Hope in darkness - Olena’s story
A young and delicate woman is sitting on the bed, a smiling rose-cheeked child in her arms. The baby stretches out his small chubby hands towards me. Engrossed with the child, it is only when his mother turns her head towards the sound of my voice that it dawns on me that she is blind. Embarrassment silences me as I continue to focus on the child, but it is Olena* herself who initiates conversation with ease and assurance: “Artemchyk is a very playful and lively boy – I just don’t know what I will do when he starts to walk.” “I’m sure someone will help you” I offer, hopeful, before realising that it’s more likely she has no parents or relatives, that is why she is here, at the centre.
Olena’s story confirms this. She was born a healthy girl into a loving, close-knit family. But at the age of ten, tragedy struck when a car crash killed her parents and led to her blindness. Olena landed in a specialized boarding school for children with sight disabilities. Those days were hard: “I missed my mother very much. Sometimes it seemed to me that she was close by, supporting me; sometimes I even thought I could hear her voice” she recounts sadly.
It was as a teenager at a rehabilitation centre for people with sight disabilities that she met Mykhailo. Mykhailo also has sight disabilities, but he can see, and his disease is operable. “I could not see him of course. But he had a good sense of humour, a wonderful ear for music and a beautiful voice, he could sing so well.” She pauses for a moment. “His confidence, outlook and openness captivated me – drawing me into a world so different from the one I had perceived up to then.” To everyone’s surprise, just six months later, the two announced their engagement. Not everyone was overjoyed at the news: Mykhailo’s parents wanted a healthy daughter-in-law, not a blind and orphaned one. And they refused to take the ‘additional burden’ on their shoulders having agreed to care only about their son, not daughter-in-law.
They married anyway. “Our reward was my pregnancy and then the confirmation that the boy was born an absolutely healthy baby. What happiness to realize that your child can have a much better and brighter life than you do!” Olena says. But even after Artemchyk’s birth, Mykhailo's parents refused to see Olena or their grandchild, and would only accept their son. Olena, in the meantime, was getting desperate for help with Artemchyk. She told social workers that she would never give up her baby to a children’s home, but as a disabled woman was finding it increasingly difficult to provide adequate care. So the social workers told her about the Khmelnytsky Oblast Social Centre for Mothers and Children, in the village of Chornyi Ostriv.
In order to prevent early childhood abandonment – those ‘social orphans’ who have been repudiated because of a family crisis such as extreme poverty, imprisonment, drug or alcohol addiction - UNICEF and the European Union are creating a new type of social service institution. The Social Centres for Mothers and Children aim to inject early intervention into delicate situations before they can get out of hand. Social workers, teachers and psychologists understand better than anyone else how important it is to support mothers and families as soon as problems surface, and they are daily dealing with issues such as abandoned children and alcoholism in the family, as well as with children who are living and working on the streets.
A psychologist at the Khmelnytsky Oblast Social Centre for Mothers and Children explains that when a young mother first enters the centre, she is often initially difficult and disruptive. Gradually, however, she begins to responds more positively, checking her attitude and behaviour against those around her and accepting advice. The atmosphere of the centre does facilitate this process, driven by the professionalism and dedication of the staff and reflected in the mothers’ care and attention towards their children. Support and understanding makes it impossible for these young mothers - sometimes only 17 or 18 years old with chaotic backgrounds themselves - to remain isolated with their problems.
I admit that harsh thoughts did cross my mind: how could little ones be so abandoned? How could a woman get to the point where she deserts her own baby? But I realise that sometimes life can push a woman into a corner when she feels forced to give up her most precious treasure – her child. And then it’s not always easy or possible to remedy the situation later. That is why intervention, assistance and support at an early stage are so crucial, especially for a mother who is eager to take responsibility for her own life and that of her child.
Back to Olena.
Currently, Olena is being taught at the centre to take care of Artemchyk, whilst the staff look for housing and social aid for them. She is full of hopes and dreams: “I’m going to need the social aid for when I begin my independent life” she says. “And I also want to save some money for my husband’s operation. The only thing that worries me is that he is not with me and can't share the joy of seeing how Artemchyk is growing up. You know, even though blind people and people with weak eyesight live in the darkness, they see extremely colourful bright dreams... And very often I see my boy in my dreams. He is beautiful, strong and healthy.”
Andriy Haidamashko, Child Protection Officer for UNICEF Ukraine points out that “institutions such as the Social Centre for Mothers and Children support young women not only with basic essentials such as ‘a roof over one’s head’, food and clothing, but - and this is the most important thing - they get psychological assistance, learn the basics of housekeeping, learn to take care of their little children and, thereby, prepare themselves for further successful integration into society. And they don't abandon their babies, since abandoned children mean broken and damaged futures.”
Before leaving, I ask Olena: “Let's imagine that your mother is looking at you from the sky. What do you think she would tell you?”
“She would say: ‘My sunshine, don't be afraid, I am with you!’ This is what I very often tell my Artemchyk too.” And with those words, she smiles, firmly shakes my hand and says goodbye.
*All names have been changed
In accordance with the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Ukraine is obligated to provide family care for children deprived of parental care, and to support families with children who have found themselves in vulnerable situations, in order to prevent the abandonment of their children. The family is the best environment for a child’s upbringing (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 9) and that early intervention and different kinds of support and care can lead to the reduction of social orphans. UNICEF supports a range of projects, aimed at developing and testing new approaches to family support. One such is the Khmelnytsky Oblast Mothers and Children Social Centre which addresses these concerns. As of today, 246 children who live in 119 problem families in Khmelnytsky Oblast are getting social support.