Програма академiчних обмiнiв iменi Фулбрайта в Українi

24 квітня 2018

Trip to Orphanage in Petrovsk, Ukraine (Donetsk Oblast)

Trip to Orphanage in Petrovsk, Ukraine (Donetsk Oblast)

As a Fulbrighter to Ukraine in 2017-18 and living in Lviv, I'm privileged to be able to travel within Ukraine.  As a member of Soyuz Ukrainok Ameriky, an organization that takes charitable works for Ukraine as part of its mission, I sought to do some good while I was here.  I met with our Ukrainian liaison, Dr. Maria Furtak, who promptly arranged for a visit to a privately-run orphanage in the Dnipro area that cares for war orphans, as well as abandoned children and those from dysfunctional families.  The orphanage is as far east as we could safely travel without encountering the war zone.

The trip was an eye-opener for several reasons.  We met interesting people on the long train rides.  I discovered that contrary to opinion I had heard, Dnipro is a lovely city.  And much to my surprise, the orphanage was better situated than I had imagined.

Dr. Furtak joined me on the trip, as did Brian McCormick, a fellow American living in Lviv on a fellowship to study Ukrainian.  We first tried to fly from Lviv to Dnipro and learned that the route had been cancelled (no reason given).  Then we thought we'd take the train to Kyiv and fly from there.  The route takes an hour but would have cost us $600 (no good reason for that either) so we reverted to taking two trains:  one from Lviv to Kyiv (about 5 hours) and another from Kyiv to Dnipro (5.5 hours).  It turned out to be an educational experience as we had ample time to talk to our neighbors who were more than happy to talk to us.

Most of the trains we took (there were four) were InterCity+ trains which are quite modern and rather than coupes as in most European trains, there is multiple passenger seating throughout the wagon as in most American trains. Brian found us the seats available only at the end of the wagon which faced other passengers across a small table and that led to numerous conversations.  One young boy of no more than ten years of age was traveling alone from Kyiv to Dnipro to stay with his grandmother for a week's spring break.  He and his family were originally from Donetsk but left because of the war and settled in Kyiv.  He spoke Russian to me at first but when I told him I only understood Ukrainian, he turned to his neighbors who also spoke Russian.  But by the end of the trip, he was making a valiant effort to speak to me in Ukrainian.  He was also began an earnest attempt to speak English, employing a small dictionary that he bought aboard the train.

His neighbors were a young couple traveling from Kyiv to Dnipro because the woman had uterine cancer and did not want to undergo chemotherapy and a firm in Dnipro offered a weekend of alternative treatment for cancer with pills and diet and exercise.  Dr. Furtak who is a radiation oncologist tried to forewarn them that this therapy would not really help but would just delay effective treatment and she gave them her contact information to call when they returned home for further consultation.  They were lovely people and spoke Russian with the young boy and Ukrainian with Dr. Furtak and with us, evidence of the bilingual nature of most people in Ukraine, something we found throughout our journey.

We arrived in Dnipro in the early afternoon and were greeted by Dr. Furtak's contact, Serhii, a man of about 45 who wore army camouflage and called himself a volunteer.  Serhii had made our hotel reservations and would be driving us the two hours into Donetsk oblast the following day to the orphanage, on his way to the front to deliver food and supplies to the volunteer fighters supporting the Ukrainian army.  He offered to take us to the front with him if we were interested, as shooting had actually stopped for the last two days.  We went shopping with him in Dnipro to buy presents and supplies for the orphanage.  We bought Easter chocolate eggs as Easter was approaching; lots of wrapped candies; athletic shoes, mostly for the boys; socks for everyone; and soccer balls.

The next morning Serhii arrived with two fellow volunteers, also in camouflage, who it turned out were Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) volunteers supporting a volunteer unit at the front, that was not a part of the regular Ukrainian military.  If not for the food and supplies that these volunteers bring to them every two weeks, these soldiers would have nothing to eat.  The packages the volunteers were bringing were from supporters as far abroad as Germany.  They told us that fighting had erupted overnight and that they could not take any civilians to the front-not that we would have gone-and well we didn't as the volunteer army we later learned had lost four young men in the battle and a tank was demolished.

The two hour ride from Dnipro to Petrovsk was mostly on good roads until we got into Donetsk oblast where we encountered numerous potholes.  We also had to go through two checkpoints.  They merely asked who was in the car and noted it was civilians and let us go through.  On the way back however they searched the car and asked the volunteers to get out of the car to make sure that we weren't carrying any arms.  As the volunteers went on further toward the front without us, they had another four checkpoints to go through so they were pros at this.

When we reached Petrovsk, I was surprised to see it was a decent sized city with a flourishing supermarket and small attached department store which sold all manner of goods.  The orphanage was within the small city along some residential roads but not far off the main street.  The building, which had been donated by a Japanese charity, was a good size with multiple bedrooms, a large dining hall, a large kitchen, a reception area, and a large work room upstairs where the students studied and did their activities.  But they only had two bathrooms and two sinks and one non-working shower for 32 children of ages from 8 to 18.  The caretakers sadly noted that the kids had to go across the street to take a shower.  Everybody looked clean though and everything was in order, though this might have resulted because they were expecting us.  Having grown up myself in an orphanage in Philadelphia with 50 other kids I'm aware there's always a shortage of plumbing or water, but kids don't spend that much time using it anyway and you get used to taking turns.

The kids looked happy and scrappy and were well disciplined in saying "Thank you" in both Russian and Ukrainian.  The occasional child came over and hugged one of the caretakers spontaneously so it seems they're well taken care of although eager for comfort.  They were delighted with the athletic shoes although we hadn't brought enough for everyone.  We did venture out to buy some more but there weren't enough of the right shoe sizes in this smaller town.  We left money with Serhii to buy some more in Dnipro before his next trip to the front as he goes there every two weeks and drops by the orphanage routinely.  He had also, at Dr. Furtak's behest, brought them stacks of dried macaroni (oh that institutional diet!) and large chunks of meat, as well as butter.  They asked us for shampoo and toothpaste and slippers for sizes 34-39.  We got what we could and distributed it to them.  The boys were delighted with their athletic shoes and the soccer balls but there was still snow on the ground so they couldn't go out and play soccer.  However, Brian had brought a frisbee for them and he soon organized a game out in the snow with two teams engaged in football frisbee-at least that's what it looked like to me!

By this point, Serhii and the other volunteers had returned from the front as they had made a quick trip only to drop off supplies.  They found only five men at their usual rendezvous because the rest of their forces (around 100) were at a closer zone to the fighting.  They drove past the burned out tank and showed us a video they took as they drove by it.  They managed to pick up shrapnel in one of their tires which created a small leak so it took them some time to replace the tire.  The van we drove in is an old one donated to Serhii by some supporters from California who take time off from work in the US and join them at the front during their two week vacations.

I spent some time touring the building and learned that the children had done all the renovations on their bedrooms themselves.  They put in the wooden flooring.  They wallpapered and painted the walls.  They put together the bunkbeds.  I saw one room they were still working on.  But it wasn't clear to me, even with the multiple bedrooms, where 32 people had room to sleep, but I neglected to ask.  I did talk to the caretakers, of which there were four that day.  The director of this privately run orphanage was on leave and visiting relatives in Israel but the four women who were there were open and willing to talk about the children and their roles in the orphanage.  We learned that there are government run and subsidized orphanages in other nearby cities but not in Petrovsk and that this orphanage subsisted solely on donations. Because it is a private orphanage, they do not require the children to leave at age 16 as the government orphanages do and they had a few older boys.  While very few of the orphans go on to higher education, the caretakers prided themselves on the fact that most of the boys get jobs or go in the army while the girls get married and start families.  One of the orphans had indeed married in the area and had come back to the orphanage in the role of cook.  The caretakers take turns on a two-day cycle of having someone sleep over with the children, although again it was not clear where.  The caretakers are poorly paid but clearly enjoy their work and were gratified to get a little something extra from us before we left.  I had long conversations with the caretakers and was feeling proud of myself with how much Russian I understood (this is a Russian speaking part of the country) until I found out that they were speaking Surzhyk (a combination of Russian and Ukrainian)!  So much for my having learned Russian while studying Ukrainian.  They're similar but not the same.

Brian and I stayed an extra day to tour Dnipro and Serhii drove us around the military museums and cemetery.  Dnipro has suffered the greatest loss of personnel in this war with Russia and they have both a beautiful memorial built in the center of the city and a museum focused on the volunteer army which is purely funded by donations.

It has a wall dedicated to pictures of each soldier lost; an outdoor exhibit of destroyed army vehicles; a series of photos including the 40% of volunteers who are women (although they serve mostly in the back zones and not on the front lines); and a bare room devoted to a 360 degree surround film (with ten projectors) of very moving war footage.

The cemetery is full of recent mounds of graves with wooden crosses indicating these are unknown soldiers who gave their lives in the war.  The volunteer army didn't have dog tags until recently and they are using DNA from parents to match up with the buried before they place a stone monument with pertinent information on it.

Serhii told us about the battle that took place in Dnipro shortly after the separatists took over Donetsk, a battle in which he actively took part. Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky was governor of Dnipro then and he ordered his supporters to defend Dnipro from a takeover by the separatists.  Despite Kolomoyskyi's questionable business dealings, if not for his decision to support Ukraine, Dnipro would have fallen to the Russian backed separatists. With Dnipro under control of Russia, many believe that the conflict would have spread even further west.

We walked a bit around Dnipro after the military tour Serhii gave us.  All the banners were in Ukrainian but all the people in the restaurants we went to spoke Russian although they reverted to Ukrainian once we engaged them in conversation.  There were many upscale restaurants with good food and full of people who could afford them.  The beautiful regional art work (Petrikivka) was on sale in the park along the main street and there was no other evidence outside the museums we visited that there was a war taking place not more than three hours away.  Although we did see a paltry (and peaceful) demonstration taking place as we arrived by supporters of National Corps, who were protesting recent searches by the National Police of the houses of several National Corps members based in Dnipro reportedly in response to the Nadia Savchenko affair.

On the train rides back from Dnipro to Kyiv and then to Lviv, we were seated next to a man in his forties who spoke Russian on the phone, but once Brian and I started speaking to each other in English, he engaged us in English.  It turned out that he was in IT and had spent some time in California and NYC and Florida.  Despite being a Russian speaker, for which he seemed apologetic, he identified as Ukrainian (as more than 80% of Dnipro people do) and said his parents speak Ukrainian and his children speak Ukrainian but Russian was the lingua franca when he was growing up and it was important to speak it to attend university and get ahead in those days.  He was very much pro-Ukrainian in his attitudes as many of his compatriots are, according to surveys, more so than you would expect from a city so close to Donetsk where many still cling to a pro-Russian worldview.

The trip presented us with a new perspective on the deep social and security problems that Ukraine faces. We witnessed the daily decisions of individual Ukrainians working to improve their communities and protect their country. There remain divisions in Ukraine, between language and culture, but there is also a remarkable unity in Ukraine, and in Dnipro we witnessed the transcendence of linguistic and cultural divisions. Through the remarkable work of volunteers serving orphans and patriotically supporting the soldiers defending their country, we were honored to play a tiny role in supporting the Orphanage in Petrovsk.

Oksana Malanchuk, Ph.D.
U.S. Fulbright Scholar 2017-2018
Lviv, Ukraine
April 2018

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