My time in Almaty hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned so much that it’s hard to keep track of everything. Besides a crash-course in Russian, I made some great friends, some of whom even joined me (or I joined) in trips to visit the kids. I was able to visit the children at a summer home in the mountains (courtesy of a strenuous bike ride with my friend Salta, who ‘graduated’ from this particular orphanage several years ago and now works as a chef in Almaty), and I went outside of Almaty to visit Father Guido’s orphanage, or “Ark Village”.
The state run home I visited has Kazakh language groups and Russian language groups; kids of both ethnic backgrounds were in each, depending on what language they spoke more comfortably. It was in good condition, clean, and the kids were well-taken care of. There are some kids who run away – there was one girl who ran away during the time I was visiting – but they usually find them and bring them back. I was told the punishment is a shaved head for the girls who try (or succeed in) escaping, but I didn’t see any proof of this. I never saw such happy and excited children as these.
Father Guido’s ‘Ark Village’ is a totally different place. It’s about a hour by taxis (yes, plural) to get out to the orphanage, and then the security guy has to come pick up any visitors, as well as drop them back off in the nearby town when they leave. The only languages there are Russian and Kazakh, except one girl, 15 years old, who speaks Italian. Father Guido is a Catholic Italian priest who founded the orphanage and has been watching it grow for many years; although he was back in Italy for the summer months. It was a crazy linguistic exercise, going between broken Russian on my part and my guide, speaking to me in Italian. I tried to speak to her in Spanish, though making all the words come out with Italian pronunciation, hoping that the languages would be close enough. We got by. The Ark Village takes kids from the State-run homes and gives them a safer and more stimulating environment; there are a lot of kids there with mental and physical disabilities, who were probably chosen to come to the orphanage because they face a much greater risk of abuse and illness. There are four houses, a dining house, a school house, and small doctor’s building, with a doctor, dentist, and massage therapist who helps the kids with physical pain. There is a pond swarming with fish (they eat them at the dining center), horses and cows and dogs roaming freely, and chickens kept in a small pen. The kids help with a lot of the chores, and most of them seem genuinely happy. Unlike the other places I visited, the women who run Father Guido’s orphanage and those who live with the kids were happy, even eager, for me to take pictures (though they said they don’t really understand my project or why I would come alone to Kazakhstan. Where is my husband?!).
I met a lot of wonderful kids, and I’m having a hard time saying goodbye. I won’t ever forget my time here. I never had a bad taxi experience (knock on wood), though I was very careful, and I even managed to figure out the bus system, kind of. The buses have curtains in every window, including the front, so when I couldn’t understand the Russian street names when the fare-collector called them out (if he did call them out, which only happens 30% of the time), I also couldn’t see where we were. But I learned quickly.
The biggest challenge in Kazakhstan was the language. The biggest rewards from being in Kazakhstan were learning how to get in touch with kids and meeting the children themselves. A lot of people were suspicious of my project, and a lot of people were really helpful. American expats living in Kazakhstan as missionaries were so kind and generous, and connected me to children living on the street, teachers who work with kids in the homes, and young adults who graduated from the orphanage system. Some of them even helped me by acting as a translator now and then. One of the greatest things about going to Kazakhstan was meeting Aya, who I became friends with. I’ll miss you.