of hope and desolation in Odessa

At gut level, Odessa is a wordless space of early dark, clean cold, wild dogs, soup and oranges- and lots and lots of wild, clever, candy- hungry girls. Trying to tell the story of anyone or anything- like trying to contain a hurricane in a bathtub. It always slips right through my fingertips.

Tikvah is the Hebrew word for hope. It is also the name of the organization of Jewish children’s homes built within a quirky and colorful city sprawled defiant at the upper part of the Black Sea in Ukraine. 

I’ve written (painstakingly and hopelessly clumsy) of my past winter trip there before, but today, I want to write a bit about “the girls”. The thing about “the girls” is that they aren’t “the girls” at all. It is one of the natural consequences of orphanage-life to always be “the” something, to always be clumped with a group- the Older Girls, or The Toddlers, or The Boys (who live in a separate home a few blocks away). But “the girls” are compromised of individuals that are more themselves than basically anyone I’ve ever encountered in the West.

Individualism is the kind of word we tend to appreciate, respect, perhaps even enjoy being associated with. But rarely is it spoken of- how messy, how lonely, how frustrating and confusing it is to be all on your own. To have a story carved within your neurons that is so much yours, it can never be shared with someone other. To have yearnings so specific and almost insignificant in scope, that it is a sort of humiliation to say them out loud- a mother that braids my hair, a bathroom all to myself, an answer to why I’ve been abandoned.

I’ve been blessed with understanding their language, me with parents that were born and raised in Kiev, a 6 hour drive from Odessa- 12 hours by train. It’s a double-edged sword, being an American, an outsider, with the inside knowledge of all the words. I can talk freely, swap stories and ideas and jokes that other foreign visitors cannot. I can also bear the burden of intruder, walking in on a private phone call, overhearing a dramatic rendition of a sexual encounter, discussed over breakfast, clearly not meant for my ears.

So again, the words have sneakily trickled into “I” territory, where I am again talking of  myself, because it’s easier that way. There’s a girl I’m friends with, 15 and under 5′ because of alcohol fetal syndrome. Her mother drank herself to death when she was two, and she was in a state-run orphanage (of which she mostly remembers being beaten bare-bottomed with brooms) until Tikvah took her in somewhere around her 4th birthday. She’s got a wicked sense of humor, an infectious laugh, and a lot of energy (in fact, she never sits still). There’s a darker side- jealousy of a foreign kind to those of us raised in a private home. Jealousy of who pays more attention to whom, which girl gets more laughs out of an American counselor in camp, of who gets longer Skype calls during the long winter nights. We would always talk a lot about love- what it means, and where it’s found, and whether in fact, it can exist in an unconditional and extravagantly undemanding fashion.

The “younger girls” aged 6-10, live on the first floor, with neat stalls of toilets and showers sandwiched between every two bedrooms, 4 girls to a room. In Jewish tradition, we say the Shema prayer before bedtime- a short prayer that’s meant to keep the nightmares at bay, safety in the darkness, and a graced start to the coming morning. I would go around the rooms to recite the Shema with an accompanying Hebrew song (about how special and worthy of protection we all are), and it was painful to concede how exhausting that part of the day was.

There were fights about which room I should go first, whose bed I should sit on, whom I will sit next to at tomorrow’s breakfast- this was in addition to quarrels that had nothing to do with me, of course. These girls may have looked like kids, freshly showered in animal print pjs, but they fought like grown-ups- shouted expletives, hurled insults at their rival’s background (‘gypsy,’ ‘Russian,’ ‘fatherless baby,’) and threatened like the Mafia. The thing is, despite these relatively frequent spouts, these girls cared for one another like true comrades. When anyone was sick, or crying, or sullen, it was normal for the enemy of 8 minutes ago to be right there, offering to get the nurse or a game on the coveted game boy.

Not everyone is an orphan in the technical sense of the word. There were many girls whose families lived well below the poverty line, whose parents lived in a dysfunctional alcoholic stupor, or who had a single parent that worked out of the city and had nowhere else to place the child. ‘Vacations’ (3 weeks in the summer and a week for Christmas & New Year’s) offered a painful split in the general conformity of Tikvah children- there were those who left to family or grandmothers, those who stayed behind in the emptied halls of the home, and those who begged to stay but were picked up anyway, by parents or relatives that had that legal claim.

Lack breeds innovation, and me and other foreigners often confessed to feeling like useless ogres beside the Ukrainians. Specifically at Tikvah, there are always various projects and performances going on, as a way to keep the kids busy, entertained, and accomplished. So many of the girls could sew, dance, rap, draw, paint…and they almost all of them took pride and care in their appearances, clucking at my messy hair and oversized sweaters, telling me I resembled a “bombsh” – a homeless bum. Their rooms are tidy, maroon curtains homely in their ugliness, orange linen, and a small desk next to every bunk bed.

One of the saddest stories was the one with a my little 9-year-old friend and an Israeli wafer. I was staying at the girls’ home for a few days last winter, and was there for the early days of the holiday Chanukah. There were wafers given out at the first night of candle-lighting, along with donuts and chocolate coins. At Shema, my friend was in tears. Tomorrow there was going to be a performance for the Odessa Jewish community, with most of the girls participating, including Lisa. She told me her mother was going to come see her perform, and she had hidden the wafer under her pillow to share with her mom, who had never eaten chocolate from Israel before. While she was in the shower, someone had obviously taken it. It was gone.

I promised to find her another one, and give it to her in the morning. She was despondent- she didn’t believe me. After the lights were out on the first floor, I asked around, scored a wafer from an older girl that I carefully put away in my room. Come breakfast time, I presented it to Lisa, bone-warmed by the smile that broke across her face.

The thing about this little incident that is so incredibly heartbreaking is that, after the show, I found Lisa, sweaty and glowing post-dance, and asked how her mother enjoyed the wafer. And, well, her mother had never showed.

To find out more about what Tikvah does, see photos and videos of these marvelous kids, or see how you can help, visit http://www.tikvaodessa.org/home/ 




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