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3 Mar, 2010 06:41

Against all odds: a journey from a Russian orphanage to the bright lights

The come-from-behind story of a young Moscow actor defies the popular belief that it is impossible for those raised in orphanages to succeed in life.

Maksim Dementiev, an energetic young actor at Moscow’s Shchepkin Theatre Institute, seems to have it all. In many ways that is true. In addition to being a promising actor, he is a role model for those who want to beat the odds no matter how great they may seem to be.

Dementiev was raised in a Russian orphanage after he left home.

"Our mother drank heavily and had a messy life. One fine day I got fed up with it and I ran away from home," recalls Maksim Dementiev.

There are nearly 300,000 children in Russia who grow up in orphanages; their prospects for success in life is not very encouraging. According to the Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science, just one out of fifteen orphans will go on to become successful adults, while an overwhelming majority of the orphan population eventually gets hooked on drugs, goes to prison or even goes so far as to commit suicide.

"A child which grows up in an orphanage develops a basic distrust towards the adult world. They have been abandoned by the most important adults in their life – by their parents. And then they have to live with this feeling for the rest of their lives," explains Aleksandr Kolmanovsky, psychologist.

No wonder, children in orphanages have to face their own specific problems.

"We can't force the child to work. We must convince him that he must work. Unless he learns to work, he will fail to cook, launder or to do any small thing. A child has to be convinced, although this does not always succeed," says Irina Sidorova, Head of Karabanovo orphanage.

However, in Maksim Dementiev’s case his orphanage experience was an experience that helped him to become a better actor.

"Compared to children with families, I can see more clearly how to get out from this or that situation. My view of the world is totally different. That's what helps.  If not for the orphanage, I don't know where I would be now," says Maksim Dementiev.

Maksim himself contributes his success to a strong personal work ethic. Now he hopes to help his brother Aleksandr, also an orphan who seems desperate to follow into his brother’s footsteps.

"My brother is a great authority in my life, a good example – he finished his secondary school here and entered a prestigious higher education school. I will also try to do the same," says Aleksandr Dementiev, Maksim’s brother.

"What's important is not to fall into the abyss that has ruined the lives of many people, even famous people, and not to abandon the good path. Believe that it's going to be good, set a goal and reach for it."

This is Maksim’s inspirational message for all orphan children strong enough to rise up and defy the odds.

Fortunately, many people refuse to remain indifferent to the orphan situation and are ready to help.

Tina Berejnaya, a charity activist, and her colleagues have been helping two orphanages for almost half a decade.

”The situation is pretty grim because no matter how much money people put into the orphanages, it is not the money that makes children happy. It’s the attention, it’s the words of the adults and grown-ups that are meaningful and important for them and make them have a better life”, Berejnaya told RT.

She adds that what is really needed to help children in orphanages is not new legislation, but rather the effort of volunteers and a lot of good will. Strikingly, kids in orphanages sometimes do not have the slightest idea how to live an ordinary life.

“Children grow up not realizing the simplest things that are very common for other kids, like spending the money,” the charity activist adds.

In this respect, the work done by volunteers cannot be overestimated. Tina Berejnaya then told RT about a group of volunteers who organized a set of master classes for orphans in subjects not usually taught at orphanages or at schools, like photography classes or programming.

“They hear pretty much the same things from their teachers but it’s quite important mostly for teenagers to hear it said by somebody who they deem a success in life,” she said.

Anna Priemysheva, Tina Berejnaya’s colleague, is an adoptive mother of two. She says it wasn’t her plan to adopt a child; she was just trying to find an adoptive family for a boy in the US. But it didn’t work out and Ms Priemysheva made her decision.

“I decided maybe this is the situation when I have to do something. So I tried and it worked out. It was hard but it was worth it,” she says.

A UNICEF representative for Russia told RT that the organization is deeply involved in strengthening the social protection system. Among other projects, Bertrand Bainvel listed HIV prevention programs, as well as programs aimed at including children with disabilities into the school system.

Mr Bainvel emphasized that one of the focuses of UNICEF’s activity in Russia is preventing children from being separated from their parents. This is the way to reduce the number of children that end up in orphanages.

“If they end up in an institution, I think, it is important to provide them with a professional and safe environment”, says Mr Bainvel. “It means making sure that the facilities are fully equipped in terms of security, in terms of learning, stimulation, development materials, making sure that the social workers working in these institutions are very cognisant of the psychological needs of children and can accompany them in their development.”

The UNICEF representative noted that individual plans should be developed to help children from orphanages to painlessly re-integrate themselves into society after leaving the institution.

Mr Bainvel said UNICEF is closely working with both governmental and non-governmental organizations in the regions of Russia, and some regions may serve as role models in the practices they adopt.

“I have just come back from Karelia where we saw very interesting innovative approaches to strengthening the social protection system”, added Mr Bainvel.

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