Posted by: connie | May 21, 2008

The stigma of being an orphan

Those who know me/us personally, know how cautious I/we have been with our daughters in relation to their exposure to and contact with native Russians. While many people–even close friends–initially may have thought this was odd or perhaps attributed it to the ‘over-protectiveness’ of first-time parents, we nevertheless have remained vigilant.

It hasn’t been because we want to “assimilate” them or force them to forget their heritage–nothing could be further from the truth! As a matter of fact, we have surrounded ourselves with all things Russian, and I have frequently initiated conversations with Russians when my girls are in my company (I purposely choose the check-out lines of two Russian women in our local Wal-Mart!!).

No, our guardedness arose as we began to understand the Russian culture’s disdain for and low opinion of orphans. We’ve explained these things to our daughters from very early on, which they had no problem understanding because they had already experienced it in Russia.

I recently had this matter driven home to me through an online newsletter I received from an American adoption agency (not the agency we used). The article below describes an outreach the agency has embarked on in Russia–an effort to acclimate Russian orphans to the “real” world through interaction with Russian children living with their bio. parents/families (highlighted portions by me).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Changing Perceptions
A summer camp experience changes society’s view of orphans and the orphans’ view of themselves…

In the Tomsk Region of Russia, much like the rest of the world, people don’t have a very high opinion of “orphans,” and parents don’t seek out opportunities for their children to spend time with an orphaned child. It is not the fault of orphans, but it is another misfortune that they have to bear in lives that have often been tragic since the very beginning.

The 2007 Hobby Activity is the third year of a blended summer camp that helps to bring orphans out of their isolation from society, and build awareness about their needs among the greater population. During two weeks this past August, orphaned children and children with parents came together to enjoy a very interesting lifestyle full of festivals and holidays, lectures and games, dances and songs. In the homelike, informal atmosphere, the children explored topics such as racism by meeting face-to-face with indigenous people from Siberia. They worked together to write and film videos that address the problems of modern youths – whether orphaned or not – and the resulting clips became powerful material for a ‘film festival’ of youth issues. The children staged “Photo Hunts” where they tried to “capture” the spirits of their friends in a still photo; they talked about stars; they designed and built real landscapes around the campground. These activities taught all of the children to work together, to be creative, to trust… The children with families learned that they are not very different from the orphans.

Of course, many of the orphaned children struggle with darker, deeper issues: they are not perfect. There are some who have smoked, used alcohol, and even experimented with drugs and life on the street. But they are not lost forever, and through this camp we do our best to motivate them,…to build their trust, and to teach them how to live an independent life in harmony with society.This year was the most successful yet. The previous two years of the camp – when some parents were alarmed by the thought of their children interacting with orphans – were not spent in vain. Now most families in the community are warm and accepting of children from government institutions, and there is a waiting list of families who want their children to participate next year. The greatest wish of almost every orphan, as you can well imagine, is to be a camper next year! This program has incredible potential to reach more children every year, as long as our resources continue to grow.The program works: when this year’s orphan campers returned to their institutions, almost every one of them said that much had changed in their hearts from this experience. Most importantly, they now understood why they needed to study: because life is many-sided, and they can make choices about their future.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This not only confirms our understanding, but sheds some light on the surprise and intense interest I saw in a number of native Russians recently as they interacted with Olga through the local ‘sister city’ project. By God’s grace, Olga serves as example to people who may have previously held a very low opinion of orphans.

I have grown to care deeply for many of the native Russians with whom we have become acquainted–many care very much for our girls, teaching and encouraging them, and wishing them well. Still, I will remain vigilant to guard our daughters and train them regarding the various prejudices that remain in the eyes of some.

Pray for the orphans of the world, while it is true that God is the father of the fatherless (Ps. 68:5), these children often must live under the oppressive stigma assigned to them only because they have been orphaned here on earth.

(Side note: I’m reminded how even Christians sometimes endure stigmas assigned to them as a result of their former life apart from Christ–it’s interesting how spiritual adoption and physical adoption have more in common than we sometimes realize.)

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