Safe sanctuary found for lucky few: Street children beg for love in daily fight for survival

  • 2001-07-12
  • Margarita Lopez
TALLINN - The number of street children in Tallinn is growing rapidly. They can be seen running up and down the city's streets and parks, begging tourists in the Old Town, gathering bottles to exchange for a few kroons or simply wandering with a lost, hungry look.

The ones we see are only the "tip of the iceberg," said Director of Unicef in Estonia Toomas Palu. They sell themselves at Tallinn's hotels and sleep rough in ruined buildings. Nothing but the campfires they make ward off the cold. They steal to eat. They smoke, drink or get high on glue to forget.

While many still wait to be rescued, a lucky few have found safe havens.

Inge Ojala is the full-time mother of 16 street children. The patience needed to dish out so many bowls of cornflakes and make sure everyone has washed behind their ears and tuck them all to bed at night is enormous. Somehow she manages and laughs it off by saying, "A hundred years ago everyone had such a large family. It's perfectly normal."

"It's crazy," says her daughter, who is always there to lend a hand. Inge has given up living at her home for the children. She rarely sees her husband. "We communicate by phone. He is very understanding. He works with homeless people, so he knows how it is."

The "family" lives in a space reserved for them beside Peeteli Church. All the children have been rescued from the streets. Inge has given them all the attention and love they need and helped them make the transition from wild survivors to happy, healthy children.


She has helped them overcome drug addictions. This can be a painful process; cocaine addicts get strong chest pains, and if, once addicted, you stop sniffing glue, it comes out through your pores. She led them through their first steps at school.

"In the beginning they were like animals. They hid under the beds. They didn't know how to eat or behave properly. They swore and spat at people who came to help," says Inge.

"Inside every child there is a good person. There are no bad children, only those with bad experiences. We have to correct their mistakes and give them a happy childhood," she says.

Within seconds of entering her home a beautiful little girl rushes in and says excitedly, "We're having a Mother's Day at school and you have to come and I need a beautiful dress!"

She smiles happily up at Inge. Her trust and love of Inge is obvious. According to Mati Sinisaar, director at the day center at Peeteli Church, girls who are forced to take to the streets don't like to wear girls' clothes. They don't accept them until they feel safe. "If girls are girls they don't survive. With life in the street it's not possible. If you're a nice girl sleeping in a corridor, bad things happen to you. So girls have to be boys," said Sinisaar.

The children are happy, well-fed, have their own space - four kids to a room - clothes, and even two TVs. But most importantly they have a place to stay where they are wanted and loved. They are eager to learn to love back.

Recently the children adopted Kurka, a half-starved street cat. They are kind to it and now it has started to behave like a cat again, a reminder of their own metamorphosis.

The kids have weekly art lessons. In the beginning they crowded around their art teacher, demanding help. They were very jealous if she spent more time with one of them. "It was exhausting," she says, "but the feedback that you have been successful is more important than physical tiredness."

The aim of these lessons is to help them enjoy art. And they do. For many of them this is their first encounter with painting. They want to experience it all, and consequently choose all available colors, textures, and materials at the same time. They like to paint the world around them: what they know well. They don't paint their past: "I think they want to forget," says their teacher.

Helping these children has been a long ordeal and they're not out of the woods yet. Some of the children have very difficult personalities. One boy is aggressive and tries to beat everyone up. Two boys have only one kidney each; they ate so little and lived in such cold that they lost them.

One of the girls used to sit all alone in a dark apartment. She used to swing herself back and forth to try to stop herself feeling hungry and get to sleep. Although she is safe now, sometimes, when she's watching TV she still swings.

Nothing but love keeps the children where they are. If they get the itch for freedom, "The doors are always open; they don't run away."

These kids are allowed to be loose so they learn to hold back themselves, but there are certain rules. Each child understands that he must be back by bedtime. If they decide to leave they can't come back again.

Fight for custody

When we first met, Inge had just returned from court. She was exhausted from fighting for the rights to be responsible for a five-year-old girl. The child's mother wanted her back. But Inge suspects the mother doesn't want to lose the child's grant from the state and wants to help herself rather than give her daughter a chance for a good future.

In the beginning state officials did not want to help Inge, who said they had told her that there was no such thing as street children in Estonia. Instead Inge received help from volunteers and donations from local church congregations and the embassies of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Nowadays the state pays for the food and things have become much easier.

Right now, other people need help with similar projects, people like Zinaida Samoilenko. She has been looking after the children of Mardu for nearly seven years. "Every day for seven years I've had no holiday; I know they need me," she said.

Every day nearly 50 children come to her 60-square-meter apartment. She washes their clothes, feeds them, cleans them, cuts their hair and helps with their homework. "When all 50 are in the apartment at the same time, there's hardly room for anyone to sit down," says National AIDS Prevention Center representative Kristina Tauts, who is working on the case. "And at eight o'clock, when it's time to go, nobody wants to leave."

They dream of having a place of their own with beds so they can sleep. The children used to have a place to stay, with a dining area and play space, but it was taken away from them by the local government. Now that summer is here they can play outside. But winter brings hard times. They need a space of their own with Zinaida.

Although she gives them everything she can, very often there is no food. She is unemployed and receives no support from the state, so she spends what little spare time she has trying to find sponsors. She has given her life to these children, but she is not a trained social worker or a psychologist, so she fails to qualify for official grants. The family depends on people's generosity for food and clothing, and occasional donations from multinational companies.

Zinaida can't give them everything. She is very concerned about HIV. Some of her children carry the virus. "They are sexually abused; these children don't even know what sexual behavior is," says Kristina.

Some turn to prostitution. "They don't have money for food and they don't have a place to sleep. They have to do this to live."

Love for life

Zinaida has adopted two of the boys who are 10 and 14 years old. They used to be the last in class. They behaved badly and didn't want to go to school. Now they get straight A's.

All she really has is time and love, but these things have been enough to change lives. She has given them something to hold on to: the will to go back to school and to try to better themselves.

"Love children and you help children," says Zinaida. "Humans without love can't be humans. We have to help children. We have to love them sincerely, otherwise we can't make life better. If kids don't find out what love is, they will not be able to give it. We have to teach them love, to know what is good."

Inge and Zinaida are not so different. Both have struggled with little support to help their children. They have sacrificed themselves and dedicated their lives to others. But they need economic support to carry out their projects.

Inge has the church congregation to back her up and, even before the state took her into account, she had help from her husband and congregations abroad. Zinaida started out on her own, simply distributing hot tea among the children. She depends only on people's charity. She is doing a wonderful job with them, but she needs help. It's an expensive job to feed 50 growing children.

With Inge and Zinaida, a lucky handful of Estonia's street children have a chance to feel safe and wanted. They can give up their past. The Peeteli Church children already have a loving home. The Mardu children have the same opportunity. But they still need state assistance to make their rescue complete.