Vladivostok’s forgotten children

Not many people would make sandwiches for someone who is trying to pickpocket them, but on Christmas Eve 1997 in the middle of a Russian winter, 27-year-old Rachael Hughes found a small hand on her wallet as she tried to put it in her back pocket.

She turned to see an eight-year-old boy cold, hungry and homeless. She bought him something to eat, and as he wolfed it down, she knew that she had to try and help. Not just him, but as many of the forgotten children of Vladivostok's streets as she could.

The following day- Christmas day- Rachael made sandwiches and walked through the city handing out the food to children. Within a month she was feeding thirty children aged between 8 and 15 on a daily basis. She didn't ask for this job, but she's kept it.

Rachael realised she couldn't start something she wasn't going to continue. And as she chewed through her own income to feed the kids, and got down to her last money she met a Russian sailor. He had found out what she was doing and tracked her down. He told her to wait for him on the street and it was cold and she didnt want to. But he convinced her. She waited and he returned and handed her 500 US dollars. Three years previously god had told him to start saving money because he would need to give it to a woman feeding children on the streets.

She realised she was doing what she should be doing.

Fast-forward almost ten years and I am helping Rachael Hughes cart garden pots up to her Onehunga apartment. Seeing she has helped hundreds of streetkids from the eastern corner of Russia find food, solace and a friendly face, the least I can do is lug some gardening gear, and tell as much of her story as possible. Her Auckland home/office is one of her two bases and a far cry from another life she lives. The other is amongst the mean streets of Vladivostok, 9900km away, where temperatures sink to around -20 in winter and where kids as young as five are living on the streets, in the sewers, and with nowhere else to go.

Since making sandwiches in1997 Rachael has busied herself with the founding and running of Living Hope. It's a non-profit organisation which provides assistance to hundreds of the street kids in Vladivostok. They've come a long way. It now has fulltime staff manning a drop-in day center, cafeteria, and a mobile soup kitchen. There is an annual camp trip where the kids are taken away for a break from the harshness of their reality, and Rachael and her team are still working hard on acquiring a fulltime shelter where the kids would have a roof over their head 24/7. It's in the pipeline.

In 1997 when Rachael was being pickpocketed, things were different in Vladivostok. It was backward. There were no ATM's and you couldn't use a credit card. Some attitudes towards the streetkids were of disdain, and the awareness of their plight was minimal. Living Hope has helped make a lot of changes. Awareness has increased.

"The biggest difference between Kiwi street kids and Russian street kids is that Kiwi street kids have a choice. They may have run away from a foster home or an orphanage, but there's always someone to help, if they want it. In Vladivostok these kids don't have a choice. They're five years old or eight years old and they have nowhere to turn except the streets."

Rachael Hughes grew up in Maraitai, Auckland. She went to Howick College and then left to study fashion design. She had her own business making wedding dresses but decided it was time for a change. That was to go and volunteer for the Israeli army.

After that Rachael first went to Russia in 1997 as a volunteer for the Russian Jews helping them repatriate to Israel. Then she went back to Vladivostok to teach English and children bible studies for a year at the local church.

"I essentially went back as a missionary for the church but it's easier to say teaching English because sometimes when people hear the word religious they think you are a fanatic," she laughs. Far from it. This is the only time I hear reference to religion throughout our time together.

She hated Russia at first. The cold was like nothing she had ever experienced and it was a different life all together. Being part Jewish, Rachael came across a lot of anti-Semitic feeling which is still prevalent in parts of Russia. As soon as people found she was part Jewish anti-Semitic signs would appear on the door of the places she lived and animosity from some of the locals wasn't exactly subtle. Further to that, suspicions were raised about her intentions in helping the children.

"People are afraid of what they don't know. And philanthropy and charity and humanitarian aid is not part of the communist Russian culture because everybody had to look after themselves and guard their own back. There'd be no trust. And if people don't really know what you are doing they're skeptical. I've been accused of so many things- people thought if I was feeding kids, there had to be a reason."

She was followed by the KGB and her phones were tapped. Some referred to her as the Mafia Momma and offered theories that she was using the kids she was helping to beg on the streets to get money for her. Some thought she was fattening up the children so she could sell them on the black market for body parts.

"For some reason, from the very first point that I realized I was being followed I found it really funny. Especially when they were trying to intimidate me. I would be more and more amused. I had one day when as soon as I left my apartment- somebody started following me, and I got on the bus, and busses are really crowded and he'd elbow his way to stand right next me. Then I'd head into a department store to look at a pillow and he would be right there looking at pillows. It just amused me."

But she doesn't want to bag the Russian authorities. The government endorses what she does, and they help and she couldn't do it without their support.

"In the nine years I've been there I've seen the change. We've had a lot of people step up and help us. Volunteer their time and their work, and now we are starting to see Russian businesses starting to give. They don't give money but they give food and clothing and more and more people are understanding philanthropy and getting involved in it."

Living Hope is a network that helps streetkids. As simple as that.
As well as trying to provide everyday assistance in the city an annual camp is organised where many of the kids travel about an hour out of the city to an old communist camp and experience being cared for and fed properly. They get to be kids with the games and the activities that are organized, and they are provided with medical checkup and treatment and sexual health check up and treatment. Nine out of ten girls who they see have some kind of STD. It isn't really a surprise seeing that prostitution is so common that it is almost accepted in Vladivostok. And for a twelve year old to be sleeping around, it seems to be no big deal. Sexual morality is different there; Rachael was blown away by it.

"In general, I think because Russians live in such small apartments, the kids don't grow up naive. They're already aware of procreation, and the world around them, because it's happening in the same room as they're living in. There's a huge difference in sexual morality. For a twelve year old to be sleeping around, or working as a prostitute, it isn't as shocking. It's just a part of that life."

Rachael doesn't know how many children she and Living Hope have helped. Any kid that has come through the doors to their drop in centre on a reasonably regular basis, which means more than once, they start a file on them. Photograph, their history, and however they've helped them.

Now, Living Hope has over 580 files, and for every kid who comes through the door, the more they get to know them the more they work with their families. Humanitarian aid is taken to the homes. And then there is work done helping some of the kids who end up in the prisons as well. It's easy to lose track of how many people are being aided, but Rachael Hughes has changed a lot of people's lives.

"There is and there isn't change. In several kids you can see it. You look at a kid and think, for that kid I'd do it all again. Like Tanya that's just graduated from high school. And, we have a lot of kids that come back as adults and say 'Hey look, this is my job, this is my girlfriend, this is my baby. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you.' And that's so satisfying."

If you're born into poverty in Vladivostok, you don't go to school, so education is a luxury. Some of the kids that Living Hope sees never went to school because their parents couldn't afford clothes, shoes or the books that they needed. So Rachael and her team provide things to families to try and get kids into school every year.

But the cycle of street life can kick in. Sniffing glue, opiates, and other drugs are common. Then there is the crime, and getting into prison young.

Kids can be locked up as young as eight, and once you have a criminal record noone will employ you. All because they did something like stealing a mobile phone so they can sell it to get some food for their dinner.

"It's really hard for some of these kids to move on and make anything of their lives. That's where we try to bridge the gap."

Rachael's role is now more about trying to fundraise. She lives between Russia and New Zealand and may spend some time in America in the future as they try and gain financial support there. They have five fulltime Russian staff running the show. Eight part timers. Five volunteers. And on top of that international volunteers come at different times.

Rachael's walked a lonely hard road. She hasn't had a lot of time for a personal life or a partner, but is a firm believer in 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. She's changed a lot since adopting Russia as her other home, her eyes are more open to the world and she lives life.

"There's been so many times I've been ready to give up because it's been so hard. And I've been through so many hard, hard times and thought that I'd never get out of it but it's made me a person that enjoys life now and wants to get the best out of every minute, and enjoys people. I think it's taken my personality to such an extent that I'll never be the same as what I was when I left and I'm really glad that I've had to go through all that crap because I'm a much more content person than I was."

Rachael's goal is to change children's lives. We take for granted that we take a lot for granted. Living Hope taught a sixteen year old to use scissors. On the camp they are giving lessons to teenagers on personal hygiene, showing them how to brush their hair and teeth. Things that we grow up knowing because our parents told us.

"Kids have seven basic rights. Worldwide children have the right to a roof,
food, clothing, education etc. And some of these kids are missing out on all of that. They're not being parented. When a kid is brought into a home in New Zealand they're instantly clothed, they're instantly fed, they're given education, they're given love. Opportunity?

These kids have none of that. They're born into alcoholism and drug addiction. Even if they're born physically healthy they're not necessarily going to get fed every day and they're not necessarily going to have medical treatment when things go wrong. So they're growing up being very self-sufficient. Survivors. Something would happen to these kids and if it happened to me it would knock me for six, and they just deal with it and carry on because they've learnt to, to survive."

A helping hand from a good Kiwi woman sure makes a difference though doesn't it?