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Albert Novikov

The sun is shining lazily, drifting across the horizon. Lake Issyk-Kul, like a giant teacup, plunges itself into the quiet valley covered by midget trees and shrubs. Yellow sands line up the shore in even waves. Long board walk intrudes in the body of the lake and loses itself from sight a hundred meters from the shore. Steep mountains surround the lake like a solemn guard squad, tending to the lake since the beginning of time. Their snowy tops as if bow to the beautiful pearl of nature – one of the cleanest and clearest lakes in the world. Barely visible dots of sheep drift alongside steep mountain walls. The wind leathers blue waves and crashes them against the shore.

That year we came to Issyk-Kul by buss – a group of instructors and 30 kids from the local orphanage. I had been preparing the trip for months, wrote a proposal to the World Bank. While being home, I received the news that the grant had been approved and we received the money for that trip. I was ecstatic. I was caught by surprise and next day flew to Kyrgyzstan by a chartered plane.

Everything started one evening, when a group of students gathered to discuss social problems in the community. Among crime and poverty issues one stood up particularly alarming. A local orphanage on the outskirts of Bishkek was severely underfunded. A few groups of students visited the orphanage in the past and shared their impressions with us: extreme poverty, corrupt caregivers, lack of food and clothes. Meagre government funds have been consistently failing to reach the children. Aged from 3 to 18, they were sharing overcrowded army-style barracks. The first visit we made was in the beginning of winter. Little boy dressed in oversized clothes and with several gaping holes in his shoes, rushed to open the gate for us. Either because of shyness or fear, he took off running toward the building and I could see snow flying out of the holes in his shoes. The yard was covered with deep snow and it took us some time to plough through it toward the main entrance.

The second we entered the door, a group of little kids, like sparrows, surrounded us, shrieking, laughing. A little girl grabbed my finger and asked if we had any candy. Her blue eyes and unwashed blond hair made her look slightly older, or maybe it was the tired expression in her eyes. I knew then and there that it was the place to apply our energy, our inclination to bring change. We spent whole evening talking to kids, visiting their rooms, looking at their drawings, playing table games. All of them were asking when their mothers would come to visit and where they had been for so long. Twin boys, both not higher than my waist, were sporting bruises on their faces – they had got in a fight with each other over a crayon.

The rooms were dark, barely heated, and lined up with perfectly made up beds. One thing that was brutally enforced in the orphanage was army-type discipline. Up to this day I am scared to think how it was enforced. Well, I was the outsider and it just increased my resolve to help these kids. The older kids were cold and suspicious, even hostile at first. They were sitting in small groups and surreptitiously and curiously glancing at us. Coming from families of alcoholics, single mothers, drug edicts, criminals, most of them were left on the steps of the orphanage many years ago, but all of them, were waiting for one and only miracle – their mothers visiting them. Many of them spent years trying to make up in their minds how their mothers would look like, painstakingly recreating the first meetings with them, painting their pictures. That was one dream that no harsh reality could ever break for any of them. Later we learned that the older boys would periodically run away from the orphanage to make some money in the local bazaar, mostly by picking pockets, and girls would run away to sell their bodies. Sooner or later, they would be apprehended by the police and returned to the orphanage. One of the little boys told me his story how his mom would periodically take him home, and then get into a drunken binge, start beating him, and he would eventually run away back to the same orphanage.

What cause can be worthier than that? It took us a month to register a formal organization and start fundraising activities for these kids. We bought them school supplies, we visited them every weekend and organized games and various activities. One time we organized mock Olympic Games and spent several weeks helping the kids to train. We played soccer and basketball with them. We helped them with their home work. I had connections in a local theatre and organized a free play for them based on the tale of the Fair Swan-Princess. I will never forget their laughter and excitement when they entered the building with marble colonnades and shining stage lights, many of them for the first time in the lives.

That spring I decided to apply for a grant from the World Bank and organize a summer camp for these kids. We knew that many of them had serious issues with simple math and reading skills. It took me a month to write out a proposal and come up with a plan. A group of university students would teach reading, math, and English language to 30 orphanage kids for two months. We often place value on tangible things forgetting that to be a strong and proud person, one should have an education.

The most difficult process was selecting the kids to go on the trip. The orphanage had close to 200 little tenants and only 30 could be taken due to lack of money. It was heartbreaking but we had to embark on a complex multi-stage selection process to choose the ones who aspired to continue their education. Even our university committed to fund one student for the entire course of his or her university studies, one of our modest victories. I remember speaking to the Dean trying to persuade him to take the student without exams. Well, they did.

I clearly remember the day when two chartered busses took off from Bishkek embarking on a long road running in the mountains. The children were ecstatic. All along were singing songs, telling stories and laughing. For many of them that was their first camp, with bonfires, songs, good food, and lots of swimming in the marvellous lake Issyk-Kul. One would be amazed how self-sufficient, talented, and kind these children are. Every night we would compete in dancing with local kids, me trying to show awkward brake dance moves to everyone else’s amusement. The days were spent in studying and evenings in singing songs, playing table games, competing in soccer and volleyball matches, swimming, and late-night pillow fights. When everyone would get exhausted we would read for them fairy tales and sing lullabies.

Contrary to what many people think the problem with orphanages are often exacerbated not by the lack of funds or basic necessities, but rather by the lack of attention from the society. Even spending one day out of your busy week with these deprived children brings them immense happiness and hope. Many of them are faced with abandonment and loneliness since they learned to walk and think, never having any hope and support. After they turn 18 they are thrown into the streets to fend for themselves, often by crime or prostitution. The unwanted children of society, they unmistakably move from orphanages to prisons – eternally institutionalized and marginalized when it is so difficult to break the vicious circle.

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