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Russian orphans’ shattered dreams

Every orphan dreams of their own family and home. However, many Russians who grew up in orphanages have their dreams shattered when they see the housing which they are entitled to from the state.

Dank, dark and dilapidated: a flat which orphan graduate Elena Zatelepina received from the government when she turned 18 looks more like a prime candidate for demolition than a family home. 

Still, the 22-year-old mother of the two has been told by social services that she is stuck here.

”Perhaps they have not seen this place inside,” she said. “They keep telling us to repair it somehow and live here.”

“They showed me a paper on ‘how to build a house’. I told them that I had no funds,” Elena added. “I have no job, I have to take care of kids and I ended up renting a place. They said ‘It is not our problem’.”

Elena grew up in an orphanage in the city of Tver. Under Russian law she was to receive state housing once she left the institution.

The flat proposed to Elena used to belong to her mother, and despite having no money, she has been told to fix it up.

“The situation is absolutely desperate,” Elena said. “They do not give me work because I do not have a profession. For them I do not exist. Perhaps hanging myself would be the best thing to do.”

Elena’s case is not unusual. Those who work with orphanages in Russia say that it is when they leave the care homes that they need most help.

“The problem is orphans are cuter and smaller when they are little and everyone wants to help them when they are small with presents and Santa Claus and all that. Whereas, they have got bigger needs when they get bigger and that is really when we need to be standing beside them,” said Debbie Deegan, founder of the charity To Russia with Love. 

Housing is one of those bigger needs for orphans leaving care, and it is also in short supply.

“We made certain calculations for one region and found out that it would take a child whose number in the queue for housing is 10,000, some 3.500 years to actually get a flat,” said orphan rights activist Aleksandr Gezalov. 

Currently only administrative penalties can be imposed on anyone standing in the way of those leaving care getting housing.

Aleksandr Gezalov, a former orphan himself, is a campaigner for orphans’ rights. He wants to see the courts more involved.

“We need to change the law in a way to make sure that someone can be held responsible in court. In this case the orphanage,” he said. “This will make sure that there is no way a graduating orphan would have to go and live in a rundown home.”

A change in the law might help people in the future, but Elena needs to find a solution right now.

“I asked them why other mothers are given homes to raise their children. Why can’t I have that? Is it because I do not know the laws or because I am not allowed to live or because it is forbidden for me to have a family?” she said. “Some people are trying to help me, but so far their efforts have been in vain.”