Alessia and her Homeless War Orphans

The success of our Ukraine project, as with all our projects, is due to the amazing love and talent of our partner there. We have cried tears together over the suffering in Mariupol, Kherson, Bakhmut… and we have laughed together over the funny stories as Alessia, a city girl, has learned how to raise geese. She too, you see, is a refugee in this war. But what I find most touching is her heart for homeless war orphans who must constantly move from basement to basement to stay a step ahead of authorities and avoid growing up in an institution. Rather than tell you how Alessia interacts with these boys, I though you might enjoy reading excerpts from our WhatsApp messages:

“I realized that I just need to love these children.”

Girls orphaned by the war in Ukraine are adopted quickly into families, but for adolescent boys the choice is often between going to a state-run institution or fending for themselves on the streets. The boys dread going to an orphanage, preferring to scavenge for food and sleep wherever they can find shelter, often in abandoned or unlocked basements that are dank, dirty, sometimes reeking of sewage. Alessia, our partner in Ukraine, writes

These boys have faced big problems and sometimes they test adults’ patience. But kids just want to have fun and they need to feel love. We see that they are sleeping in the basements and there are no adults around them. This is enough for me to hug them. They say, ‘We know all the basements here.’ They are smart, not rude. They are good guys.

Establishing and maintaining contact with the boys is difficult because, suspicious of adults who, they fear, will turn them over to the authorities, they change locations often. Alessia continues:

At first, as soon as we arrived, they ran away quickly, only their sparkling heels visible. I didn’t have time to say a word. So, we would leave food, blankets and gifts in different basements. And they told me that when they found food in one basement, they ran to look for it in others, because they understand that I don’t know their basement today, so I put food in several. They sing: “Thank you, Aunt Alessia, it was very tasty.” And every time we gain their trust because we come and nobody touches them, nobody takes them to the orphanage, nobody threatens them.

I sit on the curb with them, or I climb the fence with them, and they perceive me as “one of their own.” This is a chance for me to talk to them, give them a good word, food, clothes, salve for wounds, hydrogen peroxide for germs. And, of course, I give them the tastiest candies I have.

I am already 40 years old and I don’t always manage to climb the fences. They laugh, but after laughing, they start talking, and thus a dialogue begins. They see I can’t climb a high fence like they can and they come back to help me. And when planes fly overhead, they tell me: ‘Aunt Alessia, don’t be afraid, we will protect you!’ I want to laugh and cry …such small defenders.

It is important for me to show them what they can do and to emphasize that they have done well. It makes them feel empowered. And this is good.

Still, establishing trust is at best incremental:

When they begin to trust me, I offer them to move to my side, each time closer and closer. Then I suggest school, then I offer a clean bed to sleep on, then eat at our place, then feed the geese and chickens, then play with the dog. Children love animals. Living beings help children a lot. The main thing is not to scare them, because they will run—and they run very, very fast.

Some of the homeless boys now come to Alessia’s school once a week for food; she has arranged a signal to let them know it is safe, no one else is there. For these boys, hygiene is another major challenge:

The homeless boys do not go to school together with the other children; they are afraid they will stink. One time my husband bathed some boys in the basement. The water was cold and they screamed and cursed, but afterwards I brought them hot soup and porridge with condensed milk and sugar. They rejoiced. But the basement was changed!

Two of the boys, brothers Roma, 14-years-old, and 10-year-old Bohdan, have recently agreed to stay overnight with Alessia and her husband, but the children are still unsettled:

Bohdan climbed the fence today and said: “I will run away.” We answered: “Yes, good, good, you will run away, but that will be later, for now stay with us.” “Good,” he said, and he returned with us.

I tell them, “We will make businessmen of you. You will have your own chick! The chicken will grow up, you will collect eggs and sell them, this will be your business.” They ask me: “Aunt Alessia, is it true? Will you teach us?” They are very pleased. Bohdan asked me yesterday “Will the egg hatch?” He wants his chick. And for me, this means that he will not run away, at least for this time, because he has a dream, a goal, a chick, and he will not run away.

He had such happy face. These are good and smart children. They are so cool! We love them.

(The quoted passages are assembled from Alessia’s text messages, translated from Ukrainian by Google Translate.)