Street Children in Perm, Russia
Children and youth, Poverty and social injustice - European Solidarity Corps & European Voluntary Service
It would be hard to push the borders of EVS much further than Russia's Perm region, which lies over one thousand kilometers east of Moscow, in the western foothills of the Ural mountains, the traditional geographical frontier between Europe and Asia. This seemingly remote region is home to almost 3 million inhabitants. One third of these live in the city of Perm itself, a sprawling town which was founded nearly 300 years ago, but much of whose history remains secret.
In Soviet times, Perm, with its harsh climate and isolated location, was often designated as a place of political exile, and conservative estimates suggest that at the peak of Soviet repression (1929-1953), over half a million people here were or became victims of political persecution. During the second world war, much of Russia's heavy industry, including military industry, was relocated to the region, and as a result Perm was a closed city throughout the Soviet period. Even now, almost twenty years since the Soviet Union was dissolved, many people in the town and region have never left the Russian Federation, and are surprised to meet people from foreign countries here, and to find out that there has been a steady stream of long- and short-term volunteers arriving in Perm since the mid-90s.
Many of these volunteer experiences have been made possible by the youth branch of Memorial, an international human rights organisation founded in Perm in the 1980s with the aim of rehabilitating the victims of political repression. By now, Memorial has become a touchstone for voluntary organisations in the city, with many NGOs being founded and staffed by former Memorial volunteers and staff. These tireless activists have earned Perm the title of Russian Capital of Civil Society. It was through Youth Memorial, which, among its many activities, coordinates international voluntary exchanges, that my EVS placement in the local children’s charity Love’s Bridge was organised.
Founded by a group of international volunteers in the late 1990s, the initial goal of Love’s Bridge was to provide shelter and sustenance for the city’s hundreds of street children, who were living in basements and sewers, begging at the markets, sniffing glue, abusing other drugs and alcohol, and also living in high risk of contracting HIV. Over the years, the number of homeless children has been vastly diminshed and Love’s Bridge now runs two daytime drop-in centres for local youth, who can attend courses in independent living and social skills, receive career guidance and a confidence boost, as well as develop their interests and talents such as art, theatre, languages, journalism, technology and sport. Many of these children and teenagers come from broken homes, are living on the poverty line, and are considered to be ‘at risk’ – of dropping out of school, of running away from home, of becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol, of being exposed to HIV/AIDS, of being physically or sexually abused, of ending up in the city’s juvenile detention centre or simply on the streets. Many of the young men and women who drop into the centre from time to time for a cup of tea and a chat are former street children, some of whom lived for several years in the Love’s Bridge shelter, and who are now trying to keep their lives on track.
Volunteering at Love’s Bridge is a full-time committment – EVS volunteers can expect to work up to five days a week alongside professional Russian social-workers and psychologists, who are very welcoming of fresh energy, new ideas, candid opinions, and just moral support in this exhausting but satisfying work. It’s not just the staff who appreciate your presence – despite their carefree attitude, the kids who come most frequently to the centres (some are there every single day) grow very attached to the foreign volunteers, who are valuable role models and friends as well as figures of authority, whether or not they speak the same language. Long-term volunteers are encouraged to develop their own projects with the kids and receive plenty of support from the staff in planning these projects and realising their aims.
Staff and volunteers at Love’s Bridge and Memorial form a ready social network for incoming volunteers, and there’s plenty to do in Perm, from seeing the ballet in one of the city’s historic theatres to spending an afternoon cross-country skiing. Although the city seems relatively undeveloped at first glance, Perm has any number of theatres and cinemas, as well as some interesting museums and art galleries, plus skating rinks and ski centres in winter and the opportunity for rafting and hiking trips in summer, not to mention summer camps at Perm-36 – Russia’s only Gulag museum, situated at a former prison camp outside the city. However, in the winter months, when the temperature can – and frequently does! – drop well below minus twenty degrees, it can often be more tempting just to sit in a friend’s kitchen, drinking tea and discussing Russian history, politics and culture, as well as lighter matters.
Volunteers arriving in Perm should expect to face culture and climate shock, escpecially if it’s your first time in Russia! However, doing your EVS here affords you a lot of space in which to further your knowledge and develop your skills and experiences – of Russian culture and of working in the NGO sector, and although the placement is best suited to highly-motivated and independent individuals, you are supported every step of the way.
Sinead Walsh, Russia (2009)