Surviving on the Streets of Kyiv: Nadia’s Story

Nadia, 17-year old street child being interviewed by journalist Julia Abibok at the HealthRight International Crisis Center for young girls (Kyiv,Ukraine) Photo: Valentin Khryatych.
  • 29 April 2011

The below feature story is part of a Youth At Risk, a multimedia exhibit curated by UNFPA’s Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The exhibit will be launched during the UNFPA’s regional youth conference “Investing in Youth – Path to Accelerated Development” taking place in Istanbul, Türkiye, 9-11 May 2011.

KYIV, Ukraine --- A year ago, Nadia ran away from her home in a small town in southern Ukraine. Her most recent address: an abandoned building near the centre of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. The building has been reduced to fragments of brick and plaster, broken glass and a thick layer of construction dust bearing traces of rats.

Amid the stench of the scrap heap, the 17-year-old girl shares a small room with her boyfriend, Alex, which is reached through a hole in the wall. Inside, the floor is littered with clothes and shoes.

Recently, they were kicked out by a guard from a posh new building nearby, but they have since returned because they have nowhere else to go.

Hundreds of thousands of street children

Nadia is one of an estimated 120,000 to 300,000 boys and girls in Ukraine who live on the streets, dreaming of a day when they will be able to live a normal life with adequate food, clothing and shelter. She doesn’t want to use her last name, or say what town she comes from, because she has run away.

Nadia’s father died when she was five, leaving her mother to raise three girls on meager welfare payments – about $100 per child – provided by the state. When Nadia was 16, her mother’s income was sharply reduced. Her older sisters had already turned 18, which meant the mother was no longer able to receive state assistance for them.

Poverty forces tough choices

After finishing ninth grade, Nadia dropped out of high school and went to a local technical/vocational school to train as a cook. If she had stayed on for two more years and graduated from high school, she might have had the opportunity to go to college. But since there was no college in her hometown, she would have had to live in another city, and her family didn’t have the money.

At the vocational school, Nadia says, the other students were ‘problem children’ who came from state-run boarding schools and orphanages. Training was expensive at the underfunded school, because the students were expected to buy their own dishes and food for the food preparation courses. Her scholarship was not enough, and her family began to have financial problems. “All the money went to school, and my mom thought I was wasting it,” she says. “The money and the constant conflicts in the family were the main reasons why I ran away from home.”

Kyiv has a population of more than 5 million. Only half of these are local residents; the rest are migrants from small cities and villages. Real estate prices in Ukraine's capital exceed those in European capitals. At the same time, the average monthly salary in Kyiv is about $400 -- just enough to pay for rent and upkeep of a small, one-room flat in the suburbs.

Surviving on the margins

When Nadia came to Kyiv, she first lived in the train station and turned for help to a Christian organization, which provided her with food and clothing. Later, she met Alex, who was renting a room at the time, and she moved in with him. Alex was working at a sawmill in a village near Kyiv. However, the company that employed the young man went bankrupt, and he couldn’t afford to keep the room. Nadia was back on the streets, this time with Alex.

Alex, 19, is also from a small town. An orphan, he has lived on the street since he was eight. Together, they settled in an abandoned house, but soon were discovered by the authorities and taken to the police station.

After that, they lived in a basement, which Nadia describes as ‘normal’ compared to the ruined building where they are now squatting. The basement was occupied by ten other street children.

“One time, an aggressive group of local drug addicts came to our basement, and we barely managed to escape,” she says, recalling the episode as one of the worst in her street life. “I don’t know what would have happened if they found us. A nightmare! After that, the basement was off limits. But the basement was very good, and I miss it.”

Finding support at a crisis centre

Today, Nadia’s dream is to find a job that would enable her to rent a room. Alex, who has no passport or other documents, collects waste paper and scrap metal on the streets to buy them food.

About five months ago, Nadia started going to a newly opened crisis centre for girls and young women run by the non-governmental organization, HealthRight International.

“I come here almost every day to take a shower, wash clothes and eat. They helped me to get a passport. I can also call my mother from here – she doesn’t know where I live. Now it is just a temporary place for me until I find a job,” says Nadia.

The centre provides social, psychological, medical and legal support to more than 300 girls. Anna, a social worker at the centre, says most of the girls come from difficult family situations and live on the streets. Their biggest problem is the lack of housing. “In addition to social support, the girls are getting psychological and legal support,” she says. “We also offer medical examinations and, as a result, many sexually transmitted diseases are discovered and treated. A lot of the girls earn money selling sex.”

Learning to communicate and trust

Many of the young people living on the streets engage in high-risk behaviour and suffer from health problems ranging from malnutrition and HIV infection to severe depression and emotional trauma. Nadia says she has used noninjectable drugs and alcohol, but no longer takes drugs.

“With Nadia our work was aimed at reducing aggression,” Anna says. “When she first came to us, her behaviour was very aggressive, she trusted no one. Now she is a person who can fully articulate her thoughts and say what she wants. Previously, she had problems with that. Perhaps because of this, she had conflicts with her mother. Now she communicates with her mother, she periodically calls her.”

The centre is trying to enroll Nadia in a vocational school, where she would learn a trade for two years. Some of these schools, especially in Kyiv, have their own hostels, and the centre is trying to ensure she will receive a room in the hostel.

Nadia notes that she will turn 18 in August, which may give her more opportunities to find a job. On the other hand, her mother will lose the child welfare subsidy from the state. “If I go back to school,” she says, “the state will continue to pay my mother. This is why I want to go back.”

Dealing with new challenges

Nadia recognizes that she will face new challenges as she tries to adjust to her teachers and classmates but says she has no choice if she wants to help her mother. “When we were young, parents cared about us, and when they are old, we must care about them,” she says.

Nadia’s mother, who has problems with her back and heart, cannot work and has to stay at home.

Nadia worries that she’ll be older than the other students when she finishes school. “I'll just be getting on my feet,” she says. “But it doesn’t scare me. While I study, I will earn money.”

Besides all the difficulties facing Nadia, including going back to school and finding a job and housing, there is another one – Alex. The young man, who supported and protected her for the past year, has given up and does not want to change his life.

“I told him that I'm not going to live in cellars and ruins,” says Nadia. “He used to listen to me, but now he doesn’t like my ideas. He has gotten accustomed to such a life. And I'm just not able to study, work and maintain the two of us.” Nadia says she once asked him whether he would continue to collect paper and metal if they lived in an apartment, and he said yes.

Sustained by poetry – and hope

One of the things that sustains Nadia as she walks the busy streets of Kyiv is her love of literature and poetry.

“I tried to write prose, but prose needs a lot of life experience,” she says. “One day, I think I will write my autobiography. I will write how I rose from the bottom of society to become a real person. I will publish it and earn a lot of money. And I will also tell other girls like myself how to survive. But for now, I just write poetry for myself.”

Despite everything that has happened to her, Nadia, whose Russian name means “hope,” hasn’t given up.

“Frankly, there are very few people whom I trust – basically, my boyfriend and the people in the centre,” she says. “When you are on the streets, you can rely only on yourself. But I still believe there are good people.”

- Yuliya Abibok

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