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Occasionally during intense or memorable experiences, you and I can have moments of clarity where we step back from what we are doing and realize, “I will remember this forever.”
Well on Thursday I visited the Romaniv Boys Orphanage, and it was definitely one of those moments…
I went with a team from Mission to Ukraine, who visit every Thursday morning to teach, play with and love on the boys. But this is not a normal orphanage. You see, at Romaniv, every boy has a mental or physical disability.
In an attempt to prepare me for the experience, my Ukrainian hosts described the place as scary, difficult and overwhelming. Of course, I still wasn’t prepared for the barrage of sights, smells and emotions that came the moment we opened the door.
Immediately after walking into the orphanage, the stench of urine and feces hit me square in the face. The surreal sounds of screaming, laughing and moaning were a constant din in the background. Boys of all ages, with varying levels of physical impairment, sat huddled together on benches. One of them was standing in a puddle of his own urine.
I tried to throw on a big smile as a group of excited boys ran, walked and hobbled over to give me a hug…
The orphanage is about one hour’s drive from Zhytomyr, and is located quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Apparently the government likes to pretend that it doesn’t exist, and will do almost anything to keep prying eyes from seeing the conditions inside.
Mission to Ukraine wasn’t even sure that such a place existed when they started looking for it, but they figured that, with the number of abandoned children in the area, there must be a large number of disabled kids somewhere.
After many months of searching and dealing with tight-lipped government bureaucrats, they found it. The Romaniv Boys Orphanage, home to 86 mentally and physically disabled boys.
Ever since that day, the folks at MTU have been visiting the boys every Thursday morning to teach them, play with them, and most importantly, to love them.
And love them they do. While we were driving, the MTU gals were literally giddy, laughing and talking excitedly. One of them, Yulya, turned around and explained, “We love going every week, so we get really excited…”
Excited? You love going? As I stood in the entrance to the orphanage, surrounded by filthy, reeking boys, I shook my head in amazement.
In many ways, the boys are treated like animals by their “caretakers.” Food, shelter, the occasional bath… Their guardians have literally no training in caring for the disabled. The boys are given no education, no trips off the orphanage property, and no physical touch except as punishment.
While we were there, we did things that the boys usually never experience. We sang songs, put on a puppet show and taught them how to wash their hands.
Yes. You read that correctly. The boys (some as old as 15 or 16) had never been taught how to wash their hands. To some it was an exciting new experience. To others it was a game. About half of the boys tried to lick the soap when Oksana took it around the room for them to smell.
I watched with tears in my eyes as these boys got to enjoy the “treat” of basic sanitation.
After leaving the main building (and reveling in the fresh air), we started walking to a different part of the orphanage. I thought that we were about to leave, so I asked where we were headed.
“Now we are going to the building with the severely disabled boys. This is the really hard part.”
That came as a bit of a shock. How could it possibly get worse?
Again we entered a building that reeked worse than a barn. Again we sat with a group of disabled boys and sang a few songs. And again I wrestled with the absolute injustice of it all.
These deformed, immobile and helpless boys have been abandoned by the world. They live in a tiny building with bare walls. They eat disgusting, soupy slop every day. Frankly, they are treated as less than people.
It is a terrible place.
But the whole time we were there, a glimmer of hope kept sparking in my mind.
In this pit, this hell hole, a few gentle Christ-followers have decided to live out the kingdom of God in the most pure and beautiful way possible… by caring for “the least of these” (Matthew 25) and by giving these unwanted boys the chance to be humans, even if it’s only a couple of hours a week.
The crazy thing is, in such a hopeless situation, MTU’s intervention is actually paying off. They’ve seen immense improvement in the behavior of the boys. Even the orphanage caretakers are beginning to change their attitudes. Hope is beating back the darkness! Wow.
As I said at the beginning, it was an experience I’ll never forget. Images of pain and suffering have been seared into my mind forever. But so have images of grace and compassion, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
To the people at Mission to Ukraine, the kingdom of God is not some fancy theological concept. It is the reason they exist. The reason they get up in the morning. The reason they keep on fighting for justice in a place where injustice reigns.
They really are on a mission…
Driving back to Zhytomyr that afternoon, I asked an inevitable question. “Is there an orphanage like this for girls?”
Oksana turned and answered me. “Yes. We found it. They won’t let us inside yet, but we’re praying…”
- Visit the Mission to Ukraine Website (www.missiontoukraine.org)
- Contribute financially to Mission to Ukraine
- MTU needs beads for their Thursday trips to Romaniv. Start a bead drive with friends and send them to Zhytomyr!
- Take a short term trip to Ukraine! Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details
About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.