Tech Schools for Russian Orphans: Failing the Grade

Cristi Hillis

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 16 (Spring 2008): 10-11.

Unprepared for Life

If life inside Russian tech schools is difficult, then life once students leave is even harder, particularly since Russian orphan graduates usually do not possess the skills or the drive necessary to survive and succeed in life on their own. (Editor’s note: PTU, the Russian acronym for tech schools, is no longer being used to designate these institutions.) Though tech schools train orphans (with varying degrees of success) in a given trade, they do not teach basic life skills such as cooking, navigating public transportation, or renting a flat. In tech schools orphans have many of their basic physical and security needs met, but once they leave, they suddenly find themselves on their own, having to care entirely for themselves.

 The Problem of the Propiska

One of the biggest problems for Russian orphans after leaving tech schools concerns the issue of propiska, the basic document in a system that requires everyone to register their legal residence. In Russia, if people desire to move, they must register in the new location by means of a tedious, bureaucratic process. People can apply legally for a job or buy an apartment only in the location in which they are registered. The issue of registering and changing propiska is difficult for average, educated Russians; but for orphans who have never been trained in how to navigate the waters of the Russian bureaucratic system, it can be almost impossible.

The registration system is critical for Russian orphans because many of them come from small, remote villages, with registration documents that limit their options. Once orphans graduate from tech schools, the registration law forces them to return to the villages in which they were born. This presents enormous problems for orphans because many of them were taken from their villages in the first place because of alcoholic or abusive parents. Since 95 percent of Russian orphans have a living parent, many of them find their parents once they return to the villages. Frequently, however, the reunion is not pleasant. A tragic but common example is Vova (not his real name), an orphan I met in a city in southern Russia.

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Vova’s bright eyes glimmered as he recounted the story of his first time going ice fishing with his brother as a child. In 2004, at age 22, he was one of the oldest orphans at the tech school, getting ready to graduate with a degree in woodworking. He desired to move to St. Petersburg to try to find work there, but due to the propiska system, he had to move back to his village of birth and registration. Years ago, Vova had run away from the village to an orphanage in an attempt to escape his abusive, alcoholic father. He knew that upon graduation he would have to return to that same village, where there were few jobs and no one to take him in.

When I returned to Russia in the summer of 2005, I went back to visit the orphans I had gotten to know in 2004. However, I could not find Vova. When I asked his friend, Ira, what happened to him, her face grew somber and her voice lowered: “Well, did you know that he had to go back home?” I nodded, and she continued. “He went back to his father, and his father did not want him. His father beat him again. So Vova ran away, but he had nowhere to go. Three days later they found him frozen by the side of the road.”

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Unfortunately, Vova’s situation is not entirely unusual. The propiska system forces orphans to return to dying villages where neither jobs nor human support systems await them. In the villages, many of them turn to alcohol or commit suicide. Others stay illegally in the cities, often resorting to lives of crime. It is true that the propiska system affects not only orphan graduates, but all Russians who desire to move to a new location. Since Russia is such a vast territory, the propiska system is to the Russian government’s advantage as a means of keeping track of the country’s population. But for orphans it is a particular problem because it forces them back into unhealthy and even dangerous situations.

Though a serious problem, the propiska system is not the only difficulty that orphans confront once they leave tech schools. Another important issue concerns housing. By law, the Russian government is required to give graduating orphans a stipend and provide them with a place to live (which is much more than most governments do for their orphans). Many orphans already have apartments in their name left to them by deceased family members, such as grandparents. However, these apartments are often in small villages and in such rundown condition that they are uninhabitable. One of the orphan graduates I work with has an apartment in her name, but it burned down years ago. Nevertheless, according to her documents, she has an apartment in her name and because of this nonexistent apartment, the bureaucracy has not provided her with another place to live.

Non-Governmental Organizations Attempting to Make a Difference

With over 15,000 graduates leaving orphanages each year, the government faces a formidable task in its attempt to address the individual needs of this vulnerable population. Recent years have seen a steady rise in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals working with orphans in Russia. However, the majority of NGOs, including faith-based organizations, working with orphans in Russia and Eastern Europe focus on young children and those still living in orphanages. Very few groups are attempting to provide orphan graduates living in tech schools with the love, esteem, and drive that they will need to survive. As project coordinator for the CoMission for Children at Risk (a networking organization serving over 400 NGOs working with orphans in Russia and Eastern Europe), I have had the privilege of seeing firsthand what is being done (and what is not being done) for orphans living in tech schools in Russia.

Those NGOs in Russia that do attempt to assist orphan graduates employ a variety of approaches. Some offer mentoring programs similar to Big Brother/Big Sister programs in the United States. Others offer drop-in centers where orphan grads may spend their afternoons and stay out of trouble. Still other agencies have established live-in programs, the most comprehensive option of all.

Spoken For International Youth Outreach sponsors Broken Dancers, a unique mentoring program working with older Russian orphans. American Scott Werntz, visiting Russia in 2001, saw an orphan boy doing complicated break-dancing. He was so impressed and intrigued that over the next few years, he gathered a team of Russian staff to teach break-dancing to teenage orphans in tech schools. In addition to break-dancing lessons, staff members have the opportunity to build relationships of trust with orphans and to get involved in their lives. In the past few years, Scott Werntz has been able to further broaden the horizons of orphan teens by bringing orphan break-dance troupes to the United States to share their stories in high schools and churches.

 Broken Dancers staff members often develop relationships with younger orphans and then continue their mentoring as the children graduate out of the government system. For orphans, this is a wonderful opportunity to have someone consistently involved in their lives, someone whom they know they can depend upon and go to for support and love.

 Live-In Centers

Both secular, non-profit organizations, as well as faith-based organizations, run orphan care drop-in centers. In St. Petersburg, a secular agency, Doctors of the World (DOW), runs a drop-in center that provides medical care for orphans and street children, from basic bathing of sores to extensive treatment for HIV-positive orphans. In addition to medical care, Doctors of the World staff provide warm and loving care in their efforts to meet the needs of at-risk youth. Additionally, Doctors of the World has outreach workers who spend three afternoons a week on the streets of St. Petersburg, getting to know street children, letting them know about the medical assistance that is available at the Doctors of the World drop-in center. I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with DOW outreach workers and was very impressed with the rapport they had with street youth.

Hand of Hope (name changed for security reasons) is an example of a Christian organization that runs both a drop-in center and live-in programs in Russia. Its drop-in center operates daily from 3 to 11 p.m., providing safe activities for at-risk orphan graduates. Hand of Hope does not offer the medical assistance that Doctors of the World provides, but it does offer spiritual counseling and guidance. Since tech schools do not offer students religious education, many orphans begin to explore faith for the first time at Hand of Hope. Students are invited, but not required, to participate in Bible studies and to attend a local church. Hand of Hope staff, including four Russians and one American, focus on loving and helping orphans, regardless of their religious views. Every evening different students cook dinner for 30 to 60 at-risk youth who come to the drop-in center. This provides orphans with essential life skills of cooking and budgeting money in grocery shopping. Staff members also invite orphans to their homes on weekends and generally provide the love, care, and support that are missing from their lives. In addition, staff work with local businesses in an attempt to secure jobs for students once they graduate from tech schools. In 2006 Hand of Hope opened a live-in program for a few orphans who were homeless after graduating from tech schools. The majority of these students are doing very well, adjusting to life in a home and holding steady jobs.

Throughout Russia various groups and individuals are running live-in centers for orphan graduates. In St. Petersburg, I visited a Russian Christian woman named Marina who oversees a live-in center sponsored by supporters in the United States. The center provides a home for four girls who otherwise would be living at tech schools. The live-in center provides comprehensive help for these orphans, providing them with a family environment and with long-term care and support. As with Hand of Hope, students living with Marina are invited to join Bible studies and to attend church if they desire. Though live-in facilities are certainly the most comprehensive of all approaches to care for older orphans, unfortunately they are limited based on their high cost and the small number of orphans who can be helped at any one time.

Combatting Indifference

Though many Russians staff non-profit organizations that work with Russian orphans, unfortunately few of these agencies are indigenously Russian. One possible explanation may be that prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian orphans were entirely provided for by the government. By law, if not always in fact, they were supposed to be given an education at a tech school, guaranteed an apartment, and given a job upon graduation. Russians expected the government to provide for orphans. Consequently, today, many Russians still consider it the government’s responsibility to care for the needy. Therefore, few Russians are even aware of the many needs among orphans living in tech schools. (Radio Rossii, Family Radio Journal, Of course, blindness to the needs of orphans and the poor is not just a Russian problem. In the United States many middle class and wealthy people are unaware of the actual needs of the homeless in their own cities or of the single moms living on welfare in trailer parks. When one does not come into contact with destitution and poverty on a regular basis, it is easy to avoid thinking about such problems. And a lack of first-hand acquaintance with need makes it easier not to take action.

However, a volunteer culture of long standing exists in the United States. As a result some people who would not ordinarily come in contact with the poor or orphans on a daily basis are able to meet them through holiday feed-the-homeless events or volunteering in soup kitchens. Unfortunately, in Russia volunteerism is not part of the culture. In a recent survey, “when asked about their attitude toward orphans, out of 1,000 respondents [in downtown Moscow], 999 said the problem had nothing to do with them.” (“Changing Russia’s Approach to Orphans,” Russian News and Information Agency [RIA], 25 April 2007.) Most Russians never come in contact with orphans who have aged out of orphanages, and so the situation seems very distant to them. As a result, most Russians are oblivious to the need.

Though many secular non-profits and faith-based organizations working with orphans in Russia are doing excellent work, their current efforts are miniscule compared to the scale of the problem. The lack of Russian awareness of the orphan situation, as well as the lack of a volunteer culture, only compound the unfortunately low number of people involved in assisting orphan graduates.

Additionally, orphans lack preparation for life once they leave tech schools. When raised in families, children are able to learn life skills directly from their parents, with increasing independence and responsibility as they mature. However, children growing up in institutions are not prepared to take responsibility for themselves once they leave the institutions.

Though organizations in Russia working with orphan grads deserve commendation, the best solution for homeless children would be homes. Increasingly, domestic adoption and foster families are providing homes for orphans in the former Soviet Union. By these means, children are able to grow up in families where it is easier to learn life skills (such as looking people in the eye and being polite to neighbors) as an eight-year-old than as a seventeen-year-old. Domestic adoption and foster care would be by far the best way to keep orphans from ever having to go through the difficult transitions of aging out of the orphan care system. F

Edited excerpts published with permission from Cristi Hillis, “What Do They Need to Survive? Addressing the Needs of Adolescent Russian Orphans,” Senior thesis, Davidson College, 2006.

Cristi Hillis is project coordinator for the CoMission for Children at Risk