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Between May and July 2002 Sarah worked at an Orphanage in Sushki in Russia, which is 3 hours South East of Moscow.
Here are Sarah's emails:
Live and Kicking in Moscow!
26th May 2002
Finally found an internet cafe in Moscow and am rattling a circular off to you all to save time! We leave Moscow tomorrow and have had an incredible week. Emotionally and physically exhausted by the whole experience. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Moscow is an incredibly city. Staggeringly beautiful architecture, stunning churches on every corner, many exuding past magnifence through now-decaying and crumbling structures. It's a city that's alive and gritty, unprentious for the most part (aside from Red Square and the Kremlin) - I really love it. However it's also polluted, noisy, relentless, with few parks and no escape. It's also home to people who smile at strangers rarely and who make it extremely difficult to be foreign! It's seriously tourist-unfriendly, which has it's own charm, but just makes it hard work, particularly since I've hardly stepped out of our house for two years! I've found it a huge emotional challenge. Lots of tears, feeling vulnerable without Peter, facing Ellie moments on my own without him around has been hard. We've visited Downside Up, a centre for children with Down Syndrome in Moscow. They are working to encourage mums to keep their children instead of putting them in orphanages. Oh my goodness, Anne, you would have wept..........a little girl who they had encouraged the parents to take out of the orphanage once she'd been in there for a year........so weak, so slight, so unresponsive......I'm probably not making much sense here, as I've had so many emotionally tortuous experiences.
"Downside Up" is a totally interdisciplinary one stop shop for these parents (ah, yes, lets go to Moscow to see how to run these places!! Hah! thought of you, Anne and Michele while I was there!!). The following day we spend with an amazing woman, a contact of Martin bax, (Ellie's paediatrician) - she's designed a suit based on the suits cosmonauts wear to help children with cerebral palsy walk. We also spent another day with this woman at a rehabilitation centre for disabled adults where she proceeded to tell me exactly what she thought had been wrong with Ellie. Needless to say, it totally blew me away........and yet again, had to cry many tears to try and clear it. I'll tell you about it when I get home.......it's not that staggering.....but just an angle that I don't believe the Western medical profession has acknowledged. The day before yesterday we visited our first orphanage - a baby home - the best in Moscow. It's supported by the International Womens Club and has toys and equipment coming out of it's ears.
The disabled children were so very hard to see. The workers care about them, but don't understand that these children, in fact, all of the children, need cuddles, stimulation, etc. They really don't get it. Anyway, more tears...........I could go on and on about the chidlren we've seen, but I've been writing a diary, and anyway, the impact some of them have had on me is not going to go away. As for being a tourist! Well, we've only done two days! A lovely day yesterday at a beatiful convent, and today, we decided we really ought to do the Kremlin - what a giggle - if I don't make it home, it's because they've put me behind bars for streaking naked through the Kremlina and blowing raspberries at the guards!! If you strayed from the pavement, they blew a whistle at you, if you sat down, they blew a whistle at you, if you crossed the road in the wrong place......they blew a whistle at you!! Iona was feeling faint so we sat down on a step, and a guard loomed over us and gestured us to get up and move on! Well it brought out the worst in me I'm afraid!! It brought out my rebellious streak, so be warned! A couple of days ago, we were sitting on the grass outside the Kremlin and two guards on horseback told us to move on! All they said was "This is not America!" Gotta go as my time is nearly up. It's hard work here and we've hardly started, but I think it's going to get me going on all sorts of things.
Rats in Ryazan
30th May 2002
OK, so they're not everywhere.....but there was one poking it's head out of the toilet when Iona went to the loo in the little restaurant where we had lunch today...! We were just bragging to ourselves how we had only spent $1 on lunch....then smelt a rat!! Now we're feeling slightly queasy which is probably completely psychosomatic! We arrived here on Monday, after a three hour drive along dreadful main roads from Moscow. Fortunately, the weather is heating up. It was snowing in Moscow for the first two days after we arrived but down here, we're now in t-shirts and can at least stop wearing the only jumper we've brought with us.
Tuesday and Wednesday were non-stop with Sasha, from Love Russia, and our lovely student interpreter, Katya. We visited three orphanages and also the baby home for whom we'll be working, but more on that later. It's had to describe the orphanages in words. I know I haven't assimilated what I've seen yet. I'm not fully acquanted with the Human Rights Law, it seems fairly certain that these kids are being denied them in several areas. The buildings they live in should be condemmed. Falling down, dripping with damp, plumbing that doesn't work properly. They have no concept of what it is to have privacy - the toilets are just row of toilets, no cubicles. The dormitories are rows upon rows of beds, bedside tables with nothing on them...no sign of any personal belongings at all. The kids, without exception, stink! They are bathed once a week (we're talking kids between 6yrs and 16). They sit on benches in a sluice room and have buckets of warm water thrown over them.
They have absolutely no toys to play with in their spare time. They went potty over what we brought them - boom bats, frisbees, balloons, books etc. They mobbed Iona, each one wanting to 'own' their own balloon, at the very least. In some places they were spirited and eager to ask us questions, and interact with us. In the last one we visited, they seemed crushed, weren't interested in us, let alone each other. The staff there were younger, and it was almost as though they were resentful of us - perhaps they were.
In most places, the walls were completely bare, the kids shared clothes......basically, they were bored, crushed, lacking in confidence, and above all, lacking in hope. The future for them when they leave at 16 is either drugs, prostitution, prison, or death. 500,00 kids in the system at any one time. Sorry, but I'm writing this quickly now as I'm running out of time. I know I haven't expressed this well, and have only told you a zillionth of what we've seen, heard and felt. Yesterday we visited our 'employer' who hardly had time for us, as she was swanking about in her power suit, high heels and looking very important signing letters the entire time we were with her!
Anyway, we managed to establish that we'll be travelling to Sushki with the kids on Monday, and know very little else about it! We will just have to trust as we have so far that the angels will let us know when we need to know! So far, Ellie seems to be doing a good job of training them! I've been dreaming of Ellie virtually every night here - she's so present. And I talk about her whenever I can - all the kids wanted to look at my locket - and I now have the bleak skill of being able to say 'my daughter died two years ago' in Russian. But I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her....or Peter, for that matter - my 'ground control' who has to keep picking me off the floor with expensive phone calls to simply hear me cry it out. But I am OK. And I feel blessed to be seeing this.
8th June 2002
OK, now I realise why everyone has been saying how brave Iona and I are.....because this week, we've been really, really brave! I don't think I had appreciated how emotionally vulnerable I still was. Not just to the children, but to the whole concept of change, coping with extreme situations that fall outside of my comfort zone. Eight years ago I would have coped with this week without batting an eyelid. But this week, not only have my eye-lids batted a lot, but they've also cried a lot of tears.
We arrived at the Dacha in Sushki on Monday and were shown to our room. For the next couple of hours, we were both slightly paralysed with panic, wondering how on earth we were both going to cope. Basically, the room was filthy, in an old monastery building that was just like a derelict farmhouse. There's one rusty old toilet and one tap that is shared between about 25 women, the beds are like bananas - so much so that I had to drag the flimsy mattresses onto the floor and am now sleeping there - the mattresses are old kids' mattresses and stink of urine, the place is swarming with mosquitos, we have no access to a phone or any means of cooking anything. The staff have ranged from cool indifference through to out and out hostility. Other than that - it's paradise! We were expecting it to be basic, and I've been to infinately more basic places than this in my life, but I think I simply couldn't handle the hostility and the feeling of emotional dislocation on top of the physical discomfort. Until............we met the kids! And things have gradually started to improve.
The children are magical, infininately varied in their abilities, personalities and likes and dislikes, and very, very healing. When I'm with them, I totally forget that I haven't had a bath or washed my hair for 4 days, or that I have eaten nothing but tomatoes, cucumbers and luke-warm greasy soup with "meat" floating in the bottom (so much for being a vegetarian!). They draw me in to their moment, and I can thankfully return to the present, rather than worrying about how on earth I'm going to survive with only talking to Peter for 5 minutes at a time, or whether I'll survive another 5 weeks. I'm trying not to get attached to any particular child.......but it's hard!! Natasha, particularly, I will seek out just to get a smile from her! She has CP in her legs and slightly squinty eyes, but her smile just makes me melt! But don't worry, I'm not going to try and smuggle her into my case, and yes, I've been trying to film all the children so you'll get to see them.
So, the kids are adorable, but the conditions in which they have to survive are hard. There aren't enough staff, and the staff that there are, don't interact with them, other than to do "functional" tasks such as washing, dressing and feeding. If the staff are having a bad day, they take it out on the kids. There are one or two staff who are better with them at times, but it's not enough for these children. One of two staff being nice to them now and again when there are 42 children - it'll make little impact. They're left to play on their own, either outside in a playgorund, or inside - one group plays in a tiny room and are routinely left in there on their own with no adults for long periods of time - 12 kids in a room half the size of our kitchen. (The kids are 18months to 3 years) Hardly any of them have nappies - and most of them need them. They wee in their tights/trousers and are left like that until the end of the day. If they poo in their clothes - we're quite convinced they are severely physically reprimanded. We took four out for a walk (as we have been doing quite regularly) and one of them pooed. When Iona went to try and at least take out the lump of poo (sorry for the graphics) and clean her bottom, she screamed and screamed. Her lower back was covered with bruises. Then when we got back, all those that had pooed, were left to eat their dinner sitting in the poo, and then were stripped off and lined up and washed in a bath. By this time, these particular children were rigid with fear and screaming blue murder, as though anticipating something awful. Iona and I resolutely refused to move out of the room, there were a few glances exchanged between the staff, and we believe that these kids were saved this time from something quite distressing. Obviously we have no proof of this......but everything we've experienced points to it.
On top of that, many of the staff are simply rough with the way they treat them. They shovel food down their faces, in a manner that takes any ritual, or sacredness out of the mealtime occasion. Within 10 minutes the meal is over. They sit on the potty for 20 minutes and are then carted off to their dormitory, where there is nothing remotely child-friendly. Just rows upon rows of little beds, with a gentle aroma of urine. Everthing is done by the clock. No time for story time, cuddles, laughs, play, giggles, one-to one human connection. We've seen a lot of kids rocking, lost in their own world. And the two children with Down's Syndrome......I simply can't begin to describe......total isolation....fed in a corner of the room, left on their own in a playpen outside all day, one of them either sits in a rocker in a room on his own, or is in bed. I know for a fact that the little one had a pooey nappy in the evening, and he was put to bed without a change.
This has been really hard. And right now, I don't know what to do about it. Whenever we can, we pick up Andrei ( the only one that seems to come outside) and play with him and have managed to get giggles out of him by blowing on his face. But as soon as you put him down, he goes back to chewing on anything he can find and rocking. He needs one of us all the time - but the staff simply couldn't accept that. I know he's capable of so much more, and of course, every time I look at him I just see our godson Luke. And marvel at how lucky he is. Well, all our children are. When I look at Natasha, first I see a beautifully cheeky little girl, then I see the dreadful "internat" that she'll end up in - an institution for the uneducable. Along with so many others. I think that's what is so upsetting. All these kids have so much potential. And they haven't got a cat in hell's chance of even reaching 10% of it.
So that's just a little taster of what we've seen , heard and felt this last week. Many of you have asked what you can do to help these children, and the honest answer is nothing, not yet anyway. I have to understand more fully how we can help the children in a way that they will truly benefit. Any toys, clothes, equipment etc will simply get nicked by the other members of staff for their own children. I will try and formulate a plan for when I get back!
Just to put your minds at rest - we have had breathroughs with several members of staff, and we feel much better than we did at the beginning of the week. We've come to Ryazan this weekend simply to sleep in a comfortable bed, take a hot shower, buy a few provisions and get to a phone to have a reasonable conversation with Peter and Iona's family. So hence this e-mail. I've no idea when we'll be back online, but I'll update you all when I can.
Sweltering in Sushki
20th June 2002
Well, having arrived here in sub zero degrees and snow showers, it's now 30 degrees and rising. Poor Iona is wilting but I think this is here to stay for a while. We're back in Ryazan to luxuriate in soft beds, hot showers and a toilet that we can use as and when we want (bliss......). We're both very tired, Iona particularly, who's been in bed for a couple of days last week with a stinking cold. But there is definately a build up of tiredness in both of us and I think, if I'm absolutely honest, if someone gave me an easy cop-out now and told me I had to go home, I'd be very tempted!! However, this is my brain playing tricks on me, I know, and a couple of good nights sleep and seeing the children's faces again, and I'll be sorted! Anyway, those children. Our relationship with them has changed over the last 10 days or so, as they've got used to having us around and got to know us better. They trust us and some of them are becoming very cheeky and naughty, which is heartening to know that in some of them, their spirit isn't/hasn't yet been crushed. Our input into them is frustratingly limited by staff who change every week (Iona and I are the only constant in their lives at the moment) and who are generally very hostile and resentful towards us. There's no way around this really. Each week, we have to try and ingratriate ourselves with a new set and we're not always successful. Many of them pro-actively ignore us and roll eyes/sigh etc within earshot! At times this has got us down, but most of the time, I think we're reasonably accepting of it and just have to work around it. So, given that, we do one of three things with the children. If we're feeling emotionally strong and can cope with the staff we may stay with all the children in the little playground that they're herded into every morning and afternoon or take a few of them out for a walk, accompanied by numerous toys. If it's raining, we take a few of them into their dining area, get out drawing stuff, music, mirrors, playdo and our one jigsaw. This is the most constructive time we've had with them and it was great. Despite the total lack of loving attention in their lives, these little spirits seem to be forging a role for themselves. The natural survival instinct has taken over with some of them, and they're preserving their spirit and childhood. Others, however, struggle, particularly those that are disabled.......but some able bodied children wander around the playground lost in their own world.
I'm really sorry, guys, but Blueyonder is playing up - I keep losing my connection and losing what I've written so sorry if it seems a bit disjointed! I think what I'm trying to convey is that the situation here is not a Romanian-type utter deprivation of anything and everything. These kids are fed, clothed, get vitamin tablets, play outdoors on swings and have the capacity to connect with other human beings if anyone gave them the time of day. And that's the biggest problem - they don't. The staff's relationship with the kids is totally "functional". We witnessed a weekly bathing session last week which brought tears to both our eyes. All the kids were on their potties (which they do a lot, to "fill" time, if they've finished supper a bit early or if they have to come in from the garden early) and started to scream with fear - they were literally wrestled, one by one, into a little baby bath, held down and scrubbed fiercely by a member of staff, using only her hand and the water in the tub. The more the child screamed and struggled, the more force was used. By the time they'd got to the last one, the water was black, all the kids had gone to hell and back, and they weren't much cleaner either - there was a nice bar of soap just inches from her fingers but it wasnt used.
These kids are on a conveyor belt through life, and no-one ever stops to parcel them in a bit of love. And these are just the children that are here in Sushki. Heaven knows how the more disabled children fare back in Ryazan - we hope to do a proper visit of this home that "our" children live in for the rest of the year, before we go home, so hopefully will get to see some of these children. Another thing that I find absolutely astonishing is that they don't clean their teeth. Ever. One of the older boys has already lost half his teeth through rotting and will soon lose the rest. Why? The place is run by a Paediatrician!? There are many contradictions like that. Like the fact that they're not allowed to have cuddly toys for hygeine reasons yet they scrub around in the dirt outside, eating grass, mud etc as kids do, and drink the wee out of another's potty (we've witnessed this more than once!!), yet they're not allowed anything fluffy.......?!
Anyway, I must close soon, but we've been enjoying Andrei, the older child with Down's Syndrome, who we've started to "walk" round the playground whenever we can. It tires him out but seems to make him more alert. He loves playing with our hands and is just oozing with frustrating potential. Rosa just cracks me up, being really dinky and dimpled and making a bee-line for me holding up the forefinger of her hand towards me, just as Ellie used to, for me to do an ET with her! Seriouja, Valia, Alyosha, Pasha and Roslann are absolute monkeys and see my rucksack as an aladdins cave, and no amount of saying "don't touch" will help - they merely grin at me and go for it even more! (not always places to put it out of the way, if that's what you're thinking!) Misha and Natasha (with CP) desperately need leg massages but when we asked if we could do it, we were told they get it in Ryazan so don't need it here - not sure why they don't need it for three months - bit of Russian logic for you, and Vica is the most adorable little madam you've ever seen, swinging from teenage moodies to two-year old monkey in the space of 30 seconds!
1st July 2002
Just checking in during a hasty visit to the internet cafe (with not a cup of coffee in sight!). This visit to Ryazan seems to be packed with "jobs" to do - trying to organise other orphanage visits, buying train tickets, booking cabs, arranging our last few days in Moscow etc. And nothing's straightforward here! Everything takes ages and most things have to be done through an interpreter, despite the fact that Iona's Russian is capable of doing basic things like booking hotel rooms. What it's not capable of doing is coping with most Russians' complete inability to talk to foreigners slowly and so most conversations like this end up with phones being slammed on us! So - sorry if this is a bit brief today.
The last ten days has been a real mixture. We've had some really wonderful moments with the children - feeling Andrei using our hands to "walk" him less and less, watching the children get totally absorbed in the little books we bought, taking out the older boys for an afternoon and watching Roslann, Sacha, Danil and Alyosha giggling mercilessly as they chased chickens round a field, watching them creep up to a tethered dog in a garden, then tear back to us, screaming with delight, when the dog started to bark at them. We've been "wee'd" on and "snot'd" on more times than we can remember, laughed at Vica's 'wide-mouthed frog' impression, helped Seriouja do headstands, and watched Valia climbing up haystacks and sliding down. General run of the mill stuff - but not for them, and it's been wonderful.
We've spent more time with Christina, who is probably the brightest child there, and has Cerebral Palsy, and who has already learnt some English words from Iona. She's lovely and has a brain like a sponge, absorbing everything and throwing it right back at you! Her destiny, however, will be to an orphanage for the "uneducable", purely because she has CP. I think that speaks for itself. Iona and I are doing all we can to try and visit one of these orphanages in Moscow. I don't know if we'll manage it though, as these places are notoriously difficult to get into, probably for obvious reasons - they are totally uninterested in foreign donors/help of any kind and are suspicious of the motives behind any visitor.
We've been taking the children out on walks more this past week, for two reasons. Firstly, everytime we go into the playground now, we get mobbed by the children who all want cuddles and to be the one who has our attention and it's quite unmanageable, and secondly, because the hostility of this week's staff has reached monumental proportions! It's hard to be near them when we're with the kids. An incident at one point, when I was "walking" Andrei in the playground, and Iona was with Christina, confirmed that they think we're stupid/ignorant/arrogant or a combination of them all, to spend any time at all with the disabled children - and probably to be here at all. I don't know, but we've given up worrying about it. But we've seen more bullying tactics this week than any other. The kids have been treated like lumps of meat to be herded from one place to the next. They are a perfect target for the dumping of emotional baggage, and they take it daily. The fact that gentler staff sometimes come into their lives becomes immaterial when they are being crushed so regularly by bullying staff. The thought that these children will ever have a sense of identity, self worth and self respect is a futile dream under this system.
The prospect of leaving the children is looming and we're both going to find it really hard. It's slightly helped by the fact that we haven't really become a regular feature in these children's lives, switching our attention amongst different groups and regularly disappearing to Ryazan, that in a few days they will have forgotten us at a conscious level. We're not going to be leaving emotionally confused children as I thought we might at the beginning of the trip. We will be the ones to be doing the 'missing' - not them, I hope. The reams and reams of video tape might help slightly, but it won't replace the priceless welcome they give us everyday. They're part of our family now. And it's going to be impossible to put their future out of our minds. Just at this moment, a very large suitcase, preferably on wheels, seems the most favourable option........!
On a practical level, the housekeeper announced proudly last week that Iona and I had grown fat!! Under Ludmilla's stout supervision of our diet (the cook! And yes, she looks exactly as you have just pictured her!). Our palates are now struggling with the daily diet of cold meat and rice balls and greasy soup, but Iona had an absolute brainwave and we've now started to smuggle in tomato ketchup in a rucksack - delicious! It made our eyes water the first time, as all our taste buds leapt back from dormancy into action!! Oh my it was good! We have to use a lot of bread to wipe the plates spotless to disguise our tracks, but it's worth the extra spare tyres round the waist! Well, I must close here, but will try and send a last circular before we head back to Moscow. I'm thinking about you all a lot and sending you loads of love Sarah xxx
17th July 2002
The cycle seems to be slowly coming full circle. We're now in the slightly surreal situation of being back in Moscow in the same hotel as two months ago, looking out on the same Revolution Square, yet having had a life-changing experience. This has been, without any shadow of a doubt, the hardest, most challenging thing I've ever chosen to do in my life. I never imagined it would be as hard as it has been, in ways that I never anticipated. What I would really like to do is curl up in a heap and sob and sleep for a week, preferably on top of a cliff by the sea! Somehow I don't think that life will let me do this! Our goodbyes to the children were inevitably hard. I'm trying to convince myself that most of them won't have understood what was going on...but a couple of the older boys clearly knew. I had to make a run for it to hide my tears from them and later found Iona lurking at the bottom of the stairs doing the same. They are our family now. It's hard leaving them knowing that it will be a very long time before anyone hugs them again, or looks deeply into their eyes and shares a smile or rolls around on the grass having a tickle fight. It's hard to know that Serioja is moving orphanages in September - who will giggle at his antics instead of grabbing him by the ear and holding him under a tap until he can't breath? I want to know that someone is holding Misha tightly and giving him the attention he craves through his hitting and general violent behaviour. Will Rosa's spirit be nurtured or crushed? At only 18 months old, it's hard to tell. I'll miss my attention being fixed permanently at a point two feet from the floor. I'll miss the little warm bodies jostling for attention around my knees, or the hands going up my shorts! Anything for attention and ownership of us! And the little heads being forced between the knees was always a good way of immobilizing us. They all seem a long way away now.
When we returned to Ryazan last week, we spent a morning in the Baby Home where our children live for the rest of the year. And where another 110 children live. Perhaps I was tired. Perhaps I was hormonal. But I found it infinitely harder than going round any other baby home at the beginning of our visit here. Every baby we saw had sodden "nappies" - for nappies, read rags. No child was played with. The only staff interaction was the feeding process. We had seen this before, but I think I managed to convince myself that perhaps we had just come at an inopportune time and that they might play with them later...or simply smile at them, perhaps? Now I know that this never happens. It wasn't bad timing. From each group, there were always half a dozen kids just lying in their cots, no toys, nothing to look at. Waiting.
Then we met Anya. And how I got through that I've no idea. Severe quadraplegic Cerebral Palsy, like Ellie and all her friends. Three and a half years old. As thin as a rake. A frail, blonde little girl with long curly eyelashes, covered with red blotches that looked to me like the marks of malnourishment. There's a flicker of a smile, an acknowledgement of our presence, a faint turning of the head towards my hand stroking her arm. Almost imperceptible responses. The staff are surprised at our interest in her. "Physically and mentally profoundly disabled" we're told. "But you never know how much she might understand" tries Iona. "No. She's mentally disabled. She understands nothing" is the reply. The staff member tells me she doesn't have epilepsy. In fact, she says, none of the children in the baby home have epilepsy. The children are too young to have epilepsy, which doesn't develop till they're older, apparently. I bite my tongue.
Anya was the hardest little being that I've had to meet on this trip. I could have picked her up and sobbed for her, for Ellie, for all the children who have no voice in the world. Anya will spend her day lying in a cot, staring at the cracked paint on the ceiling. She has no future, we're told. I know this already. But when you meet children who you know may not see out the winter, ...and yet who could.... Last night we spent in the company of a couple who have been working in an orphanage in Moscow for children with profound disabilities - those children who have been deemed ineducable. They started volunteering in the orphanage 6 years ago and have now transformed it. We had to sit through photos and videos, showing the appalling conditions that they found. Kids like Ellie. Emaciated, as though from a concentration camp. Never picked up. They lay in bed all day with no nappy, just a sheet drawn up between their legs. They're fed lying down. In one 6 month period, 25 children died. It was the responsibility of the other kids to take out the dead children on a stretcher to the incinerator in the ground of the orphanage. They had video footage of this happening. It's hard to hear. Sorry. But it was harder to see. The cook was only paid $40 per month so stole food for her family from the allocation for the orphans. Only 6 years ago, and only 20 miles outside Moscow. This group has transformed this orphanage. And there must be other groups doing the same in other places. But in how many? And are they working yet in the orphanage that Misha, Pasha, Andrei, Roma and Ksusha will go to?
So many questions. So much to do. So much to tell you all. I just can't believe it's all coming to an end. I must close now as I have last chores to do before we leave. I'm really looking forward to seeing you all, and catching up with all your news too! Thanks for bearing with all these long monologues! All my love and hugs Sarah xx