“I am used to being by myself” a 10th grader, Kolia, scribbled in his notebook. Kolia was placed in the rural orphanage in Grade 0 (preschool) and had spent 11 years there. Kolia pulled out a dog-eared photograph of his mother sitting at a table with other people, including Kolia’s grandmother. They were celebrating a holiday with multiple bottles of vodka and various dishes on the table. Those bottles of vodka were a telling detail: Kolia’s mother was an alcoholic. She lost her parental care rights for this reason and, as a result, Kolia was placed in an orphanage.
Kolia remembered how, as a five-year-old, he started smoking. He used to escape from his family’s house, which was never locked, to the railroad station to pick up green apples people threw out of the train windows: “I ate them because we had nothing else to eat in the house… I slept on the brick oven wrapped in reeking rags, but at least they kept me warm.” In addition to destitution, Kolia experienced domestic violence from early on. He recounted: "I remember how my mother broke a bottle of beer on my head, and one of the two step-fathers used to beat me all the time. Once I burnt a cork from a vodka bottle and the step-father beat me up with acacia branches so hard that acacia thorns got stuck in my skin."
Alcohol abuse, poverty, domestic violence, and a lack of education were part of Kolia’s daily life before he entered institutionalized care. While in the orphanage, Kolia was bullied and barely made any friends. He was a loner; he sat by himself during recess perusing 5th grade fairy tale books or fixing broken electronics. Teachers and caretakers identified him “academically weak” and “schizophrenic.” They expected him to pursue a vocational track because “he is good at fixing things and would not handle academic rigor.”
Kolia, however, aspired to pursue rigorous physical training in order to master his boxing skills. A locally renowned boxing coach instilled faith in Kolia’s potential, which Kolia’s teachers and caretakers had tried to extinguish with their low expectations. At that point, Kolia had another year in the orphanage school before he had to leave his temporary home to pursue vocational training, the only viable alternative his teachers and caretakers envisioned for him. The prospect of entering adult life on his own was daunting for Kolia. He feared returning to the dilapidated house in the village – the only living space he had – where his mother and grandmother lived: “There is nothing to do in the village but binge drink.”
Kolia is one of many children deprived of parental care, or “social orphans,” as they are known in Ukraine. Approximately 90 percent of Ukrainian orphans are classified as social orphans or children deprived of parental care; the rest are biological or “full” orphans. Social orphans have living parents but were abandoned by or removed from families where parents abuse alcohol or drugs, are incarcerated, or missing. Biological or full orphans, on the other hand, are children with no living parents. Institutionalized until the age of 18, most orphans are not equipped with adequate knowledge or skills to pursue higher education, are not prepared to enter adult life, and face insurmountable challenges to survive and succeed in life.
Contributor: Alla Korzh