Kyrgyzstan

A Kyrgyz local hero fights to protect the rights of street children in Bishkek

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© UNICEF video
Director of the Bishkek Centre for Street Children, Alexei Petrushevski, speaks to children in a classroom at the facility in the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

By Peter George

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a landmark international agreement on the basic human rights of all children – UNICEF is featuring a series of stories about progress made and challenges that remain. Here is one of those stories.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, 24 August 2009 – A recent morning for Alexei Petrushevski went something like this: He met a high-ranking city official to get approval of a project ensuring that all of his wards at the Bishkek Centre for Street Children will eventually get birth certificates and other necessary paperwork. Then he rushed off to negotiate the purchase of football jerseys – at discounted rates, of course – for the centre’s new children’s soccer team.

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A couple more meetings and it was off for a quick working lunch with child rights lawyer Yelena Gavrilova. Later, there might be more meetings and phone calls with adults, sessions with the children at the home, and then community and fundraising events.

‘Hero of Children’s Rights’
Mr. Petrushevski founded the Bishkek Centre for Street Children six years ago and has become a father figure to around 1,000 young people who have since passed through the facility.

For his tireless work, UNICEF has nominated him as one of its Heroes of Children’s Rights in honour of the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC), which is coming up in November. Mr. Petrushevski’s work upholds many of the rights defined in the CRC, including:

  •  The right of children to care and protection if they are adopted or in foster care
  • The right of separated children to stay in contact with their parents
  • The right to government assistance for children who are poor or in need
  • The right to an identity and a nationality
  • The right to relax and play

Rights still at risk
“He’s a person who takes real pains to protect children,” said Ms. Gavrilova. “He lives for their interests, and I think this is the essence of his life. And watching him defend the rights of children in the courts, I would say with total honesty that when it comes to children, Alexei is the real hero of the day.”

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More than 1,000 young people – including small children and adolescents – have passed through the Bishkek Centre for Street Children in the past six years.

But even after 20 years of the CRC, noted Mr. Petrushevski, children’s rights are still at risk.

“We have two types of children’s rights,” he said. “One is beautifully formulated on paper and the other is what happens in real life, and what rights are convenient for adults. This is where the problem is.”

‘Supposed to be happy’
Sitting next to the centre’s busy playground and garden, Mr. Petrushevski talked about what drives him.

“What breaks my heart is when children are so badly humiliated and feel such deep pain,” he said. “And what makes me really happy is when they start to feel happy in themselves and to think and plan for the future.

“It’s very joyful when children come [to the centre] and they feel happy here, as if it’s really their home,” he added. “Children are supposed to be happy. There shouldn’t be anything in this country to abuse them or undermine them – not in this country and not in the world.”

Grit and determination
That night, Mr. Petrushevski was still going strong. At a local ice-skating rink, he helped to train a group of children who will appear in an international ice show that is coming to Bishkek.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
A young girl living at the Bishkek centre visits with her grandparents, who were unable to care for her properly; centre Director Alexei Petrushevski chaperones children on such family visits.

As the children practiced and, occasionally, lost their balance, he reflected: “A skating rink is a bit like life itself – you never know how suddenly you can fall down and break everything. And [the children] behave on the ice as they do in life. They fall down, they get up and they don’t give in.”

UNICEF Representative in Kyrgyzstan Tim Schaffter commended Mr. Petrushevski’s grit and determination in fighting for child rights.

“It’s so wonderful to see that there are people willing to put not just the time but the heart and soul into it,” he said. “To me, Alexei is a true champion, a true hero for children.”


 

 

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UNICEF correspondent Peter George reports on a day in the life of children’s rights advocate Alexei Petrushevski in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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