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From darkness to light: A social worker’s story

© UNICEF UKRAINE 2012 / M.Koryshov
Children that Roma work with at The Way Home Foundation

By Zhenya Luchmann

Roma Timofeev, 35 years old, came a long way from a homeless person to being the social worker he is now.

Roma was born in Russia close to the northern town of Pskov. Practically everyone in his family was alcohol dependent. His childhood was tough and having nothing to expect from his parents, he left home at the age of 19. He says by that time he was drinker himself. He finished 9 levels in school and then joined a vocational school to become a mason, but later left due his troubled health. By that time all his relatives had died of alcoholism and his house was gone.

Having nowhere to go, he crossed the Ukrainian border illegally and came to Odessa in 1997. Roma is proud that despite lacking a permanent place to stay, he never really slept on the street and apart from some drinking spells never took any drugs.

In Odessa, Roma found a job as a loader, changing work places a few times. Always on the lookout for a job that would keep him alive, he worked in a car park and in the city boiler-house where he was also allowed to spend the nights. 

In 1999 Roma had his first contact with the NGO “Way Home” which at that time provided shelter for the nights. Roma continued odd jobs as a cashier at the open-air night market. He states with pride that during those times he had enough money to live on. Roma never gave up. When his market employment fell through, he worked as a security guard at a restaurant. He salted fish in the harbor and tried again as a loader, but his health condition got worse and he realized that hard physical work was no longer the trump card to play.

In 2009 Roma was invited to work as a cook at the “Way Home” summer camp for vulnerable children. It was something new for him and it was exciting, even though he admits he did not really have any knowledge how to cook. He came to know many people during that time who later became his friends. Roma says it was here that he started to realize that he can help other people as well. He attended HIV prevention trainings at the “Way Home” centre and after one month he discovered that he himself was HIV positive. He plunged into a period of disbelieve and sadness but he says it was then that he found out that he wants to help other people; change something in their lives to the better.

© UNICEF UKRAINE 2012 / G.Pirozzi
Roma is healing street child's hand

From there on Roma started working as a volunteer for the “Way Home”, UNICEF partner organization that helps street children. He provides consultations to people about HIV and travels as a Social Patrol member, helping street children with food, clothes and medicines. He remembers that in the beginning he was very emotional when he saw the devastating situation of street children or homeless people. He says: “I though I am going to be burnt from inside”.  

Roma sees his future as a social worker. He wants to work on his health and get qualified medical assistance since he says the last couple of years had been tough. Since he never had any documents, he wants to get his Russian citizenship back, which would end his status as an illegal.

Surprisingly, Roma never misses a chance to state that he is happy with his current life. He says: “I am happy with myself now, with my life and I am glad that I didn’t fall down and even manage to help others now”.

Between 2009 and 2011 UNICEF, together with its partner organizations, has supported programmes for the most socially vulnerable children in the cities of Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Donetsk, Kyiv and Mykolaiv. These prevention projects have proven their effectiveness and UNICEF continues to work with its national partners in Ukraine to strengthen social services, families and communities, and to provide a better protective environment for children. The projects help the children to gain life-skills while receiving social support. Together this helps to prevent them from ending up on the streets. 



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