From Heartbreak to Hope

Chabad Takes Children Off the Streets

From Heartbreak to Hope

by Rena Udkoff - Russia & Ukraine

December 8, 2016

A Challenging Transition

Raised by a warm and dedicated staff, the children in Chabad’s orphanages are offered comprehensive services to meet their physical, emotional and educational needs. The youngest babies live in beautifully furnished nurseries and are cared for by professional nannies. The older children are fully integrated into the local community, attend local Jewish schools, benefit from personalized homework help and dozens of extracurricular afterschool activities. Every day, the 80 boys and girls living in Odessa’s Mishpacha orphanages join 620 local Jewish children in Chabad’s schools.

“They learn together with my own children,” says Chaya, a mother of eight. The administration is sensitive to ensuring that the children don’t feel different from the others. “I know each one of these kids on an individual basis. I feel personally responsible to care for their needs and give them a chance at a better future.”

But the obstacles in the way towards that future can be daunting. The children often have difficulty adjusting to their “new world.” Some refuse to interact. Others act out, not understanding where they are or what is happening. “Our staff is ready for it. We have psychologists who works closely with us and make individual adjustment plans for each child,” says Chaya. Children eventually transition successfully, even if it takes as much as six months.

One 9-year-old boy who arrived in Odessa severely malnourished could not hold food down. The orphanage placed him under the care of a physician. “It took us two full months to help him regain normal eating habits,” recalls Chaya. “And this was a boy who came from a home with parents.”

Some, like Anya, come with significant mental and social disorders. It is possible that Anya may have been born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a common and devastating condition caused by a mother’s drinking throughout pregnancy. Working closely with trained professionals, Chabad’s staff slowly nurtured Anya’s development. For years, she clung to every adult who cared for her, calling each one “Mommy.” Indeed, says Chaya, the most difficult part of her job is listening to the babies and toddlers cry for their mothers from their neat row of cribs. “They call all of their caretakers Mama,” she continues. “It breaks my heart.”

In Dnepropetrovsk, Glick says they have also hosted multiple children who suffered from FAS, and that they have been able to address the related issues with varying degrees of success. “While we do everything we can, we do not currently have the infrastructure to care for children with severe disabilities or special needs.” In cases that are beyond their orphanages’ capability, Chabad emissaries work with charitable agencies to facilitate the children’s transfer to institutions in Israel that have the resources to help them.

Teenagers present a greater challenge. Bukiet, who regularly deals with delinquents who steal, lie and hit says that by the time they arrive at Zhitomir’s orphanage, “they’ve endured terrible circumstances and have grown into troubled habits.” She sees 10-year-olds who are addicted to alcohol, 12-year-olds living promiscuously. Zhitomir is known for taking on some of the most difficult cases, accepting children from other Chabad and non-Chabad orphanages, and Bukiet acknowledges that they are usually the child’s last chance. The orphanage works on eliminating addictions, allowing children positive outlets like sports to relieve their aggression and teaching them the basics of socially accepted behaviors.

But, as Chaya admits, “sometimes no matter what we do, the child will not be helped. Nothing is simple for them. They are all survivors.”

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The goal post set by all the Chabad directors is to prepare the children for independent lives beyond the orphanage. Research has shown that children who grow up in foster care and orphanages have difficulty taking responsibility for their own lives. They feel that others should do things for them. Bukiet says that Alumim staff try to empower the children with specially-tailored educational programs, and notes that even simple things like a chore roster or giving the orphans roles of responsibility in the community help children gain a sense of control over their own life. “There is no one hundred percent success, but we see improvement,” she explains. “There are still kids who come back to us years later and need help or have taken steps backward.”

In some cases, there’s little anyone can do to take people off the streets. A ninth grade boy in the Odessa orphanage told Chaya about his nineteen-year-old sister, Nadia, who was left on the streets with her baby, after her husband began a prison sentence. Chabad administrators quickly located the young woman and her nine-month-old daughter, Sarah, and provided her with room and board at Mishpacha. “Nadia had agreed to work in the kitchen and we would provide for all of her and Sarah’s needs.”

But Nadia was an alcoholic. Two months after she arrived, she decided that life in the orphanage was too constraining and she wanted to leave. “It was midnight in the dead of winter and she had nowhere to go,” says Chaya. “She had no food or a coat or even clothes for the baby, so our counselors tried to convince her to stay.” She agreed to stay till morning, and when the sun rose, the orphanage staff bought her a train ticket to Kherson, where her mother lived, packed her some food and clothes and sent her on her way.

Eleven months later, Chaya received a call from a women’s shelter. A homeless Nadia had just given birth to a baby boy and the local authorities wanted to place him and Sarah in a government orphanage. Chaya agreed to take all custodial responsibilities for the children and welcomed Nadia back with open arms.

“This time, she promised to work with us,” the director says. “She had a designated social worker who helped her. We enrolled her in a local trade school and offered her career counseling.” After two months, Nadia announced that she had to travel for one week to take care of government paperwork. Sarah and eight-week-old Avraham were left in Chabad’s care.

When the young mother showed up disheveled six months later, Chaya and others tried to convince her to go into rehab. Nadia refused and left once again soon after. A few months later, a birth center called Chabad to let them know that Nadia had another baby. This time she did not even bother to come in person, and the newborn boy was picked up directly from the birth center by a Chabad staffer who brought him to the orphanage.

This past September, Sarah, dressed in a uniform freshly pressed by her favorite dorm mother, started first grade. Avraham, now three years-old, and his two-year old brother Levi, are thriving in Chabad’s nursery. Levi has never met his mother.

On to a Better Life

In June 2016, ten years after he was first brought into the Chabad orphanage from the hospital ward, Vitaliy graduated high school in Odessa. Upon graduation, he decided to make aliya and start a new life in Israel, like numerous other alumni of Chabad orphanages. Dozens of others go on to universities in Moscow or Kiev, and still others make the transition to prominent yeshivas or seminaries in large Jewish communities overseas.

Bukiet says it is satisfying to see graduates integrate into everyday Israeli society, but notes that oftentimes the orphanage directors receive “no feedback” from their graduates and have no knowledge of their status or well being.

“Every year, when each of our children graduates, it is a struggle to guide them through the next steps of their lives,” says Glick. Some use the newfound freedom to relapse, but a solid eighty percent of orphanage graduates go on to become independent and healthy individuals in normative society. Odessa boasts its own accredited Jewish University that matriculates any orphan graduate who wishes to continue his or her education. In Dnepropetrovsk, many choose to stay and take advantage of the local Jewish community’s robust infrastructure. When couples get married, Glick says, the Jewish community raises money to pay for the wedding and to get the young couple on their feet. “Our relationship doesn’t end because they are now adults,” he continues. “We always try to act as a safety net of sorts.”

Hana from Pervomaisk in the Nykolaiv region, lived at Mishpacha for two years before going on to Chabad of Odessa’s college, where she is studying finance and economics. Despite her short tenure, the 19-year-old, who declined to discuss her background, says that her experience in the orphanage continues to help her “in all areas of life. “Even the smallest communication I had with people there had a great influence on me in general.” She hopes to use the tools she’s gained to build a better future. “I want to connect my future life with this community.”

When he finished eleventh grade—the last year of high school in Ukraine—Elosha moved to Israel and decided to join the IDF. Chabad worked with a high school in northern Israel to transfer David, who was in ninth grade at the time, so that he would not have to be separated from his only brother. Today, Elosha works in advanced computer programming in Haifa. David, who recently completed his own IDF service, works as a freelance photographer. Every summer they return to Ukraine, where they reconnect with the Chabad community that raised them.

Recently, one orphanage alumna approached Bukiet. Basya had graduated nearly four years ago, was established in her career and was now married. She was about to have her first child and couldn’t wait to share her milestone with the Chabad staff who had raised her. “I suddenly understood that you are really my true family,” Basya told Bukiet. “You always told me that, but not until now did I realize that even though it has been years since I lived in the dorm, whenever I need help or want to share good news or anything, this is where I come. I don’t have any parents or anyone else - you are my family. This is my home.”

Update: Shortly after this article was published, the Mishpacha orphanage in Odessa moved into a brand new center. The reconstructed 4-story building hosts a dormitory for the home’s 52 girls on the upper floor, while the other three floors are used for the Jewish elementary school of over 100 pupils, a kitchen & cafeteria complex, and a gym. 

*The last names of children and parents involved with the orphanages have been omitted and some identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy.

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