Loving and being loved by the Orphans of Znamyanka Orphanage
Photos and Text by Elizabeth Symonenko
Our surreal journey began on a sunny Friday afternoon, as the members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA Winter Mission Trip to Ukraine, gathered from all corners of the U.S. While this was a “first” for some, other members were returning to the orphanage on their second trip. Gathering in the Rotunda of the Consistory offices, the 11 members, were joined by the Consistory staff and administrators, as His Eminence Metropolitan Antony performed the “Service of Commissioning a Missionary”. Listening to the words of the service I found myself being overwhelmed with emotion. After the service, His Eminence spoke a few words of encouragement. He reminded us that we were following in the footsteps of the very Apostles whom Christ sent out in to the world, to teach, support, sustain, and save. The gravity of this statement gave me goosebumps. How could we, just regular people, be even slightly compared to Christ’s Apostles? Vladyka Antony continued by reassuring us, that we did not pick to go on this journey, but, that Christ had picked us, and that He would not abandon us, but, would help us through it.
Having experienced first-hand the orphans, His Eminence gave us a few important tips and suggestions. He warned us that some of the children are disfigured, bedbound, in wheelchairs, blind, deaf, and otherwise of compromised body. However, he continued by saying that all we need to do is to touch them, show them love, hold them, and that what they will give us in return will be far more valuable than what we give them.
Filing away his words of wisdom in the back of my mind, I joined the others as we made our way to the Seminary to reorganize all the luggage, packing donations from various individuals and parishes, and ensuring that each bag weighed no more than 50 pounds. We packed diapers, hand-knit hats, scarves and mittens, toys, nail polish, lotions, medicines, and clothing. Seemingly simple items that I would later see would bring immeasurable joy.
With baggage in tow, led by Team Leader Olya Coffey, we all piled in to the Seminary Van and made our way to Newark Airport to begin our long journey to Ukraine. A Ukraine which I had only visited once, more than 25 years ago. I was eager to return to my ancestral homeland, to hear people converse in Ukrainian, to witness the joy of a free nation.
Before we knew it we were up in the air flying towards Warsaw for a short layover, and then onto our final leg to Kyiv. It was a long journey, but, with every minute we got more and more excited. Late in the evening of Saturday, the captain announced we would be starting our descent in to Kyiv. I glanced out my window, and there, twinkling, beckoning, were the lights of Kyiv. I could not help myself from tearing up. The young Ukrainian girl sitting next to me, pulled out a Kleenex and giving it to me, put her arm around me and laid her head on my shoulder. Such kindness, undid me even more. Kyiv, the capital of the land where generations of ancestors lived, fought and died, and the Kyiv of the gentle girl next to me, compassionate and kind.
Having landed we had to undergo a number of checkpoints, and finally with our luggage secured on trollies we headed towards the exit, and our first breath of the cold Ukrainian air. Once we passed the final check we entered the lobby where hundreds of people stood, some on tiptoe, searching for familiar faces, waiting for their loved ones to appear. There amongst them stood our own Archbishop. His Eminence Vladyka Daniel had arrived a day earlier to ensure everything was set for our trip. He quickly gathered his small flock around him, greeted everyone, and herded us outside towards vans waiting to take us and our luggage to the Hotel Ukraina. As the vans sped through the darkened streets of Kyiv, illuminated only by the occasional street light, the scene was majestic. It had snowed that day, and tree branches, heavy laden with snow bent low over the streets, adding a touch of whimsy. Every so often behind the snowy boughs, peaked a golden dome, here and there, and almost everywhere.
Arriving at the hotel we quickly ran our luggage to our rooms and gathered back in the Hotel Lobby. It was well after 9 PM, however, the Christmas Market was still in full swing. Agreeing that we’d all rather experience the market than sleep, we gingerly made our way outside, slipping and sliding. A frozen sheen covered the slick pavers making the going treacherous. Suddenly we found ourselves heading upward, and upward and upward until we reached the plaza at the top of the hill located between St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery and St. Sophia. Immediately our gaze shifted to the large lighted Christmas Tree located in the center, glowing various colors with lighted lanterns hanging from every bough. Under the lights, the tree looked a bit ragged. It seems that during the transport to Kyiv the tree had met with some difficulties, branches being broken off left and right. However, additional, loose branches, from various trees were stuck in to the big tree to fill the major gaps. This seemed apropos as Ukraine is always struggling, and yet, always finds a way to reach beyond the struggle to victory. The tree was saved by the efforts of many trees, just Ukraine can only saved by the efforts of all her people.
Dazzled by the lights and music, we split up and walked up and down the market. Little huts were set up selling all manner of wares from Christmas Ornaments, to head wreaths, cookies, and various Ukrainian memorabilia. On the other side were food vendors, selling fresh kovbasa, shashlik, not mention the wine and other drinks being offered. The plaza overflowed with revelers. People drank, laughed, and played around, taking photos with many of the snowmen, Father Frosts, and Snow Maidens, making their rounds through the market.
Having re-gathered the team, Vladyka Daniel led us all slowly back down the hill, sliding all the way. Tired and cold, we finally made it up to our rooms where we could take a moment to pause and absorb the fact that we truly were in Ukraine. I threw open my window and below me was Freedom Square, resplendent in glistening lights, throbbing with historic significance and luring me to stand with the cold wind blowing and simply be.
Sunday morning we awoke to a brisk but, dry day. A new layer of snow had settled upon Kyiv overnight. We gathered in the lobby and our original members which included His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Mykola Zomchak from the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, Olya Coffey, Tracy Gala, Tamara Host, Nancy Roshannon, Vera DeBuchananne, Victoria Swindle, and me, were joined by two more seminarians who had traveled to Ukraine ahead of the team, Ihor Protsak and Yurii Bobko, along with three young women from Ukraine, Victoria Zomchak, Nelya Rujillo, and Olya Kukharchishin. As Vladyka Daniel left us for a bit to take care of some business concerning the orphanage, we all bundled up and headed back up and up and up the hill to visit a few local churches.
Our first stop was St. Sophia, the Small, where we stepped in to enjoy a few moments of Liturgy, before moving on to the actual St. Sophia. We had one more stop and that was St. Andrew’s Church atop the hill. With the wind whipping us around, we gingerly made our way through the vendor’s stalls, who fruitlessly tried to sell their wares, but, were at odds with the cold wind and starting rain that forced them to just focus on their items not blowing away. Having reached the steps of St. Andrew’s, we all slowly made our way up the black granite steps, again up and up and up, and finally reached the church which was locked for renovation. However, we walked around to the back to get a quick view of Kyiv below. The wind was so strong that we could hardly keep our footing, and quickly began the long descent back down.
Having paid tribute to God, on the Lord’s Day, it was time to make our way slowly to catch the train to Znamyanka, and begin our true mission. To reach the train station, we had to take the Metro, which forced us to take the quickest and steepest escalator I had ever encountered. Traveling at break neck speed downward well over half a mile, I started getting light-headed. Vladyka, at the head of the group noticed that some of us were turning slightly green, wishing to take our attention off the lighted signs whizzing past us, turned to face us and began to sing “God Eternal”, waving his arms like a choir director. One by one we all joined in and by the time we had reached the bottom and “ran” off the escalator we had all found our “escalator legs”. We quickly jumped in to the subway cars exiting three stops later, only to be faced with the same escalator ride upward this time. With Vladyka leading us in a rousing rendition of “Dobrij Vechir Tobi” we ascended upward towards the exit leading to the train station. Our singing did not go unnoticed, as the usually somber people around us, began to smile as they spied the group of people flying on the escalator and singing. More than one cellphone popped out to video the impromptu mini flash-mob.
As the sun set, we finally made it to the train station, and jumping on the train within the 1 minute 20 second stop, we found our seats and snuggled in for a long train ride to the Znamyanka. Sadly, we were not able to enjoy the pastoral beauty of the Ukrainian landscape, as the sun had long set. However, the gentle rocking and swaying of the train, soon had most of us dozing, and dreaming of the children we were about to meet.
Arriving late on Sunday evening, we were greeted at the train station by the director of the orphanage, Tatyana Valko. She greeted us warmly, with smiles and hugs. It was nice to finally meet her in person having known her via Facebook for a number of years.
We all squeezed in to waiting vans for the quick mile drive to the facility, and emerged in a darkened courtyard, with a bright and happy light illuminating the front door. One by one we slowly entered the orphanage’s main lobby, and stood around looking at each other, unsure what to do next. As we stood there, one by one, little curious faces appeared in the doorways. First came Tanya, joined by Sasha. Both were happy to see the group, and immediately gravitated towards those members who had been here before, and were familiar to them. I immediately got Tanya’s attention, as I mentioned that I am the aunt of Andy Powers, whom she befriended when he last visited. I pulled out my cellphone and played her a short video he recorded to share with the kids. Her smile brightened the dimly lit room.
As it was already very late, the children were ushered away and we were shown to our sleeping quarters, and given a few House Rules. We were given keys to our rooms, and were told to keep the doors locked at all times. We were not to exit the building, as there were fierce guard dogs on the loose. We would meet in the morning for prayers and get further instructions.
We all had a bit of trepidation, having traveled in the dark to a yet unseen location, surrounded by dogs, and told to lock ourselves in. We chuckled that this had the makings of great Steven King novel.
However, as the sun arose on Monday morning, we rose with it, all worry set aside. We joined in the upstairs common room for Morning Prayers, Vladyka’s voice echoing through the sterile hallways, encouraging a number of the children to come and join us. The Gospel Reading was from the Gospel of Matthew, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:14)
These words from the Gospel of Matthew, read by His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, left us pondering the deeper meaning of our presence at the orphanage. We were to bring the Light of Christ to these children. We were to be the salt that added flavor to their lives. The big question was how to achieve these things.
Over a simple breakfast, the team sat quietly as Vladyka explained exactly what we were to do. This morning the children had prepared a concert for us. They would all get dressed up in their Ukrainian vishivanky, sing and recite poetry for our entertainment. It seemed odd, that we came to care for them, and yet, they were “caring” for us. After the concert His Eminence asked that we visit each child, paying special attention to those who are not mobile, those who were not at the concert, as they can hear the commotion, but, cannot join in the fun. He told us to simply be with them. Vladyka reminded us that this trip was not about us, not for us to realize how “lucky” or “blessed” we are, but, to pour ourselves onto these children. They get very little attention, and merely touching a cheek, petting a hand, will guarantee a joyful reaction, as the children realize someone is with them, paying them even a moment’s worth of personal attention. We all listened, and took mental notes, but, for most of us it seemed unreal that merely touching a child would bring them joy, but, we certainly would give it a go.
When we walked down the long hall we could already hear the gleeful voices of the children who had gathered to perform for us. There music teacher spends three days a week with them, and I found out they have quite the repertoire of songs they excel at. They absolutely love music and singing.
Our team members split up, sitting here and there, to mingle with the kids. As I stood at the door, in order to have a better vantage point for photo taking, Tanya came up and brought me a chair, sitting down right next to me. She then took my hand and shyly sat there, holding it. I was moved by her gentle kindness.
The children resplendent in their Ukrainian costumes, sang song upon song, each one getting louder, and bringing more joy and laughter from them. Those who could move around got up and began dancing in the middle, joined by many of our team members. As they sang and danced, this was my first real exposure to them. I had seen these same little faces on numerous occasions via photos from previous mission trips, so they seemed strangely familiar. When I urged Tanya to join the dancers she simply squeezed my hand harder and refused to budge. Then I spotted Vladyka. He has a gift that allows him to relate to any situation and make those around him feel at ease. He tickled the children, he hugged them, he played with their hair, he knew exactly what they needed from him in order to open up and accept his presence.
There is one particular girl, Katya, who carries around “LyaLya” a tiny little girl, whose real name I never found out. She is so protective of her little charge that when I turned to take a photo of her she hid her with her own body, so that I could not even see her. At times, when she felt the girl was in some sort of danger, she would simply get up, cradling Lyalya, and leave the festivities. However, as I sat there and watched, Katya came up to Vladyka Daniel and handed him her little “doll”. I was amazed. She trusted him enough to allow him to hold her, but, even more, she walked away leaving him with the “doll” unattended. You had to be there to realize the significance of that particular interaction. As Vladyka sat cradling LyaLya in his right arm, Tolya, a hefty young man with Down Syndrome appeared behind Archbishop Daniel and laid his head upon his left shoulder. Vladyka, reached up and gave him a one armed hug, as he was still holding the little girl. In those few seconds he was hugging and holding two of the most innocent people in the world, giving them value and worth, making them feel loved and cherished.
As the concert continued girls in lovely wreaths twirled, their ribbons flying behind them, the boys also joined in. At that moment I turned to glance behind me and spotted a frail thin little girl, sitting in her wheelchair, her hands resting at odd angles in her lap, her legs visibly contorted. She sat there. Not smiling. Not reacting to the music. Just sitting there. My heart broke as many of the other wheelchair bound children were still capable of singing and swinging their arms about, but, this little girl just sat there, melancholy and silent.
I got up and sat down next to her, gentle took one of her claw like hands in mine and began to gently massage her knuckles and fingers. She didn’t move. I took her other cold hand and began rubbing it as well. Slowly, her eyes began to shift in my direction. She sat and stared at me for a second, and then she began to strain her neck towards me. It seemed she had something to say, so, I bent nearer to her, as it was hard to hear with all the music playing. Her lips were slightly moving, but, no sound was coming. I leaned in closer, and then my heart broke. I was now close enough, that she planted the softest, most loving kiss upon my unworthy cheek. Do not cry! Do not show pity! Vladyka warned us. If we felt emotions taking hold of us, we were to walk away, and never show them our tears. But, how does one not cry when receiving such pure love from an innocent soul, merely for rubbing her hands? I bit down on my lip. I would not cry. I would instead focus on her and make her smile more. So, I began to wiggle her chair to the music, I played with her hair, I whispered silly words to her, and she responded by kissing my hands, as the first hint of smile passed over her lips. This little girl and I bonded. I had no idea what her name was, or her story, but, her love was evident. I made a mental note to find her and spend some more time with her in the afternoon.
After a couple of hours, the music teacher was getting tired, and the children were getting hungry. It was time to wind down the festivities. “One more song! Just one more song!” the kids pleaded. That final song was amazing.
These children live in the Orphanage, forgotten by society. They only step outside when a mission team visits and takes them somewhere. In the summer they went to the zoo, visited various monuments, etc. However, for the most part they are simply forgotten. Out of sight. Out of mind. However, they sang their hearts out, their love for Ukraine, the Ukraine that hid them from view, was clearly evident. “My name is the wide steppe, My name is the taste of freshly baked bread, the last ring of the school bell, the mist over the Dnipro, My name is Hope, My name is Love, My name is the Pure Dream, and faith, that God is with us. My father’s words: Ukraine, is me. My mother’s songs. Ukraine, is you.” If only Ukraine would see the beauty within those shining souls.
After the concert we had a quick lunch and began visiting the children in their rooms. Upstairs were most of the boys, with the girls living downstairs. We split up into small groups and headed out to touch and bring smiles to them. I wondered off with Nancy, beginning on the second floor with the bedbound boys. We entered the room, and lying on the middle bed were two young men, their limbs contorted, even their necks were twisted so they were not able to lie flat in bed. Other boys played around them. Upon entering we were mobbed as they all wanted to play. Leaving Nancy with the others, I made my way to the bed and touched the arm of the nearest boy, who feeling the human touch opened his adorable mouth and gave us a huge toothless smile. Nancy soon joined me and spoke to the other boy who reacted in similar fashion. Just touching them made them laugh. Someone was taking the time to give them some attention. We spent a few minutes with them, then played with the rambunctious mobile boys who loved to be swung around.
While some of the boys would throw things when excited, or twist our hands, for the most part they were just overflowing with joy at our visit. Many of the children, now in their daily clothes, were slithering on the floor, utilizing their arms, as their legs were folded uselessly beneath them. I was amazed how they were able to manage with their deformities and remain mobile.
We proceeded from room to room, visiting the bedbound, those in chairs in the halls, and always asking the nannies before touching or lifting any of them. Some of the children are in great pain, and merely touching them causes great discomfort.
Having gone through the second floor we wound our way down to the first floor to visit with the girls. We crisscrossed paths with the other members as we all took time to visit with the kids. In the first room downstairs, I found Nastya, the girl in the wheelchair from this morning. I just walked in and when she spotted me, her arms came reaching out. I spent a bit of time with her, and then moved on to the others. The girls were eager to have company. In each room we were invited to sit on one of the little beds and talk with them, share stories of our lives and theirs.
At first it was difficult to converse because you assume they do nothing all day, just sit there, and they cannot be happy. But, when greeting then, and asking how their day was going, they all replied “great”, and they meant it.
The orphanage doesn’t just house the kids, but, they have lessons. We met with a number of the teachers, as well as nannies, who utilize various resources and methods to help the children’s minds blossom. One insisted that following the guidelines of Montessori had greatly improved the interaction with the boisterous boys. The children are read to, they are taught simple math, music, and about nature.
The boys often would get rowdy and unruly, throwing things, and yelling, but, their nannies took it all in stride, informing us they are simply expressing their emotions which are heightened by our presence. On numerous occasions we had to make quick exits, as it was clear we were disturbing the order of the day and the peace in the room.
In the evening of the first day, we found ourselves in the sitting lounge downstairs, where the girls gather to watch television. As we sat down they gathered about us, sitting on us, or having their wheelchairs rubbing up next to us. Their eyes all sparkled, and their smiles lit up the place. They chattered and talked like any group of teenage girls. They talked of fashion, hair and nails.
Having gotten to know the children, it was difficult to leave them in the evening. But, they needed their sleep, and surprising the team members found they were exhausted, as well. We each collapsed upon our beds and entertained dreams of the children singing and dancing.
In the morning, alarm clocks were not needed, as well before sunrise, the pitter patter of tiny feet awoke us all. The joyful shrieks of the kids as they got dressed and fed encouraged us all to climb out of bed and join them.
We were joined by Sasha during Morning Prayers. Sasha who was celebrating a birthday is in his teens, and while he cannot read, he would stand with Vladyka Daniel, and when it was Sasha’s turn to read a prayer, Vladyka laid his arm around his shoulder and quietly read him the prayer, line by line, as Sasha repeated the lines loudly, as if he were reading them. The smile upon his face was priceless.
The second day at the orphanage was to be festive as well, as a theater troupe was scheduled to perform a Christmas concert for the kids. We quickly ate breakfast and congregated in the common room, which was already filling with children. Today, we were not intimidated or at a loss of how to act. It was natural for us to mingle with the kids. Hug them. Kiss them. Most already knew our names, and would often call us over. The concert began with a group of young women dressed in colorful outfits singing and dancing, quizzing the kids, who gleefully would respond, yelling out whether they had been naughty or nice! As dancing ensued, Santa Clause made an appearance passing out bags of chocolates to the eager hands. The children danced and danced and danced. It was a joy to see them having fun. However, Vladyka had asked that we not all stay at the concert, but, while the music is playing we visit the bedbound kids, and so a number of us went downstairs, and some upstairs to visit those kids who could not join the party.
Once again we spent the afternoon visiting the children’s rooms, spending a few minutes with each one. It was heart warming to see them light up when we entered their rooms. The deaf ones would smile when touched and the blind would begin reciting poetry. It was humbling. Each child tried to make an impression.
That afternoon, it was decided we would go out for a walk. With four of the children with us, we exited the building and made our way down the sidewalk towards the train station, where was located a little shopping strip. In the stores could be found candies, various food items, as well as decorations, jewelry, clothing, shoes, mittens, etc. Sasha asked for a pair of slippers, Tanya asked for a ring, while Katya wanted a pack of gum. Simple things that would make them so happy.
At the magazine counter, the clerk took a moment to speak with me. She asked where we were from, and stated that she notices we visit every year and take the kids out. To me, this meant a lot. At least the local population was noticing the children, even if they were taken “out” only once or twice a year. Nobody gave them a second glance, nobody ridiculed them. They were just four more shoppers at the market, which is as it should be.
Having purchased socks, mittens and hats, we began our walk back. With a quick stop for some water, we found ourselves walking through the darkness, each step tentative in the poor lighting, but, we soon made our way back to what now seemed as “home”, and were greeted by the children who awaited our return. Those who came with us happily opened their bags and shared the cookies and other items which were purchased.
As it would soon be dinner, most of the children vanished, but, LeAnna remained behind in the lobby. She told me to sit down and take off my coat, as she was worried that I seemed tired. The girl in the wheelchair, whose legs did not move, was worried that I looked tired. Her kindness touched me. She wheeled up close to me when Tracy showed up with a bag of goodies from her godmother, Natalie Kapeluck. Tied with a ribbon LeAnna hugged the bag close to her chest. As she fiddled with the ribbon, I asked her if I could help her with it. She gave me the bag, which I untied and pulled out the first item. She caught her breath as she spotted a couple of elastic bracelets. “Oh, please, put one on me.” Next there was a body wash and finally a pair of thin Christmas socks. She smiled and petted her socks. I asked her if she’d like me to put them on her. She did, but, had a hard time letting go of them, as she petted and hugged them. The socks weren’t special in themselves, only in that they were meant especially for her. I put them on her crooked feet and she wheeled herself in circles showing off her socks to anyone who entered the room.
That evening we gathered for dinner in the Director’s office, as it was our farewell meal. Vladyka would be leaving at 3 a.m. to accompany one of the orphans, Svitlana, to the hospital, and would meet us in Kyiv later that day. Director, Tatyana Valko, expressed her gratitude to His Eminence and each team member for remembering the orphans and coming such a great distance to visit them. She gifted each one with a certificate of appreciation and a small gift. The meal concluded all too soon, and not wishing for the evening to end we all found ourselves in the exercise room of the front lobby, where many of the children had gathered. Jokes were told, exercise competitions ensued, checkers was played, and nails got painted. It was a relaxing evening of camaraderie with our new friends.
In the morning spirits were high, as after Morning Prayers, the children would be presented with a chocolate fountain. While things were being prepared upstairs we did not wish to waste a moment, but, went downstairs to visit with the girls. Some girls still had not had their nails painted, others were still eating their morning kasha. It was an honor to help in the feeding, as the nannies are often overwhelmed with a great number of children and are not able to spend much time with each individual child. By the time I had fed one, they had fed three. Nonetheless, the one had enjoyed a bit of joking and playing as she got fed.
Once again, Santa Clause made an appearance and after a bit of playing around, the kids and all the team members, nannies and nurses, donned shower caps and aprons, and began enjoying the chocolate table, dipping fruits and marshmallows and feeding the children. The children smiled and laughed and begged for more chocolate. It was a messy activity, which once completed, was quickly cleaned up, garbage removed, even large table moved, to open the floor for more dancing and gaiety as the children celebrated the coming new year with confetti.
Sadly, later that afternoon it was time to say goodbye. As we sat in the lobby awaiting our ride to the train station, the older kids came and sat with us, on our laps, leaning in to us, squeezing out every last opportunity of a shared love and affection. Sasha whose birthday we had celebrated the day before with a cake (which he wished to share with the other boys in his room), always was smiling, but, tonight, he seemed sad. He sat next to me and stated how much he liked us. I assured him we all loved him and would constantly think of him. He asked where Vladyka Daniel was. I told him he left in the middle of the night, and was waiting for us in Kyiv. “Do you think he misses me?” “I’m certain he does, as he speaks of you all the time,” I replied. “Do you think maybe, he is thinking of me right now, like I am thinking of him?” “I’m certain he is thinking of you,” I reassured him. “Do you think maybe Vladyka is crying because he misses me so much?” “It is very possible,” I said, as I reached up to wipe a tear rolling down his cheek.
All too soon the van had arrived for us, and we had to quickly leave in order to make our train. As we piled in to the van and it began to ease away, the children poured out in to the cold and stood below the single light on the porch waving to us as the distance grew. It was heartbreaking to part with them. I did not think it possible to grow to love complete strangers so deeply in such a short period of time.
We waved goodbye to the director as she stood on the train platform, assuring her we would do our best to return, and thanking her for her hard work and diligence on behalf of the children. As we all snuggled down in our seats, it took only moments for the majority of the team to doze off. I wished I could see the landscape outside, but, once again, we were traveling in the dark. I closed my eyes for a moment, but, sleep eluded me, as thoughts and memories vied for space in my mind.
My initial trepidation was unfounded. We fear the unknown, and having never had personal experience with children with disabilities, I was timid, fearful of what to expect, and unsure of what to give them. Moments after meeting them, all that fell away, and was replaced by a natural and mutual affection. Those beautiful faces from the photos of years past, now have names, and have a place etched in my heart. They are the most innocent of children who rejoice at a mere touch, a pair of socks, or getting their fingernails painted. While the nannies are clearly overworked, as some children require much more attention than others, nonetheless, the children are thriving.
One could expect children in such institutions to be scared or terrorized, cowering in a corner. However, these children were all smiles, running to meet the stranger who wondered in to their room. It is clear that they are given attention, and are encouraged to be themselves. While the parting was sorrowful, I was overflowing with joy, knowing the children were okay, and that our Church would continue to support them, bringing them the love of Christ, simply by loving them.
Exhausted by our experience, we soon found ourselves exiting the train, Vladyka raising his arms to help each of us, ensuring we all disembarked safely. Even though it was late and we were tired, His Eminence rekindled the joyous spark as he again led us in song as we made our way though the train station, up and down escalators, through the Metro, quieting us only when we reached the surface, as people were already sleeping in their homes. While our touches brought smiles to the orphans, our singing brought smiles to countless residents of Kyiv. This too was the work of Christ, singing His praises joyfully, and infecting all those around us.
Before leaving Ukraine, we had a few more opportunities to walk the streets of Kyiv. We awoke early and began our busy day. We visited St. Michael’s Golden Domes monastery, climbing the bell tower where a couple of seminarians rang the bells at Noon. At first I smiled from ear to ear to hear the joyous clanging of the bells, then I realized that they had rung just like this at 2 a.m. when Fr. John Sydor had climbed the bell tower, and reinstituted the ancient method of alarm, wakening the residents, and warning them of danger. The people who had been soundly sleeping, reacted, quickly dressed and poured out in to the streets to fight for their freedom. It sounded like something out of Dark Ages, and yet, it occurred only a short 3 years ago. Suddenly the bells were no longer joyous, but, each clang was like a knife blade to my heart. Why must this country always struggle for her freedom? With tears still glistening on many cheeks, we each got the chance to ring the bell before we descended back down to the earth below. After the church we made our way to Basarabsky Rynok, made a quick stop at Roshen Chocolate Shop, and then settled down for a cozy dinner.
Our final day in Kyiv once again brought our emotions to the surface. After viewing the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, we made our way to the Holodomor monument and museum. The monument, shaped like a memorial candle, holds much symbolism. Tiny glass crosses are etched in to the sides, representing the souls of those who starved, ascending to heaven, while the bronze storks, imprisoned, encaged, struggle to fly upward towards freedom, as the Ukrainian nation also struggles and fights for its freedom.
We descended down to the museum below, where some members found the names of their relatives listed in the official books of those who were killed in the famine. Once again, with tears in our eyes, Vladyka led us in prayer for the souls of those who had suffered, singing Memory Eternal and lighting a candle in their memories. Archbishop Daniel took a small pinch of wheat from the memorial and told us to take it home and place in on the graves of our loved ones who lived through this great atrocity. That wheat has made it safely home with me, and will most assuredly be placed on the graves of my family.
Having signed the guest book, we emerged in to the cold sunshine, the tears rolling down our cheeks making it seem even colder. We turned left at the street and walked uphill towards the Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra. It seemed like a regular neighborhood, when all of a sudden on your left there appeared the entrance to Heaven on Earth. We entered the property, our mouths agape at the lovely Baroque structures surrounding us. We made a quick stop at the Church of the Dormition, the Refectory Church, and than wound our way downward towards the caves. Entering the catacombs, with only a single candle to light your way, one feels as if the walls are squeezing in on you. Everything sounds different as you find yourself well below ground, and then you spot the saints. They are everywhere. Lanterns glisten over their glass caskets, as you make your way from one to the next to the next and to the next, venerating them, and asking for their intercessions before God. It was a moving experience, having come so close to so many saints.
Back at the surface we found that a solid rain had begun to fall, so we all quickly returned to our hotels. Some people rested, others went out to shop, while yet others stood and gazed out their windows, trying to absorb every nuance and moment of being in Ukraine. That evening we had our final group dinner, at Taras Bulba, as we would be departing Kyiv early the next morning. Bittersweet feelings roiled in us all, as we would be saying goodbye to all our new friends. However, before we allowed ourselves to become to melancholy, the restaurant singers popped in to our area and we all once again raised our voices in joyous Ukrainian folk songs, bringing smiles not only to the official singers, but, to all those present at the restaurant.
The next morning, with hugs and tears, we bid farewell to our new friends, and to Kyiv. As our plane ascended in to the Heavens, we longingly gazed down upon a melancholy Ukraine, covered in drizzle and gray skies, and were saddened when we ascended through a cloud bank which obliterated the land below completely. However, within seconds our sadness was replaced with joy, as we burst out of the clouds to fly above a most spectacular sunset. Just as Ukraine seems to be in difficulties, and the people cannot see the light, the Lord is always shining brightly above them. Our final experience was of joy, as the sunshine danced atop the clouds, energizing us and filling us with God’s hope for Ukraine, for ourselves, and for the orphans.