I wish I could take you to see pictures of Plyskiv first hand. I wish you could experience it yourself. I wish I could show you the pictures of the faces of those who live there, but I can’t do these things. I must do my best with the words God has given me to try to bring you there mentally. Let me set the stage.
Flash back to January 2017:
It was a two and a half hour journey on icy Ukrainian village roads. The van rattled as it rumbled through potholes, as shaky as my nerves. We slowed down as we entered a typical Ukrainian village seemingly frozen in time, smoke rising from the fireplaces to heat the old Soviet style homes. Carefully, the two vans pulled into a little complex that contained four plain, gray-ish buildings. The team got out to stretch our legs and take a moment before we went inside. I joined Josh in a selfie, smiling although I was secretly terrified. I knew what I was about to see. Part of me didn’t want to see. I didn’t know how I would react. It was only my third day in the new country, and I didn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. What the heck was I doing?
Gert led us into the first building. The smell enveloped us intensely, and my eyes watered slightly. It smelled musty, like a forgotten building, mixed with the smell of unwashed clothes. I didn’t have time to take in my surroundings before a hoard of people swarmed us, yelling and screeching excitedly. They were excited because they knew we were coming to play, a rare occurrence. Someone grabbed my hand and started pulling me away from the crowd. Nearby a voice called out to me,
“That one likes to dance.”
As the girl pulled me into another room, I began dancing with her immediately. Her eyes lit up and she smiled wide. She made no noise and kept gesturing to herself, and I soon realized she couldn’t speak. No matter, I couldn’t speak in a language she understood anyway. We danced silently together until the music began, and we kept dancing until it ended. Then it was craft time. The girl never let go of my hand as she pulled me to a table and began to color. She pulled one of my arms around her waist in a hug and put the other on top of her hand so we could color together. Each time I turned to look around the room or talk with one of the team, she instantly stopped coloring and moved my arm again. I looked into her eyes, memorizing her face. She looked like she was probably in her 30s, possibly blind in one eye. Her head was shaved like the rest to prevent lice and you could barely tell she was a woman.
She was beautiful.
We moved on to another building. These residents only had one room to stay in outside of their bedrooms. The room was bare, with wooden benches around the walls, a plain play mat on the floor for the ones who could not sit up on their own, and a tv in the corner. The other room was at least painted, and they had puzzles and toys. Here they had nothing. Gert could only work on one building, the first we saw, and the difference was stark. These residents had more severe diagnosis. They did not get up to greet us, but stared at us with blank faces. They didn’t understand why we were there. We handed out the oranges we had brought for them. A tiny woman came up to Gert, her arms tied around her in a homemade straight-jacket. She looked up at him hungrily.
“Mama? Mama? Mama?”
Her voice was soft and small. Gert began to peel the orange and feed her slice by slice. I asked why she had the jacket. They told me she hurt herself if she were not restrained. This is common orphanage behavior. They do not understand healthy touches. They self-harm because there is nothing else they know. I asked how old she was, thinking maybe she was on the younger side of the residents, maybe 16 or 18.
They told me she was forty.
As we left, a young man stood outside near the car, holding a stuffed animal and a small soft bundle. Gert explained that he always tried to leave with him. He just wanted to leave.
We saw around 80 residents between three of the four buildings. All were between the ages 16 to maybe 70ish. I was surprised some of them had lived that long in these conditions. Conditions that had only recently been improved in the last 7 years since Gert has been working there. Yet still I wondered, where are the people with Down Syndrome? I had seen only 3 that day, and I had expected to see a few more. Well, maybe most get adopted to the U.S., I thought. Since Russia closed its adoption borders, Ukraine has become a more popular adoption location.
On our second visit during DTS, I got to see my dancing friend again. This time, I knew more Russian. I asked her name, and they told me she was called Svita, which means light. It’s a common name this part of the world, which is why I feel comfortable sharing it. Her name needs to be said. People must know she exists. I went up to her as she sat the table, finishing her lunch.
Her eyes lit up like I had never seen before. She bounced up and down and pointed to herself. I called her by name. I saw her. I treated her like a person.
On that day, we got to go into House Four. Even Gert rarely goes in there. The director doesn’t like it. That is where they take the ones labeled aggressive. It is dangerous, people told us. There is much darkness and spiritual warfare. We don’t take visitors there often. But today we were joined by two fearless babooshkas who worked with Gert, and they charged in armed with candy. The smell was worse here. It was so bad one of our team had to leave. There was more yelling as the few workers tried to hold them back. We walked into the room and I stopped still. My heart broke. I had found them. Around half a dozen people with Down Syndrome were scattered around the room, maybe more. Their faces were pained and they looked miserable. I felt miserable. People with Down Syndrome are not aggressive. They are happy, sweet, and love hugs. They are not aggressive because they have Down Syndrome. If they are aggressive, it is because they were searching for love and didn’t find it. Because it was the only way people would pay attention to them. The only way they could communicate because nobody taught them to talk. It is because they were abused.
“Emily, pass out the candy,” someone told me.
I forced my legs to move. I hurriedly passed out the candy, barely able to look around as we were pushed along. Then somebody grabbed my arm. I jumped and looked down at him, scared for a moment. I looked down into his eyes and could have wept. He wasn’t trying to hurt me. He wasn’t trying to do anything. Just looking.
LOOK AT ME, the eyes pleaded. HELP ME. LOVE ME.
I gave him a quick hug, unsure what else to do. He clung to me desperately, and didn’t want to let go. I moved on without further incident, hurried on by the high adrenaline and chaos of the room. There was no time to process until we left, not even five minutes after we had entered. I stepped out into the clean crisp air shocked and furious. I wanted to scream at the people who had institutionalized them.
They are NOT AGGRESSIVE. They are NOT DANGEROUS. They just want to be LOVED. YOU HAVE MADE THEM THIS WAY!!
I knew it was not their fault. They didn’t know about special needs and Down Syndrome. Their Communist Soviet government had told them that people who could not work and therefore not contribute to society were not truly people. Education will help change this situation. Advocating for the rights of all people with special needs would make the difference.
I wanted to scream anyway.
Almost two years later, I finally got to come back. This time, the smell was better. Gert has done some amazing renovations in the past 8-9 years and the improvements are drastic. He has almost completed the renovations needed. There is a beautiful new bathroom and laundry facility.
Svita is still there. She ran up and hugged me before I even saw her. I can’t tell if she remembered me or not, but she was very excited to see me, not Mitch or Gert. Maybe it was because I was the only woman visiting, but when I looked into her eyes I felt like there was something more. She understands some Russian, and when I asked if she remembered me, she nodded and pointed to herself. I told her I remembered her too. We have a suspicion now that she may be partially deaf or hard of hearing, especially after one of the staff said she didn’t listen well. She desperately wants to communicate. I know she was trying to tell me something the whole time I was there. She stroked me rapidly and pointed to herself, nodding constantly. I showed her how to sign “my name is Svita” in American Sign Language, just to see what she would do. She quickly realized I wanted her to copy me, and she did. By the third time we did it together, she copied every movement perfectly. She was learning. I don’t know if she understood the meaning. She would need consistent teaching one-on-one away from the others and distractions for progress to be made, but from I’ve seen, I believe it’s possible.
My small friend was there too. I found out her name is Tanya, another common name here. Her eye was bruised, most likely from herself. I asked, but no one knows why she is so small. It is not Dwarfism. It could be a number of diagnoses, but it is also highly likely that she didn’t get enough food to grow while in the orphanage.
Gert said there is most likely an institution like Plyskiv in every oblast of Ukraine, although there are some that may not. There are 24 oblasts in Ukraine. This is just one country in Eastern Europe and Asia that treats people with special needs like this. We can make places like Plyskiv more comfortable and well maintained. But we also need to stop the inflow of new people. Interventions need to happen when they are younger. Families need to be encouraged and given the education needed to keep their children with special needs at home with them.
There is much work to be done here.