I Was A Person

This is the first of a four-part series on Anya, one of Russia’s unseen orphans who found hope and purpose through Orphan’s Tree. This is a true story, but some names have been changed to protect privacy. Part 1

Anya was 9 years old, living in the Kostroma region of Russia. Her sister was 6, her father had left the family, and her mother was an alcoholic. It was the early 1990s, and times were hard in this new era of Russia. Many people were unemployed, hungry, and without heat. The circumstances surrounding Anya left her responsible to run the house and care for her younger sister. Anya recalls begging for food on the side of the road. She remembers a day in particular when a stranger gave her one egg. She took that precious gift carefully back to her cold home, where she cooked it for her sister.

As the days went on, it became more evident that the girls could not survive in this environment. Their mother took them to the orphanage and said goodbye to them, as so many hundreds of thousands of Russian parents did during that time.

Anya found herself on the doorsteps of the Galich Orphanage. It was one of the largest and darkest orphanages in the country, surrounded by woods and cut off from the city. It was eerie and quiet, despite the fact that more than 200 kids were crammed inside. An oppression was felt by all who visited there. This could not be Anya’s new home, she thought to herself.

The Galich Orphanage is where Anya stopped seeing herself as a person. “Before the orphanage, I was a person,” she recalls. As she recounted these words to me 19 years later, I didn’t immediately understand what she meant. How could she stop being a person? But as she helped me understand the difference between having a role in a family and merely filling a bed in an institution, I became humbled by the magnitude of her statement. At just 9 years old, she had lost her identity. She had become a number instead of a human being. I have a 9-year-old daughter myself, a vibrant girl who is discovering her gifts and passions and finding her place in the world. But those things we take for granted were not a part of Anya’s orphanage life. Without the context of a family, she stopped seeing herself as a real person.

The family is one of the main socializing entities within a society. Within a family, children appropriate the social norms and values and become capable of forming relationships with other members of society. Psychologists agree that children with secure attachments to their parents have better chances to develop into happy, successful, well-adjusted adults. Ideally, parents encourage their children to investigate the world, which helps them develop physically and emotionally. But in an orphanage, as caregivers change with the shifts of night and day, children don’t have the opportunity to attach to people and experiences in the same way they would within a family.

Research indicates that post-institutionalized children may display superficially charming behaviors, difficulties with eye contact, indiscriminant affection with strangers, destructive tendencies, hoarding or gorging, manipulation, lying and deceitful behaviors, aggressiveness, entitlement issues, and power struggles. Such behaviors are considered undesirable in a family setting, but in an orphanage, they may be key to a child’s survival.

Through Anya’s description, I was able to catch a glimpse of the world through the eyes of an orphan. I was able to imagine her loss and her longings, but also to feel her hope as help came at last.

Over the course of the next month, I’ll be writing more about  Anya’s life in the Galich Orphanage and how a chance encounter with some concerned American Christians brought a ray of hope into her dark world.