Sudden Life

In Kharkov, philosopher Aleksandr Filonenko and a small group of friends got involved with the youth at a residence for the disabled. A story has flourished with one goal: to share their destiny.
Elena Mazzola

Kharov, July 2011: Aleksandr Filonenko, philosopher and professor at the local university, and a small group of friends found a social and cultural organization that they call Emmaus. Over the course of a year, they do nothing more than try to share the lives of some disabled–and for the most part orphaned–young people. “I could write a whole book about what we’ve lived in this time period,” says Aleksandr. “But experience can’t be measured, it can only be seen in the encounters that happen.” Thus, when he speaks of Emmaus, he does so in the simplest possible way: by talking about stories and faces–and therefore, encounters.

He starts from the beginning, in autumn 2010. “In Kiev, we heard a brief witness by Rosalba Armando, of the Maksora Foundation in Novosibirsk. She spoke about one of their projects.” The project in question was Golubka House, a residence for young mothers (see Traces, Vol 9, No. 10, 2007, p. 14). “None of us could ever have imagined that, among the ruins of post-Soviet society in the 1990s, someone would give rise to an endeavor that offered a new possibility of life to people who had fallen into disgrace. And all of this thanks to an Italian woman who arrived in Novosibirsk without knowing a word of Russian.” Aleksandr returned from the encounter in Kiev with a fundamental question: If Rosalba succeeded in doing this 20 years ago in Novosibirsk, then why shouldn’t we be able to do the same today in Kharkov? “We didn’t know any young mothers who needed a center like Golubka, and we certainly didn’t want to invent a problem,” he explains. “But a need of ours had been reawakened, and we only had to pay attention to our reality in order to grasp the need that was asking us to be there.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Several years earlier, Aleksandr and his wife Inna had become friends of Vasilij Sidin, an extraordinary man who had founded the Timur theater company for troubled youth. Sidin had realized that young people who go down the road of delinquency are often actually very talented, and that it is precisely that talent, wrongly directed, that comes to produce socially dangerous effects. Thanks to Timur, a life was born, made up of shows, seminars, summer camps, Christmas charity parties, social festivals, and educative work with parents.

Some of the young people were disabled and lived in a group residence. It was among them that Aleksandr and his wife started to make friends. “I expected to meet people who were completely withdrawn,” he says. “Or immature children, unaware of their dramatic situation. Instead, I found myself in front of young people who were conscious and serene, and who asked themselves questions about life that their ‘more fortunate’ peers had ceased to ask. We became friends with them and we discovered the seriousness of the problems that these kids face every day.”

Lena’s highest score. Lena is 18 years old and severely handicapped: she has only one arm and some genetic problems with her legs. He parents abandoned her at birth and she has always lived in residences for the disabled, but she has also had to spend entire months in the hospital to undergo operations on her legs, which had to be lengthened in order for her to be able to walk. She was in her last year of school when the civil administration communicated to Sidin that they had found an arrangement for her, once she graduated: it was a hospice, a nursing home, a place where people go to finish out their lives–that is, to die. “It was an absurdly intolerable solution,” comments Aleksandr. “And what’s more, Lena is an intelligent, determined, and mature girl.” The decision had been made because she didn’t have sufficient scholastic knowledge to enter a technical school. “So I volunteered to be her math teacher, and we found someone willing to help her in language and literature, in order to enable her to pass the entrance exam for the technical institute. There were only two months before the exam, and Lena didn’t know much math, but she ended up getting the highest score on the test.” Today, she is finishing up her studies at the technical school and preparing for university admissions exams.

Lena’s story allowed Aleksandr and their group of friends to discover that, besides disabilities, there was a problem with scholastic preparation. “There was a substantial amount of work required to change the kids’ approach to knowledge. An impossible task, without taking into account all of their stories and their destiny. That’s why we started Emmaus: to accompany them during their last year of school–a time that is generally very frightening for them–and throughout their growth, helping them to discover their destiny.”

What do the Emmaus friends offer to their young companions on the journey? What they can, which is teaching. “And our friendship. We started to go to the residence with a good group of friends so that the kids could see a new kind of relationship among adults, and feel that it was possible for them.” The proposal is simple: “We help them with their homework, in order to show them that math lessons can be just as interesting as going to the movies or watching TV. It’s a way to communicate that knowledge is not founded on fear, but on wonder.” Vasilij Sidin died last year, during one of his summer camps with the young people; Emmaus was born through participation in the organization of this last endeavor of his.

Oleg’s stars. At that time, Aleksandr had the opportunity to talk to Oleg, one of the young people. An orphan, and very short in stature, Oleg had serious orthopedic problems throughout his childhood, but he slowly learned to walk and to live on his own. During his last years of school, he lost his vision almost completely; for seven years, he has been dreaming of once again being able to see the stars. Now he is in his third year in the Philosophy department, and his passion is to collect audio books–he has over 3,000 of them.

“That day, I asked him how many of them he had read: 115 in the last year, he answered. I told him that I didn’t believe him, and his only response was to tell me that he listened to them ‘on 5,’ that is, at five times the normal speed, in order not to lose time (‘with all the reading that I still have to do!’).” Aleksandr knows well that in the residence where Oleg grew up, the kids are not big fans of reading. “He told me, ‘Actually, for many years I didn’t like reading, either. But I was lucky, I lost my sight.’” At a certain point, the doctors decided that his legs were in better shape than his eyes and that, consequently, he would have to move from the residence for the lame to the one for the blind. “‘It was a paradise,’ Oleg told me. ‘All of the kids had been to music school, they had literary clubs and played chess... I even learned Latin.’ While I was listening to Oleg, I understood the meaning of our work. Orphaned children who have a hard time walking should not have to wait until they go blind, too, in order to be able to start to live.” For Aleksandr and his companions in this adventure, it was a challenge. “We had to become the friends who allow the kids to ‘see the stars,’ who play chess with them, who help them study Latin and discover, together with them, the greatness of life. I thought, we can offer them this friendship. But will they accept it?”

When Saša was six months old, they found him with a fractured skull in the garbage dump of an enormous market. Now he is 20 years old and writes poetry every day. His poems speak of a young woman, of her beauty and tenderness, of her gorgeous hair and sweet voice. Once, in answering a question put to him by Aleksandr, he confessed that he never goes to bed at night without having written a poem. “He asked me to read his collection. And I found myself in front of a notebook packed with meditations on love, both naïve and moving.” Aleksandr requested the assistance of a psychologist. She spoke with the boy, and was shocked by what she discovered: Saša’s poems were not dedicated to a girl, but to his mother–the mother that he has never seen, but whom he needs, because without that relationship he cannot make an adult life for himself. “Saša doesn’t need corrective lessons, he needs maternity–to the extent that, if he doesn’t rediscover it every night, he can’t get to sleep,” explains Aleksandr. “And he finds it in those poems that alarm the psychologists so much, and in the prayers to the Virgin Mary that he learns at the Timur theater.”

Young kids from the Timur theater.

Snežana’s album. One Saturday evening, Aleksandr was studying math with a group of young people from the residence while an Italian volunteer, Maria Chiara, talked about her life in Turin and Bologna. “A girl that I didn’t know came up to our table and started listening to our conversation, then asked me, ‘Do you want to see my photo album?’” Snežana was new, having moved to the residence for her last year of studies from the hospital where she had been for several years. Aleksandr had heard only negative things about her: Snežana smokes, she swears, she always has candy... And what’s more, she doesn’t have either of her kidneys, so every two days the ambulance takes her to have dialysis. Well, suddenly this “terrible” girl wanted to show Aleksandr the only thing that she always carried with her: “The album contained pictures of her parents, who had died of alcohol abuse after having reduced themselves to a life of homelessness.” This is a very common fate in this tragic period of post-Soviet society. Snežana was showing off pictures of people who had died because of their drinking, and whose fault it was that she was dying, too. The album begins with young, beautiful faces–black-and-white images of the happy times when her parents first met. Then the color photos start, documenting the normality of day-to-day existence during the Cold War period, lives destroyed and faces of children who, in their school uniforms, partially manage to hide the signs of disaster. Those same faces can be found later on in the album, immortalized in photos between the walls of a house that is almost indistinguishable from a dump. “But in her stories, there wasn’t even a shadow of blame, there was no pain, and not even a shred of desperation,” recounts Aleksandr. “There was only her love for them, all contained in a small album. In my life, I had never come across a witness of love that was so direct, powerful, and uncompromising. In showing me her photos, Snežana did nothing but launch a silent challenge to me to share her destiny with her. Her trust was like a sign of benediction for our work.”

Father Iosif is a well-known missionary priest from Novosibirsk. Aleksandr met him in Kharkov at a school party, and then found himself at a table with him, Elena Sidina (Sidin’s wife), and Tanja, a 20-year-old girl from the residence. “All of a sudden, Father Iosif asked, ‘Tanja, do you have parents?’ She calmly replied that they were dead. It was an awkward moment. ‘But I have a spiritual mother,’ she added. I thought that she was talking about Elena Sidina, but she finished her sentence with: ‘Our Mother of God.’”

Before meeting the Emmaus friends, Tanja was afraid of the future. “She was terrorized by her studies, because for many years the administration had not had her study according to a normal program, and then they suddenly decided to put her in an advanced class, making her skip six years of school.” Now she is in her last year, and still struggling. “We have been doing private lessons for a year, and with us she has come to understand what she wants to do in life: nursing. But she will have to finish school, obtain a degree as a social worker, and go to Moscow, because the only nursing school is there.” For a disabled adolescent, who is also an orphan, this sort of trajectory is impossible... if she is left on her own.

Why this name? What does a village that was once located near Jerusalem, but which no longer even exists–Emmaus–have to do with this unique experience in Ukrainian life? “It is no longer the name of a place, but the symbol of an event that shook the lives of two people, of two men who had left Jerusalem in the grip of anguish over Christ’s death,” responds Aleksandr. “Those same men who had earlier left Emmaus precisely in order to seek Him, were now returning, defeated. But then, all of a sudden, an encounter happens to them that brings them back to life, possible only because Christ is near to them, walks with them, and shares their lives.” Aleksandr pauses for a moment. “In life there are events like this, crucial events that happen all of a sudden.”

Time doesn’t matter, because they can’t be planned, foreseen, or organized–they simply happen. “But never without our participation, because if we are not attentive, then we don’t even notice all of these ‘suddens.’ For us, Emmaus became the name of these events–facts that pull man out of desperation and bring him to his destiny.”