Since the fall of communism, state institutions in Central Asia have struggled to cope with the thousands of children neglected and abandoned by their parents. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan they are turning to Red Crescent national societies for aid and funding to tackle a growing social problem.
In his military uniform, Aklimomun Esenovich cuts an unlikely figure as a director of a children’s home. But as an employee of the Ministry of Interior, he is charged with running one of Kyrgyzstan’s two “collection centres”, where the authorities hold children found on the streets for 30 days, before either reuniting them with their families or sending them to a state orphanage.
However, with a budget of one dollar a day, he is struggling to feed and clothe the children. The centre in the capital, Bishkek, was designed for 50 boys and girls up to the age of 18 but it often takes in double that number. In the first half of 2006, some 750 children passed through, 200 more than in the same period last year.
“The conditions are extremely poor,” he says, pointing to the outside toilet and dilapidated bath house, where the children only have cold water to wash themselves. “We have few books, beds that are thirty years old and no transport. If a child is ill, we have to take him to the doctor’s by taxi.”
Orphanages across Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Kazakhstan are having to deal with the painful social consequences of the transition from communism to capitalism.
Breaking the taboo
Most of the children come from poor families, where alcohol and drug addiction is rife.
“Until the late 1990’s, no-one talked about this problem,” explains Sholpan Ramazanova, health coordinator for the Kazakh Red Crescent. “Street children were taboo. Over the past few years we have been helping state-run orphanages, running classes for the children, and providing clothes and food as well as funding.”
In the state-run orphanage in Temirtau in central Kazakhstan, the director, Tatyana Reingard is grateful for the Red Crescent’s help. “The state gives us money for 60 pairs of shoes a year, but most children leave after three months to go back to their parents or to another home, so we are constantly asking for more shoes.”
The orphanage was opened in 2000 after many children were discovered sleeping rough on the premises of the town’s main employer, Mittal Steel, from where they were pilfering stock. Reingard says she hopes that by giving the children an education and a trade, they will be able to stop them returning to a life of crime.
With funding from the International Federation, national Societies also run some orphanages themselves. In Almaty, the Spanish Red Cross funds a half-way house for young children up to the age of 8. Seven-year-old year old twins Sasha and Zhenya were found by neighbours, hungry and alone, while their mother worked as a prostitute. The home has traced their father, who came to see them on their last birthday and wants to look after them. Around a third of children are reunited with their parents.
The director of the centre, Ludmilla Baisarova, a kindly and compassionate woman, says children at this age “live with their dreams and hopes” and that often telling the children the truth about their situation “can be too damaging.”
Improving their start in life
The Red Crescent also supports programmes for older children. The national society in the northern city of Kokshetau runs a canteen for children from disadvantaged families, thanks to a grant from the Norwegian Red Cross.
Sixteen-year-old Stanislav, whose mother is alcoholic, often brings other street children to the centre for a hot meal or medical treatment. “Some of them, like Stanislav, have a real chance of making a go of their lives, despite their difficult start,” says Kulyash Karshalova, director of the national society.
“Their home lives can be miserable but many of them don’t want to go into an orphanage either.”
Keeping street children out of harm’s way is a major challenge. Aklimomun Esenovich says that many of the children pass through his home in Bishkek several times. He relates how Stepan, a 12-year-old who looks much older than his years, escaped from his car as he drove him to another centre a thousand kilometres away. Stepan proudly explains that he hitched his way back on that occasion, but that he has escaped countless times.
“Many of these children only know life on the streets and can’t adapt to anything else,” says Esenovich. “All I can do is make sure that their time here is as happy as possible. That is why the help I am now getting from the Red Crescent is so important.”