Hundreds of boxes packed with gifts have been given to deprived children in Ukraine. Kat Keogh follows their journey from a warehouse in Solihull.
It’s hard to believe a small gift could make can make such a big difference to the life of a child. But a shoebox packed with gifts may be the only present needy children in the Crimea get this year.
Over the last three months, generous people throughout the region have done their bit to brighten the lives of children in the most deprived parts of the Ukraine.
During the Christmas holidays, more than 56,000 gift-filled shoeboxes have been distributed to children as part of the Operation Christmas Child appeal. (read the blog)
Boxes containing toys, sweets and games plus essentials such as toothpaste and shampoo have been flown there from a warehouse in Solihull under an annual operation organised by the Samaritan’s Purse charity.
I joined a group of volunteers as they helped with the distribution of boxes to children in hospitals, homes and orphanages.
On the penultimate day of our week-long trip, we travelled to the Crimean capital Simferopol to hand out boxes to needy local families.
The first stop of the day was a wooden hut built onto the side of another building on the outskirts of the city.
The one-room building is home to 14-year-old Slava, his aunt Anya, uncle and three cousins.
Slava was adopted by his aunt six years ago when his drug addict mother was deemed unfit to look after him by the Ukrainian authorities
As Slava opens his shoebox of gifts, Anya tells us how his mother gave birth to another baby who was born with HIV, shortly before she adopted Slava.
The baby boy, named Andrei, was not allowed to remain with his older brother.
“I wanted to adopt him too but they wouldn’t let me keep him in these conditions,” Anya said.
Anya then tells us she believes that Andrei, now six, may be living at a nearby orphanage which we are due to visit later that day.
His aunt has never visited him, for fear he may think she is unwilling, rather than unable, to care for him.
We leave Andrei and his cousins with their new toys to travel to the orphanage, where we hope to find Andrei.
On the way to the orphanage, which is also a school, our interpreter tells us that around 90 per cent of the 150 children who live there are expected to end up on the streets when they are made to leave.
After handing out shoeboxes to the other children, we approach a teacher to ask her about Slava’s younger brother.
At the mention of Andrei’s name, the teacher nods her head in recognition and leads us to a smaller building within the orphanage grounds.
There, stood patiently surrounded by his classmates, is Andrei.
He is one of nine children in his class who have HIV, a group who are kept under constant supervision by teachers and have to take medication twice a day.
Even though we could not tell him why, the volunteers felt it was so important to give Andrei a gift – a boy who, through circumstances not of his own making, may never get to meet his own brother.
After opening his box, delighted Andrei runs around the room, showing his gifts to his classmates who are busy playing with their new toys.
Even though the future is uncertain for Andrei, his teacher Lyudmila tells us every possible effort is made to care for the children.
“They are monitored for any problems or illness and are watched carefully so they don’t injure themselves,” she said.
“I love my work and these children are my life.”
Perhaps the poignant visit of our trip is to the city of Simferopol, which became Crimea’s capital following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Many of Simferopol’s 340,000 inhabitants live in Soviet-era tower blocks on the outskirts of the city, and it is to one of these cramped flats that we deliver a batch of boxes with Operation Christmas Child.
Children play outside in the snow as we are led up a stairwell into a tiny, two-room apartment that is home to a family of six.
Inside the flat, crouched in the corner of a bed in a room no bigger than a small living room in the UK, is six-year-old Eva.
Eva shares her bedroom, which doubles up as the family’s main living space, with her parents, older brother Dima and 75-year-old grandmother.
Her eight-year-old brother Paval, who is unable to walk or talk following a fall as a baby, sleeps on two chairs pushed together in the hallway.
The children’s mother Svetlana tells me that had adequate medical care been available after the accident, Paval would have made a full recovery.
As Paval’s condition requires round the clock care, Svetlana is unable to work and the family have to get by on father Ivan’s salary of just 1,000 Hryvnia (around £75) a month.
“Even though we do not have enough room for everyone we try to be good to each other,” said Svetlana.
“Sometimes I want to shout at my son Dima if he does not want to do his homework, but I can’t as Paval reacts badly to noise.”
One of the volunteers hands little Eva a gift-wrapped box, which was packed by a primary school child in the West Midlands.
As with most children we meet, Eva is small her for age and looks to her mother for approval before opening her gift.
She breaks into a smile as she winds a pink scarf around her neck, and cradles a small doll she finds in the bottom of the shoe box.
Eva then pulls out the other gifts, including hat, gloves, crayons and toothpaste, before carefully placing them back in the box.
As Svetlana stands back to admire her daughter’s gifts, I remark on the bookcase behind her, which houses books by writers including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
Our interpreter tells us that it is obvious Svetlana and Ivan are a well-educated couple who were unable to fulfil their potential.
Svetlana offers to give one of the volunteers her copy of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina as a way of saying thank you for her children’s new gifts.
“I read them all before I got married and had a family,” She said. “But I don’t have the time to now.”