Our first day in Ulan-Ude was somewhat jarring. After a overnight flight and an early arrival in Buryatia, we split up and managed to get some sleep in our various host homes. Once we got back together, we shot off to the first of our many Siberian events – the Detskii Dom, or orphanage.
The children were very excited for our arrival, and had prepared a small concert for us. They were dressed in their best clothes and had poetry, dancing, and singing to entertain us. They were herded into line by the ladies running the orphanage, and were inexcusably adorable while they sang a number of songs for us. Once we moved on to dancing, a few of us were picked out of our own line to join them!
We then divided ourselves up to play with the considerably larger groups of children spread throughout the orphanage. I (Kevin) was led down to a room full of smiling four-year-olds with Megan. We started by distributing a number of plush stuffed animals and toy cars to the children, who swarmed us as we arrived. I got my first greeting from a young girl who ran over and attached herself to my pant leg. I was soon sitting on the floor surrounded by kids who definitely had no concept of personal space.
Playing with the kids, I realized how radically different their lives were from mine. A number of the kids stroked my arms in amazement – they hadn’t encountered many men with body hair before. A few were even brave enough to rub my jaw and cheeks, giggling at the scruff gathered over the 36 hours since waking in Moscow the day before. When I pulled out my digital camera and started snapping pictures, I was mobbed with curious children. When I turned it around to show them pictures of themselves, the mob pressed ever closer, and started pointing and shouting each others’ names as they appeared in the photographs. At the end of the day, they were lined up by the woman in charge of the group, sat down, gave a huge shout of “SPASIBO!,” and then we departed to let them wash up before dinner.
After a long flight and noticable jet-lag, the orphanage was an experience that I (Laura) will never forget. Sure, I've seen them in movies and in advertisements, or even in documentaries, but I have never been to one before. I'm also terrified of children, so I was very, very nervous about our excursion there. However, the children were darling and well-behaved. The establishment was well-kept and the kids all had clean clothing to wear. Needless to say, I was impressed. The women in charge were kind and patient with the large groups of children who looked to them as their main source of adult encouragement and attention. When it came time to split into pairs to play with them for a while, I was so awkward that a little girl had to lead me away and show me what I was supposed to do.
You know how in movies, all the orphans sleep in one room with little beds crammed together? Well, it's not just a Hollywood dramatization. My 6-year-old guide showed me her room, which was about the size of a large family room with 7-10 beds pushed together in the center. Now, I'm not comdemning this orphanage, because it was very well-kept and run by genuinely caring women. This detskii dom was a wonderful place for parentless children, and I'm very glad that these kids were in such good hands. However, it was very startling to see that such sleeping arrangements do exist.
After the tour, I brought some toys to a group of about 10 kids, all under the age of 5. At least, I think they were, since I can't judge the ages of toddlers very well. They surrounded me and my partner, Travis, at first just to get the toys. They were very entertained, and didn't take much interest in us. I was wholly unsure as to what to do. I could read a story, but then they would notice how awfully I read. Organized games like "duck duck goose" were out of the question, since they were simply too young.
One little girl quickly found a use for me. She simply ran up, arms outstretched, and stood in front of me until I took notice. I picked her up and she squeezed me as hard as she could. I had never felt so heavy and empty in my life. How often had I taken for granted the affection of my parents and friends? I can call my parents when I'm nervous, scared, lonely, and looking for comfort and guidance. They can help me because they know absolutely everything about me, because they love me. As that bony little girl gripped my shoulders, I felt both fortunate and guilty: fortunate for having a loving family to care for me, and guilty for not sufficiently reaching out to those in need of comfort and love. After I pried her off me to pay attention to the other kids, they followed her example. I was surrounded by at least 5 children at all times who either wanted to be held or tossed in the air.
My back was terribly sore after an hour of being a mother and a roller coaster, but I left feeling like I had done something good. Obviously, this was nothing. People come and go in these children's lives, and the only permanent thing is their caregivers, who are too few to give them the constant attention that they crave. To think that I made a difference with an hour is absurd and self-indulgent. However, I am aware, and I can share my experiences with others, who would never otherwise consider what life is like for the countless numbers of parentless children around the world. Should I ever overcome my fear of kids and decide to have some of my own, I will remember that orphanage. I hope you will, too.