Orphans and the Olympics - Part I

By: Marnie Wilson

An artist's depiction of the Sochi Olympic Village, located on the coast of the Black Sea. dailytech.com

This is a beautiful image, isn’t it? It’s hardly the Russia we in America are familiar with. Often when we think of Russia we conjure up images of Siberia: snowbound, icy, desolate, dark, lonely, sad. And while the images we’ll see of Sochi in the coming weeks as we watch Olympians compete in the 2014 winter games won’t look anything like Siberia, life for Russian teenagers who have been aged out of orphanages is much more like Siberia and not at all like Sochi.

Imagine growing up in a Russian orphanage with 200 or more orphans. Rules are strict, but life lessons about how to cope in society or secure and keep a job are not taught. In all likelihood, your education is limited. Around age 15, a tender age for most anyone in any country, you are told it is time to leave and are transported to a technical school. You are given the equivalent of US$35 a month for all of your food and clothing. You will live in a small, dilapidated dormitory room with 2 or 3 former-orphan roommates for a year or two. No one will have taught you how to use public transportation. But hopefully the former orphans you live with will show you the ropes because public transport is your only option to get anywhere. You will be trained in blue-collar trades such as tractor driver, cook, seamstress, painter, or mechanic, and you will not be allowed to change your assigned training even if it is not a good fit for your skills.

With very little supervision in the dormitory there is not much motivation to go to class for something you may or may not be interested in. There is overwhelming temptation and opportunity for heavy drinking, partying, sleeping around and ignoring any attempt at improving your circumstances in life. There are many social challenges. You do not know how to deal with differences in people or manage conflict because in the orphanage there were lots of strict rules and supervision, but no training.

Statistics for Russia are hard to come by, but some estimates from the 1990s suggested 80% of “aged-out” orphans abused alcohol and drugs, committed petty crimes and engaged in prostitution. 15% committed suicide within the first two years of leaving an orphanage.

With these odds against you, what happens when you are done with technical training? Where do you go? How will you live? How can Orphan’s Tree help those in such dire circumstances, and why bother? Hear some answers next time in Part II.