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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brazilian on a Mission for City's Street Children

MTVivi Teixeira, left, teaching one of her displaced charges, Grisha Abramyan, 8, how to ride his new bicycle.
When Vivi Teixeira arrived in Moscow five years ago from Brazil, she came across street children everywhere she went. They hung out in metro stations. They lurked outside McDonald's restaurants. They sniffed glue in busy underpasses.

Now Teixeira, 27, who runs a care center for neglected children, is wondering where all the street kids have gone.

The number of children on the streets has markedly declined since President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to deal with the problem 1 1/2 years ago, sending federal and city officials scrambling. But Teixeira and child rights activists warn that the problem is as acute as ever, maybe even worse.

"We only see fewer children," said Boris Altshuler, a 1970s dissident who worked with Andrei Sakharov and now heads the group Right of the Child. "This doesn't mean that the system works." Altshuler said some children are locked up in counterproductive state institutions and that many more hide to avoid getting carted off to state orphanages by police.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov ordered police to round up children under 16 years old and either return them to their parents or deposit them at hospitals or state shelters. As a result, shelters have swollen beyond capacity at a time when the overall child population in Russia is declining.

In a study published last year, the International Labor Organization put the number of Moscow street children at somewhere between 30,000 to 50,000. Local child welfare experts say this estimate remains accurate, despite the government's new approach.

"Usually they run away from home because their parents are drunk all the time and they beat them," Teixeira said. "Every single case we deal with is related to alcohol. When the police bring them to government orphanages, they're sometimes gone for a month. But then they usually run away."

Along with Katya Chukaryova, a nurse, Teixeira runs House of Mercy, a shelter where children aged 7 to 18 can go for a bath, warm food and lessons in math and Russian. Teixeira and Chukaryova are both volunteers with Youth with a Mission, a global missionary group.

"At first, we just started to give food to the kids," Teixeira said. "Then we got a flat. We invited them to have a bath, change into clean clothes. At times, 10 kids lived in the three-room flat."

Teixeira said she knew she wanted to work with neglected children since her own childhood in the northern Brazilian town of Fortaleza, where her parents regularly took in street kids.

Teixeira arrived in Moscow in 1998 and has been working full-time with her band of street kids for the past 2 1/2 years. She acts as surrogate mother for many of the kids, while Chukaryova serves as teacher.

Teixeira has started administering to the source of the problem, working with the parents of the children.

Altshuler said that parental counseling is a crucial element that is missing from the state's approach: "They only created a system of cleaning up the streets," he said. "They didn't treat the roots of the problem. There has been no prevention work with the families."

"The state's solution is senseless," said Svetlana Bocharova, who runs the children's rights group Goodwill Without Borders out of her one-room apartment in eastern Moscow. "They should be paying attention to the source of the problem and the potential solution: the institution of the family."

In the face of an unforgiving state system, Bocharova said private groups like Teixeira's are more important than ever. They raise money from friends, local businessmen and churches to feed the children and pay for educational supplies.

Teixeira and Chukaryova say they are currently searching for a new apartment to house the shelter. Meanwhile, they scour the city every week in search of children who need food and a helping hand.

"Sometimes I get frustrated because progress is slow," Teixeira said. "But we're doing something important, something good."