Sasha, one of the many kids being helped by Loves Bridge charity in Russia.
We walk up a broad Lenin Prospect away from the city centre, towards a popular park where the city's chess players congregate and compete. The outdoor board game is a setup I find unique across Russia. Intelligent competition in games like chess or backgammon brings onlookers away from their daily lives for a timeout. Sasha accompanies me. We are in the city of Perm, in central Russia’s Ural mountain range that bridges Western Russia with Siberia; warm murky summers and dead cold Siberian winters. With a population nearing one million people, Perm, like many other Russian cities today, has its social problems. For one month I joined Loves Bridge, a charity in the city that helps street children, to help and learn how they assist the most vulnerable living on the streets of Perm.
The bright sun shines on the autumn leaves on the footpath ahead of us. Sasha is hyper. It's either the buzz of hanging around the city with a foreign adult or the childhood urge to show off a little and gain attention. An elderly man approaches us and Sasha can't resist the opportunity - he runs into the old man in boxing mode with a few digs made before I manage to pull him out of the poor man's body space. I apologize profusely to the shocked man. He collects himself; a nod back with nervous frustration and continues. Red-faced, I pull a laughing Sasha by the hand towards the corner shop across the road.
I figure I can redirect his attention with some goodies. We enter the shop where an expanse of sweets are laid out between us and the shopkeeper. “Do you want some chocolate?” I ask in pigeon Russian. Sasha nods eagerly with a smile and before I know it he grabs some chocolate and sticky bars and makes a break for the door. I call him back with a panicked tone...apologies again to the gentleman inside the counter as I pay for whatever left the shop with wild boy. Outside Sasha is waiting at the side of the shop. A happy face munching sweets. I munch a bar myself to release the tension and laugh with Sasha; two short unexpected incidents, but Sasha relishes the thrill. I just have to laugh at the whole scenario. We walk and make a deal, no more messing. Sasha smiles back in agreement as we approach the chess player’s turf. He is 10 years old and is one of Perm’s street children.
The wild side is nature. Living on the streets as a child, growing up on the streets, means you learn and survive via other children...your natural peers. The wildness stays with you. The adult on the other hand is the enemy. Mistrusted and dangerous, and sadly some maladjusted adults have proven this through abuse that sinks to the lowest levels of the depravity.
From a young age the children form groups and roam the city to find places to sleep; in basements of tower blocks, sewers and derelict houses. The local market next to the bus station is impressively big. It's perfect for begging and light stealing. The market provides opportunities and shelter, but it also produces danger and risk. The police on patrol kick the children out of the way. They are treated like rats, like dirt. Some of the female traders give bread; there is a constant hunger to keep at bay.
Many of the kids, ranging from 4 to 5 years old and upwards are solvent addicts. It's common to see their little hands grasping small plastic bags, puffing in and out on them sporadically; eyes glazed. Some of the older kids have the glue stash. They deal out the industrial adhesive to the others, a blob of glue for your plastic bag in exchange for a coin. An argument occurs until the coin is handed over. This is the first introduction to commerce for the children and they learn fast while getting sucked in to a dark hazy dependency. It keeps the hunger cramps away and numbs the body from the wet cold. It also brings a warm fuzzy feeling of lucidness, an escape from all the bad things in life. Surviving the cruelty, staving off harm.
I am standing in a two bed-roomed apartment in a rundown building off Perm’s Lenin Prospect. The apartment is bare and the wallpaper is peeling from the old walls. A single mother lies in bed going through intense motions of sickness. She is crying. Pale and not able to walk, she recently lost the use of her legs. She sold the family passports on the black market to buy food. Now the two children, a boy of 12 and a girl of 13, have to get what they can from the street. The kids are just learning to beg. Their protective adult support has disappeared. The little family has no money and the landlord wants them out by the end of the week. It is very hard to see a way out for this woman. Vera Semyonovna, a Loves Bridge social worker who I have accompanied, kneels down by the bedside and speaks softly to the sick woman. She is trying to figure out some kind of solution for the family.The boy stands with me in the main entrance room. He looks at me curiously; a stranger not from around here. Times are going to change for this young person. He will grow up brutally fast as his small family are faced with grave sickness and near destitution. As we leave, the neighbour, an elderly woman, meets us in the hallway. She cries with fear for the young mother and two children she grew so fond of. She shakes while asking us ‘”What will they do!?” She curses the landlord as she takes out a handkerchief.
Walking down the pathway at the back of the old house, this is my first time entering an Izba, the traditional Russian timber house of old. The building is falling down and overrun with growth. The pathway we walk on towards the back door is layers deep with rubbish. Food wrappers, empty vodka bottles and syringes. I follow Vera. She in turn follows Misha, another Loves Bridge worker, who leads us in. Vera has medicines, one girl in her early teens is sick. I hear pop music and the sounds of children’s voices as we enter through the back hallway into the kitchen of the house. Everything is crumbling in decay and the room is dark. A stereo plays Russian pop while eight children play and jump around dancing. The majority of the boys carry glue bags. We say hello and shake hands with each other. Smiles bounce around at our presence. Two mattresses lay on the ground and a mix of paper and plastic bags lay along the counter running along the wall to the right. One bag rustles as a large brown rat rummages through it. Another rat scurries along nearby in search of morsels. The presence of us humans doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest. The kids dance on regardless while Vera and Misha find out how things are and if all are healthy. They remind the children that they are not forgotten, help is there.
Vera Semyonovna who has dedicated her life to helping the children of Perm.
Love’s Bridge currently operates two drop in centres in the city of Perm and assists with Shelters for street children throughout the city. It has helped to get hundreds of children off the streets and away from addiction since it started in 1997. Today it still struggles to survive.