkiv:
In the shadow of Euro 2012, Ukraine’s street children struggle to stay alive
After 12 years as a street child, Andriy went home because of an accident that almost cost him his life. He had fallen asleep after drinking vodka alone in a forest in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine – and woke up to find his legs on fire.
Afraid to go to hospital, Andriy, 20, tended his burns himself before his brother realised he would die if he didn’t see a doctor. Hospital staff removed so much skin that his tattoos came away too. Now recovering at the Depaul centre for the homeless, he believes he has a chance to put behind him years of living in an underground tunnel, his days spent sniffing glue and stealing, a way of life that landed him three years in jail.
“I lived like a rat,” says Andriy, a keen boxer, whose bandaged legs are now rake-thin. “I felt nothing.” He left home at eight because his alcoholic mother, who has since died, “didn’t love me”. He blames her for the death of his brother, a toddler, who fell out of an open window. Is he proud that the Euros are taking place in his city? He laughs and says, without explanation: “I don’t like the president.”
Kharkiv is one of four Ukrainian cities to host the Euros. The Metalist stadium, where Denmark and the Netherlands will play on Saturday, has undergone a €60m (£48m) renovation for an event meant to showcase the country’s achievement of modernity under President Viktor Yanukovych. In Freedom Square, beer tents, screens and a stage have been set up for visitors, while in Zhuravlevsky hydropark a tent city has been erected for 5,000 Dutch fans. Just down the road, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko languishes under guard.
But the tournament has had little apparent impact on the homeless in Kharkiv beyond speeding up efforts to get them out of sight. Homeless adults have reported being rounded up by police and driven out of the city. The former Soviet state’s moment in the spotlight only highlights the painfully slow progress that has been made on improving the lives of children in a society where poverty, alcoholism and parental neglect are still forcing many on to the streets. Its government denies such a problem exists, but Unicef estimates there may be as many as 160,000 street children in Ukraine.
Also occasionally living in a tent is Vitaly*, a wily 20-year-old whose flip-flops and shorts would not be out of place on the beach. He is among the oldest of the young people – up to 30 a night in winter – who appear out of nowhere to cram into the Depaul centre’s bus for soup and sandwiches on its evening rounds across the city. Another is Yevheniy, 16, who survives by stealing scrap metal and – like many – is addicted to sniffing glue.
The tent is Vitaly’s “summer home”; he wants to show us where he lives in winter. Behind the sprawling Barabashova market, he takes us to a tunnel leading 8ft down to a dark, 10ftsq space that he shares with a dozen others seeking warmth from the vast pipes that carry water through the city. The floor is carpeted with plastic bottles and bags, cardboard, foam, cans and cloth. There are even soft toys among the filth. There must be fights with so many crowded into a small space? “No, we get on well. Everyone knows where they sleep,” he says pointing to a corner, “and that is my room.”
Vitaly and his twin brother, who is now in prison, fled home aged seven because of their parents’ violent fights. In the past, police have sprayed tear gas into the tunnel and beaten them. His arms are covered with cuts he inflicted to feign mental illness so they wouldn’t take him to an orphanage. Out of the blue, he announces: “I am a new father!” Will his new baby son take him off the streets? He is unsure. “There are pluses and minuses. I am not afraid of anyone or anything. This way, you have no food but you are so free.”
They were not the only ones to tell of parental neglect. Most of the street children we met had families but had chosen the dangers of the street, even in -30C temperatures, to the misery of life with parents who were drinking themselves to death, beat them or failed to provide food or clothes. A 2010 Unicef report on child poverty in Ukraine says families have been plunged into crisis because of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence.
The global financial crisis has worsened those problems, and migrant workers have sometimes left behind children without proper care. Others are floundering in the vacuum that emerged in the wake of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, when family life was regulated by the state.
“Perhaps in Ukraine we have just not developed our spiritual side,” says Depaul centre manager Natasha Kovalova. “If something goes wrong, it breaks us completely and we just give up. We don’t believe things can be better.”
Kelli McGee, from Chicago, a management consultant at the centre, agrees that bad parenting must be tackled to prevent child homelessness, but this seems unlikely to happen in the short term. Meanwhile, Ukraine is replacing outdated orphanages with smaller regional hostels, where children stay before being housed in foster families. It has introduced a policy of paying families to foster – though sometimes they pocket the cash and abandon the children. It is hard for authorities to monitor conditions at hostels or in foster homes. On the streets, the children are at high risk of contracting HIV, being abused or becoming addicted to drugs.
For some street children, however, the system of temporary care has transformed their lives. In Kolomak, about 70 miles from Kharkiv, three children have been fostered by a family who heard of their situation after they played in Depaul’s team for the 2010 Street Child World Cup, a football tournament that brings together teams of street children from around the world. A fourth has found a home with a family nearby.
Tanya Lyashenko, 16, who fled to the streets because her parents hardly fed her, now enjoys English literature and dreams of being a pharmacist. Pasha Ponamarenko, 16, refers to “my mum” at least a dozen times in the conversation for the pleasure of saying it. Artem Nevedrov, 15, perhaps the biggest football fan, says he owes the SCWC “my dreams of a family”. The charity, which campaigns for street children to receive the protection and opportunities they are entitled to, will stage its next tournament before the Fifa championships in Brazil in 2014.
For street fighter and Metalist FC fan Vitaly, it is probably too late. As SCWC’s chief executive Andrew Webb says: “The longer street children lack the support they need, the higher chance they will be caught in the cycle of homelessness into adulthood.”
For all Vitaly’s tough talk, however, there is a hint that even he craves a normal life. Asked where he’d like to be in five years’ time, he says: “I see myself in a house with my family, and I’m cooking at the barbecue.”
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