01-11-2007 - Traces, n. 10

Examples for All

Where Hope Lives
In Novosibirsk, Siberia, AVSI’s work saves young mothers and their children from despair by taking them and their deepest need seriously

by Paolo Perego

The Leninsky district is an old working-class suburb. Under the regime, Novosibirsk was a big industrial city of the Soviet Union. Today, the buildings that were the homes of thousands of workers are mostly crumbling. The fall of the Berlin Wall coincided with drastic cuts at work and the decline of the district, today mainly inhabited by immigrants from the former Soviet provinces. To survive, many of them have to work at more than one job. The children leave school early and you see them playing in the streets, amidst the illegal stalls set up at every corner.
Three or four years ago, in the streets of this neighborhood you could have met a girl, Îemilya, with a leaflet in her hand, looking around, lost. She was already some months pregnant. She wanted to have the child; the address on the leaflet was her last hope before getting an abortion. She was born in a village in northern Siberia, to a troubled family of alcoholics. When she was 5, she was sent to an orphanage; at 16 she moved to Novosibirsk. She attended a vocational school, qualified as a plasterer, and found a job. She rented her first room with her wages. And then she met a man, eventually the father of her child, who shared her room because it cost too much for her to pay on her own. But when she got pregnant, the man cleared out. At the advisory bureau, they told her about a place and wrote the address on the leaflet they handed her: “Golubka House.” In the middle of the district there’s a red brick building. In it there’s an apartment where some young mothers live together–Golubka Mothers’ House. Îemilya was welcomed into the house. Vanya was born a short while later and, after staying there some time, she met, as they say in Novosibirsk, “her prince,” and decided to marry. She organized her wedding reception at the Mothers’ House, because she really considered it her home.

A flower in the desert
Golubka House is a flower in the desert. It is an objective point of hope, an innovation in Novosibirsk, not only for Îemilya, but for everyone else. How can there be such a deeply human place in a town like that?
The house is one of the projects of the Maksora organization, which, since 2000, has been working in the Siberian town. Maksora is an NGO that largely promotes social and educational projects in collaboration with AVSI. The story of Golubka began about ten years ago. In 1995, a Franciscan missionary, Father Guido, discovered the very large number of pregnant young women, alone and poor, who were deciding to have abortions. Father Guido bought a house, welcomed the young mothers, but realized it was not enough to give them a roof over their heads. He turned for support to AVSI, through Rosalba, a volunteer with the Italian association who then set to work in the city. This was the origin of Maksora, and the Golubka House project followed immediately after. In recent years, the House has hosted over 50 young women with their children. Its purpose is to reinsert young mothers into society through support which is both material and educational, enabling them to attend vocational courses and get jobs.
“We work closely with the Novosibirsk social services,” says Rosalba. “Usually they refer unmarried mothers in difficulty who for various reasons need accommodation and help. The alternative is to have an abortion or give up their children.” She’s the director of the project. Working with her are Anastasia, a psychologist and education specialist who runs the house, and Vladimir, the administrator, who helps the women face the paperwork and tackle the bureaucracy. Then there are Marya and Lena, who look after the children. Marya is in charge of the nursery. Lenya’s task is to introduce the children first into the nursery and, now that the first guests have grown older, into elementary school. There is Evghenya, who teaches the mothers to cook, look after the home, and do the shopping and mending. And then the three babushke, the volunteer grandmothers who take turns sleeping at Golubka House, playing with the children and helping their mothers. The girls can stay in the house for 18 months, during which time they are assisted in looking after their children and in the search for a steady job and a place to live. The children are placed in nurseries that have an arrangement with the home while their mothers attend courses in vocational education.
The stories of these Golubka House women are a chronicle of difficulties: one was abandoned by her family, another by her partner, another was raped, another lost her job and her place in a hostel because of the pregnancy. There are stories of alcohol, of family violence… Natalia is 24. She got pregnant and, having no money, she was forced to leave her son, Petya, at an orphanage; she hoped to find work to be able to care for him herself. But upon her return, the child had been “promised” to other parents. Natalia turned to the social services, who advised her that Golubka House could help. “We have succeeded in bringing the little one here,” says Anastasia. “He was already 4 or 5 months old. Natalia stayed with us a year. Meanwhile, she attended evening school and found a job and accommodation.” Now she and Petya live alone, but they often see the social workers, partly through the state-run nursery she takes her son to, where Maksora works. Wasn’t it enough for Natalia to have a roof over her head? “Golubka House is not meant to be a refuge,” they explain, “because the real problem of the people we are helping is educational. If we are to really help them, accommodation is not enough.” In short, the home provides comprehensive assistance, an embrace that goes to the roots of their need. It is the gaze that is born from the Christian proposal. “I do not know how to say it otherwise,” confesses Rosalba. “It is a passion, a passion for man born from the passion that someone else had for me.” One thing is certain: there is nothing else like it in Novosibirsk.

“Sveta” and the others
Things do not always turn out for the best. It calls for a lot of patience to help these young women. Svetlana left Vladivostock when she was 26 and her family situation was very complicated. On arriving in Novosibirsk, she was homeless. She went to live with a group of people, one of those shared apartments where the rent is low. Among the other tenants was a man from Tajikistan, by whom she had a son, Omar. Her situation became critical after the man was arrested. She moved into Golubka House and received assistance, but her stay became very delicate because of the record of the father of her child.
She succeeded in winning a competition for entry to the hairdressing academy. She was very clever, and showed it by dressing Anastasia’s hair on her wedding day. She left the home but was back soon after, still needing help. She was unable to find accommodation and risked becoming homeless again. Today, “Sveta” is independent, living alone with Omar, who attends the nursery.
We could go on with the stories of Elya, Valia, Katia, Olya, Lyuba, Tamara... Moving stories, which give a very clear idea of the real need for a place like Golubka in a city that has 35,000 young mothers out of a total of 1,400,000 inhabitants, and where the number of neglected children (“social orphans”) more than doubled in the nineties. Some deeply disturbing estimates suggest that in Russia, 70% of pregnancies end in abortion, for a total of about six million unborn children.

A real response
“We want the welcome we offer to be a real response to the need we encounter,” say Rosalba and Anastasia. “Living in the home should not be a happy interval in the wretchedness of ordinary life.” For this reason, the tasks of the social workers extend outside Golubka House, through a consultancy (with about a thousand contacts to date) and the continuing relationship with former guests of the home, as they explain: “The social workers continue to keep in touch with the mothers in their new life after their stay here. They visit them regularly, supporting them in the struggle with everyday life.” Besides this, all the children who have passed through Golubka House are covered by the AVSI “Distance Support” program. And the former guests also sometimes use their experience to help the new arrivals.
“Stories of another world...” is the title of the AVSI “Tents 2007–2008” (see box), a fundraising effort for the Golubka House, among other beneficiaries. The results of the House’s work are so striking that even the city has recognized the value of Golubka and supports it financially, taking over certain running costs. It has also drafted an agreement that facilitates the insertion of the babies of the young women staying at Golubka into the city’s kindergartens. It is now considering giving the association a new home to manage (negotiations are still under way)–“a new, larger building with a garden around it, to which Golubka could move.” For Novosibirsk, it will be another opportunity for an encounter with a different humanity. More “human.”