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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MiraMed Center Gives Orphans a Second Chance

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Rita and Nadia were both 19 and scared to go into stores alone. Nobody had ever showed them how to navigate a supermarket. Checkout lines were intimidating and keeping a simple food budget was out of the question.

That was last summer. By fall, the two young women were smart shoppers, preparing food every week for the other teenagers and young adults who came to the MiraMed Independent Living and Social Adaptation Center.

When its doors opened in July 2000, in a building that is four bus stops and a five-minute walk away from Tushinskaya metro, the center had nine students. But it quickly outgrew its home and moved last week to the first floor of a former school behind Ulitsa 1905 Goda metro. More than 300 orphans visit weekly.

The nonprofit organization's goal is to guide some of the 1,000 teenagers who must leave state-run orphanages and special boarding schools called internaty each year.

"There's no one really there for the kids when they leave. There's no one to turn to for advice,'' said Eric Batsie, the center's director.

Scores of children are unprepared to live and work alone in a world where social safety nets are loose or nonexistent. Russia requires orphans to leave state institutions at age 18 and yearly, 15,000 youths move out. Many stumble once supervision ends. In the first years of independent living, 50 percent of those living in Moscow serve prison time, 40 percent become drug users, 10 percent commit suicide, while a mere 4 percent are admitted to universities, according to Education Ministry statistics tallied by the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund.

The social center is a place where orphans ages 15 to 23 can seek help and advice on living independently.

Batsie said his long-range goal is to convince the state to require Russian orphanages to teach social and living skills and to test the children on their preparedness before they leave.

MiraMed created a place where orphans ages 15 to 23 years old can seek help and advice, from retrieving lost documents to taming aggression. The program offers a four-month curriculum where teachers and psychologists conduct individual and group classes ranging on matters such as resume writing, avoiding abusive relationships and the state's obligations toward them. English language classes are offered as well as classes in Russian and computer skills.

"The orphans need help, yes. They need someone to accompany or guide them, someone whom they know, who understands their situation," said Ksenia Alexandrova, 20. "It was hard to be alone at age 16."

The city government is required to give each "emancipated" orphan an education stipend and a one-room apartment. But in some cases, orphanage and internat administrators have sold the apartments and stolen stipends. That is what happened to Alexandrova, the center's secretary who is planning to finish school this year. After leaving orphanage No. 103, she discovered her apartment had already been sold. With no place to go, she tracked down a woman who had visited the orphanage and explained that she needed a lawyer. She lives with the woman she calls "Mama" while awaiting final paperwork necessary to move into her long-promised apartment.

The international charity MiraMed Institute was founded a decade ago by American Dr. Juliette Engel who visited the Soviet Union in 1989 and vowed to help Russian orphans. MiraMed also focuses on stopping the trafficking of Russian women into the sex trade.

The Moscow region education committee granted MiraMed a free five-year lease on their new premises with the stipulation that it be fixed up. There's not much in the new center, but a face-lift is under way. A dusty, unlit back room will turn into an office for the volunteers and six paid staff. The rooms have one electrical outlet so will be rewired to accommodate 15 new computers, donated by a Texas-based computer firm Virtuoso. The kitchen, littered with broken tiles and unused for more than a decade, will be fitted with a refrigerator and stove so students can learn to prepare meals.

Some of the independent living center's programs reinforce assistance already offered by other orphanages and internaty, said Tatyana Dombrovskaya, director of education at orphanage No. 110, which sends up to 25 of its children weekly to the center. Her orphanage also provides lessons on social skills and assigns staff members to make sure the teens leaving state supervision will receive their apartments and education stipends.

But, the orphanages can't keep tabs on the children forever. "They get used to living under constant supervision, but when they leave there are so many temptations," Dombrovskaya said. "We teach them good things, but at 18 they go out and if they don't have a mentor, then anything could happen, even with our kids."

The center already has some success stories. One young man works as a chef in Switzerland. Another young man who was homeless last August is enrolled in his second semester of law school.

"They feel that becoming a lawyer means they can save themselves, help themselves," said Tatyana Shkolnik, a psychologist at the center.

Other older orphans volunteer at the center.

"When they finish courses, it doesn't mean we're done with them," director Batsie said. "We're always open for them to come back — come back to tell us something good that's going on."