Joined Hands Can’t Be Wrenched Apart
By Varvara Zhluktenko
MAKARIV, Ukraine – April 2009: Oksana Kalyna (not her real surname), a small woman with black eyes, leaves an old house at 5 a.m. and goes to her job: cleaning the streets of the small town of Makariv. Her two daughters – Olya, 12, and Svitlanka, 14 – are still asleep at home. A little later, while Oksana works to support her children, the older child serves the younger her breakfast and gets her dressed. They trot off to school together and then, their studies done, return home together in the afternoon to await their mother.
Many Ukrainian families live a similar life, but the girls from Makariv are joining hands to help each other with a tenacity forged in the crucible of a quite challenging existence.
Oksana and her children’s shared life became even more challenging after the economic crisis hit in Ukraine. According to the Kyiv Institute of Management Issues, only 8.5 per cent of Ukrainians today have money to spend on things beyond household payments and food. Times are especially difficult, of course, for those who were barely making ends meet even when Ukraine’s economy was booming.
Oksana’s life has carried her from Ukraine’s east to Ukraine’s west before depositing her in Kyiv oblast, where she has put down roots in Makariv, a rayon centre. “My younger child was born here, in Makariv,” she says. “The maternity hospital wouldn’t let me take her after she was born because I had no documents, but I didn’t want to abandon my child,” She says. So she registered as a local resident. “That is how I stayed in Makariv.”
Growing up in Donetsk, Oksana watched her father pass away and her mother turn to the bottle. Oksana ended up a boarding school child, a ward of the state. She ran away from her vocational school after only six months, leaving behind her belongings and documents. That was how much she wanted to get away from that unpleasant place. “At first we were well fed there,” she says, “but then they started giving us food only in the morning and the evening,” Oksana recalls. It wasn’t enough.
Oksana has experienced much during her years of settling in one part of Ukraine after another. At one point she was even taken captive by Roma, who forced her to beg in the street. When she finally fled, she had to do it without her daughter Olya, whom she left in the charge of people who agreed to take care of her until Oksana could get back on her feet.
Oksana’s experience proves that it’s wise that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is working to take children out of Ukraine’s often challenging boarding schools and place them in family environments in which they can grow up in normalcy. The staffers of Hope and Homes for Children in Ukraine, a partner organization of UNICEF, have been supporting Oksana in her childrearing since she delivered her younger daughter. “But for Olga Moroz, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” Oksana says about the Hope and Homes project’s coordinator in Makariv rayon. “Graduates of Ukrainian boarding schools like myself don’t know anything about life at all. They don’t even know how to prepare a meal. They can’t plan their expenses, so they spend their scholarship money the day they get it. The girls get pregnant very young.” To help ameliorate such problems, Hope and Homes for Children works to preserve biological families, saving unprepared parents from their own mistakes and inexperience. They also find foster families for children who are dumped in boarding schools. The charitable organization helped Oksana get her older daughter back five years after Oksana had to leave her behind.
These days Oksana works hard to rear her children. Last summer she worked as a street sweeper in the morning and then did gardening and other work during the day: weeding gardens, cleaning windows and the like. She has to work hard, because children’s clothes and books, not to mention school fees, are expensive. “Last year I went to the market to buy some things that Olya needed for school and I ended up paying 1,500 UAH, even though I bought only the essentials: a uniform, a sweatsuit, a couple of books,” she says. Today she earns a bit more than 800 UAH a month (including 140 UAH courtesy of a state allowance for her younger child). The problem is that the economic crisis is driving up prices. Some months ago, for example, her children’s school raised 75 UAH for textbooks that turned out to cost 125 UAH each when they were finally purchased. Covering the difference is taking a big chunk out of Oksana’s budget.
Oksana’s family’s biggest problem is the absence of a decent place to live. In Makariv a single room apartment rents for 1,500 UAH a month, not including utility costs. Oksana rents a corner in the flat of a Makariv citizen who has a young child as well. Five of them share a tiny room and a kitchen in the barely viable wing of a building that’s bulging at the seams with structural problems. Oksana herself repairs the breaches in walls, although it’s still always chilly and damp in the house. Olya and Svitlanka get ill because of the wet air and have spent time in in-patient clinics. Really the building is beyond repair. Oksana is on a waiting list for a dormitory-style dwelling, but she doesn’t expect to get it soon.
Notwithstanding their occasional illnesses, Oksana’s children are growing up into active and curious adolescents. “What’s a budget?” 12-year-old Olya asks as she listens to the adults around her talking. She scrunches up her forehead as someone explains to her what the word means. She dreams of working at a Makariv municipal enterprise during the summer, taking care of its flowers. That way she can earn some money and go to the seashore with other children under the auspices of Hope and Homes for Children in Ukraine. They’ll all stay in tents near the water. After school Olya wants to study to become a cook, since she already likes working in the kitchen.
Her mother Oksana is happy about that. And to make it happen she’ll leave home the next morning at 5 a.m. and work until 5 p.m., when she’s half-starved. Then she’ll do it again, all so that her children have a life that’s different from hers.