Russian children feel emotional hunger

Date: 1999-01-01

By Sarah Larson, Dispatch/Argus Staff Writer

SCHELKOVA, Russia -- Children at a temporary orphanage gather to perform a variety show in a small dining room still fragrant with borscht. The children -- dressed in nice, well-fitting Western clothes -- stand along one wall while director Ina Kuranova explains the program.

Dasha, 5, starts getting nervous about singing for all the people sitting in chairs along wall opposite her. Her lower lip begins to shake, but then 11-year-old Genya slips an arm around her shoulder and whispers in her ear.

``I look after her when she gets scared,'' Genya said later through a translator.

With no real family, children at some centers create family groups of their own. Some Western-thinking directors encourage such bonding by keeping siblings together and mixing up age groups, said Kerry Marks, director of Christian World Adoption's Russia program.

When they do get adult visitors, the children are happy to latch onto anyone they can and sad to watch them leave. Quad-Cities volunteers discovered that heart-rending experience in February.

Children at a Znamenka temporary orphanage crawled over one another to get to Terri Gleize's and Karen Paytash's sides. They fought desperately to hold the volunteers' hands.

``You only have two hands, and this is a time I wish I had eight,'' Mrs. Paytash said. ``If two kids had my hands, the others would cry.''

Children at a home for abandoned children under age 5 stared at Roger Johnson, of Fulton, when he walked in the door. They pointed at his beard and ran over to sit on his knee.

``When I held them, I remembered my own children pulling on my beard, and it just struck a place in my heart,'' Mr. Johnson said later. ``Some of these kids have never even seen their fathers, and they are all cared for by women. They were just so thrilled to have the attention.''

A boy at a children's residential medical treatment center in Oryol ran up to Eric Misfeldt, of Davenport, and asked him to be his daddy. A 3-year-old girl named Nastia called NewsChannel 8 anchor Jacqueline Getty mama.

``What do you say to that?'' Mr. Misfeldt asked, visibly moved.

Calling visitors or teachers mother and father is an outward sign of the children's emotional hunger, said Raisa Trubina, director of an Oryol temporary shelter.

``These are difficult cases to deal with, and they stay here all the time,'' Mrs. Trubina said. ``We have children who do not have contact with their parents, for whatever reason, so they are stressed. Any child taken from familiar surroundings and family will go through emotional trauma.''

Children at all the centers the Quad-Citians visited reveled in simple pleasures, as Pat Herath, of Moline, found when she pulled out a bottle of bubbles at the medical residential center in Oryol.

Five young boys crowded around Mrs. Herath as she blew bubbles in a glistening stream. Soon, all 15 children in the room were stretching to reach the bubbles before the shining spheres burst on their fingertips.

Nurses and social workers at the center looked on, smiling at seeing the children so happy. The staff at this center treated their children very kindly and thanked Mrs. Herath and Mr. Misfeldt profusely for the time they spent playing with the children.

They were also deeply grateful for the suitcases full of clothes, gloves, hats, toys, quilts and toothbrushes the Quad-Citians brought.

The children's emotional needs often are equaled by their physical needs. The August devaluation of Russia's currency, the ruble, blew budgets into dust. Many children's centers have trouble affording food and must rely on donations of clothing and footwear.

Children at the Znamenka center were dressed especially badly. Young boys wore shirts buttoned tightly to their necks. The girls' dresses were either too big or too small. Their underwear was nearly ripped to shreds. Their shoes were so broken and full of holes that they fell off when the children tried to run.

School-age children at a temporary center in Friazino, near Moscow, suffered the same indignities. The only indoor shoes 13-year-old Sveta had were a pair of rickety, pink high heels with several holes in the toes.

``We are very grateful you've brought so many things with you, because many children come here without them,'' said medical center director Elena Chuckontzeva, as tears glistened in her eyes. ``We can't buy clothes for the children, but we can give them the warmth of our souls and the warmth of our hearts.''

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