My Journey by Rae Hussey – Chapter 4

As I questioned friends about the whereabouts of orphanages, it became very apparent that nobody knew where, or how, to find one. Yes, they did have telephones, but there are not many telephone directories available. I learned when visiting Moscow once, that there are about ten million people in that city, so probably around 2 million telephones. The government printed 22,000 telephone directories annually. I suspect that Minsk was the same; so finding a telephone directory was almost as difficult as finding an orphanage. Yes, there is a street directory of Minsk, but orphanages are not marked. Yes, there are several government departments which deal with orphanages, but the official line is that there are no orphans in the country hence there is no information forthcoming. So, whatever we tried, we drew a blank. I continued to pray.

Years later, we were given the address of an orphanage, quite near to our home in Minsk, and asked to visit to participate in a program for Easter. We drove around and around the lanes between the apartment buildings, but couldn’t find that orphanage. We stopped people and asked. No one knew. We questioned people going into an apartment building, but they knew nothing. It turned out that the orphanage was actually next door to their apartment block, but they didn’t know.

One day, in the depths of winter, we were waiting at a bus stop in a quiet back street of the city. A young man and an older woman approached, obviously also coming to catch the bus. My interpreter recognised the young man as Kolya, whom she had met at a camp whilst interpreting for a visiting American team. She chatted to him as we got on the bus, and eventually he introduced us to the woman with him. She told us she had just been at a government department, organising work papers for Kolya as he would soon be old enough to leave the orphanage where he lived. Why was she organising his papers? Because she was one of the assistant directors of the orphanage where he lived.

“Would you like to visit us?” she asked. Would we? I had prayed for this opportunity for more than a year. We quickly planned a time for a visit, and they were gone. The Lord had given us a short window of opportunity and we had been able to make use of it. The orphanage was actually in a country town, a couple of hours drive from our home. Our first visit was to be to the home of Olga, the woman we had met. We learned a lot about country towns on that visit. She lived in a fairly old apartment, with no heating, no hot water and no elevators. Apparently most apartments in country towns are like that. Water for cooking and washing must be heated. People bathe by visiting a ‘banya’ once a week. We later found that the orphans also bathed that way. They marched in groups to the banya for a weekly wash, even though there were showers in the orphanage. I suspect the banya was a cheaper option than firing up heating for the showers. Communal bathing is certainly the accepted thing.

Olga had talked with the director of the orphanage before our visit, and had arranged for us to visit the orphanage at a later date. I had learned enough of the culture to know that I should carry gifts on a first visit, so we did. In the following years we took things like a car boot full of toilet paper, cartons of sanitary items for the girls, clothing for all the children and stationery items for the beginning of the school year. On our first visit we took gifts from Australia for the director. There are times when we meet people, and we just ‘click.’ Our first visit with Lena, the director, was one such time. We seemed to have known each other for ages, and chatted like old friends. Lena had been the director of this particular orphanage for just a few years, and had done amazing things to improve the lot of the children in her care. She had managed to scrounge gifts of building materials from local businesses, and had renovated the worst parts of the very old concrete orphanage building. She had managed to find gifts of clothing for the children, and each was warmly and cleanly clothed. She had managed to provide good, wholesome food for the children, who all appeared to be remarkably healthy. We were impressed with our first visit inside an orphanage.

Orphanage childrenOver the ensuing years, we became involved with around fifteen different orphanages, and found that this was not the norm. Often children were hungry, and their clothing was not adequate. Buildings were in various states of disrepair, some of them being downright dangerous. Usually this was not the fault of the director. Sometimes it was the fault of local authorities, who did not provide adequately for the orphanage, even though it was part of their responsibility to do so. Sometimes it was just the distance of the orphanage from a city. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ was often the cause of the plight of the children.

Sometimes it was the fault of staff, who stole from the children and the establishment. We knew a young lady who worked in the kitchen of an orphanage. She described for us the coat the head of the kitchen had made for herself. It was a wide ‘swing’ coat, with lots of plastic-lined pockets sewn into the lining. In these pockets she carried home meat and vegetables, stolen from the kitchen. How tempting to ‘dob her in’; but that would have meant our friend would have lost her job, leaving her with no chance of replacement or advancement. Life is not always black and white is it? Often we found grey areas, where there seemed to be no right course of action.

Our first visit did not include visiting with the children, although we were taken into their classrooms to watch classes in progress. But, it whetted our appetite to become involved in the lives of these children, who, through no fault of their own, had either been abandoned by one or both of their parents, or by their extended family. Most children living in orphanages are not technically ‘orphans.’ Often they are children who have been removed from their parents’ care because of abuse or alcoholism. In Australia those children would be placed in foster families. In communist countries, they are placed in orphanages. Seldom is a child placed in an orphanage because both of the parents are deceased.

On our next visit we met one family of children who had lost their mother in a car accident. Their father had cared for them for some years, but eventually he remarried, and his new wife did not want the children. We were there the day they arrived, and witnessed the trauma of children abandoned by a parent, left to the care of the State. They did not realise, but if they did have to live in an orphanage, they were at least in the best one we ever saw. We watched Lena, the director, care for them in an extraordinarily tender manner.

One of our dreams of being involved in an orphanage was to be able to spend a week with the children during the winter school holidays, running a ‘camp’ for them. This was not a plan to share on our first visit, but we began to work to win the trust of the director. Friends in Australia began to work to help us. A group of ladies collected clothing and toys suitable for the children we were getting to know. Every few months, suitcases and cartons of clothing began arriving at our apartment. I did not know that this was illegal, so happily shared with anyone who would listen, what we were doing to help orphans. The boxes grew in size, until even bicycles were arriving in the post office van. What a challenge to fit them all into our apartment, and then to transport them in our little VW Golf to the orphanage. Often we hired a van to help us carry the goodies out of town.

We were beginning to build relationships with individual children who were always happy to see our car arriving. Sergei always seemed to be waiting near the front door, even when he should have been in class. Orla seemed to manage a visit to the toilet just as we were passing by. Katya seemed to bring messages to the director from her teacher whenever we were in the office. Rita’s smile always brightened our visits. Aloysha and Vladik seemed to have lost their hearts to my interpreter. We talked with friends in Australia who wanted to join a team to work in the orphanage during the school break, and decided it was the Lord’s time for us to take the next step – to ask for permission to run a camp.

– Rae