The first few days here in Almaty haven’t been easy. All of the contacts I had made before arriving are falling through cracks – many of them unable or unwilling to provide information regarding the orphanages. Today is the third day I am here, and despite these setbacks, I decided to get out and do what I could without any help.
Unfortunately, my Russian is still very bad. I do not have a conversational grasp of the language, but I can more or less get around (in a melting pot of languages I barely speak). Yesterday I met a group of Canadians who study Russian, so they taught me some useful phrases (Я звоню в посольство! – I am calling the embassy!, Я вегетарианец, не мясо, пожалуйста – I am a vegetarian, no meat, please. Есть ли у мяса? – Does it have meat? …one of the guys was also a vegetarian) while we exchanged stories over a drink. They are living in Kyrgyzstan for the summer but came to Almaty for a few days. Things sound pretty crazy over the border in Kyrgyzstan, and I’m relieved that Almaty has at least some infrastructure.
So today I decided, despite having no official contacts, to try and find some kids who I had heard hide in a nearby park after fleeing the children’s homes. There is a Cathedral there that has Orthodox priests with a history of helping the kids out. On my way to the park, though, I went through an underpass at an intersection and recognized a young woman – my age or younger – sitting with her infant child. She has been there every day since I first arrived, and both she and her baby are incredibly thin.
I feel strongly bonded to this woman. I cannot stop thinking about her. She has a wrenching sadness in her face. I feel bound to her because we are both women (around the same age), both strangers in a country other than our own. We are both, in some way, alone. There is a strength and inimitability to a woman’s sorrow. She has known a suffering that I can never truly understand; that suffering is smoldering behind her huge, brown eyes – it is a pain I have never seen before. She is alone with her child, she is a child herself! Whatever judgment may be passed on her or her decisions, she is young woman who bore a child and now sits on cement steps, in the shade from the smothering heat, trying to keep her baby calm. How can societies allow this? How can everyone just walk by her? I know there is nothing I can do, no difference I can make, but my frustration is starting to boil. Even more troubling to me is thinking that, even if she was in the United States, I don’t know how much different her treatment would be. If she came illegally, surely it would not be much better; if she came legally, would she really get the help she needs, even if she did speak English? If you cannot understand her words, do they matter? If you do not know her past, does it count? If you think you could have never been in such a situation, does the blame fall on her? There are a million ways to dehumanize someone, but all it takes is a moment of thought to realize that she bleeds, she hungers and thirsts, she breathes, she shivers and cries and laughs and quiets her baby, she loves, she dreams, she hopes, she fears, she is our sister and she is just like us.
The cathedral was not open today, so I’m going to try again tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ve contacted the SOS Kinderdorf, right outside Almaty at the foot of the mountains. Hopefully they will let me come by. In total they have cared for less than 100 children (based on their website’s numbers), though the number of children in the hands of the state (in Almaty) has been listed at over 2,600. It is interesting because the wife of the “president” has made caring for orphans one of her initiatives, specifically through SOS KD – the effect doesn’t seem to be incredibly large.