New Hope for Street Children
by Rudi Tinga
SHY and anxious, eight-year-old Ilya enters The Salvation Army’s New Hope Centre in Moscow, Russia, for the first time. His friend Aleksej, 17, takes him by the hand. This gesture seems to give the boy more confidence in the people who welcome him. The bowl of soup which is offered to him works miracles, as do the warm shower and the clean clothes.
Together with thousands of other children, both boys live on the streets of the Russian capital. The exact number is not known.
|Ilya enjoys his soup and bread with Aleksej|
|Social worker Ludmilla talks to Sergei|
|Major Mike Stannett provides a caring face – and some continuity – out on the streets or back at the New Hope Centre |
|The centre helps young people get cleaned up but also provides a place where they can play games and relax|
New Hope’s director, Major Mike Stannett – a UK Salvation Army officer – says that 10 years ago there were an estimated 50,000 homeless children on the streets of Moscow but adds: ‘Now there are a lot less because the police place them in safe custody.’
In 2003 the aid agency Médécins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) decided to do something and opened New Hope Centre, where young people from the streets could relax and feel safe. They could also receive help if they wanted to return to their parents or relatives.
Médécins sans Frontières is, however, primarily an organisation which provides medical help in emergency situations, so this project did not fit in with their aims. ‘Looking for a partner who could take over this work, they met The Salvation Army,’ explains Mike. ‘That is something special, because The Salvation Army is a Christian movement but Médécins sans Frontières prefers to work with secular partners. But they believed in the Army’s intention. At the time we were thinking about opening a day centre for street children which would enable us to give practical help. We agreed that we would continue the project and develop it even further. That happened in November 2006.’
Ilya puts some cloves of garlic into his soup and bites big chunks out of the bread he was given. The anxious look in his eyes slowly disappears but he stays alert. He has not lived on the streets for long but already he has learned not to trust adults.
Only five months ago he ran away from home. ‘Because I hate my parents,’ is the only reason he gives Misha Gavrilov, the centre’s coordinator. Aleksej, who often goes to the New Hope Centre, took Ilya under his wing after they met on a train. When they cannot sleep under a platform at the train station they jump onto a carriage, because they know there is nobody to check for tickets.
Aleksej has been on his own since July 2006 when his mother, who was a widow, died. He has no one else to care for him so does what he can to survive. He finds the loneliness hard to cope with but through the Army’s New Hope project he receives food, clothes and – just as important – some loving attention.
‘We try to support the boys and girls in their basic needs,’ Misha explains, ‘but we would like to extend our help. We employ two doctors and social workers. Some of our visitors are addicted to drugs and alcohol. We assist them with getting their identity papers, we get in touch with their relatives or guardians and we tell them about the dangers of HIV/Aids. Next year we want to develop work activities, like repairing cars and making clothes, to enable them to earn a bit of money. The next step then is to find them a permanent job and teach them social skills. What we cannot offer is a bed because the building we rent now is not fitted for that. Every night we have to send them back onto the streets.’
While Ilya and Aleksej play a game of table hockey inside, Ludmilla – one of the social workers – is outside talking to Sergei, 17. He was arrested when he was 15 for vandalism and violence. He did not show up at court and was sentenced to two years of house arrest. After this sentence he stole something in February this year. He ran away, but now he does not know if he has to return home or live on the streets.
He tells Ludmilla that he has had enough of stealing and begging and fears that he will end up as a prostitute. Ludmilla listens carefully when Sergei says that he misses his father. His mother has custody over him, but she could not handle him. Group sessions, in which social workers and young people talk about values and standards, seem to work for Sergei.
‘Maybe I should respect my mother more and listen to her,’ he admits. ‘Shall we talk again about it tomorrow?’ asks Ludmilla. ‘Yes please,’ says Sergei before heading back into the centre to take a shower.
At the door of the New Hope Centre Ilya and Aleksej say goodbye to Major Mike when they leave. He knows he will meet both boys again that night during the soup run at the train station.
Summer in Moscow is warm, so life on the streets is not as hard as it is in the colder months when temperatures drop well below freezing and some of the city’s homeless people will die of exposure. Mike is worried about the cold winter that is on its way and it saddens him that he cannot offer any more help than he currently does. For now the idea of a large, warm shelter where he can offer ‘his’ street children a bed will remain just a dream.