In Ukraine, friendships protect vulnerable girls

KIEV, Ukraine — The kids playing tag in this park might not know it, but many of them have two things that certain powerful people value — innocence and desperation.

It’s a combination that makes young people like these low-income kids from the nearby Trieszhrina neighborhood vulnerable to human traffickers and their promises of opportunity and adventure.

That vulnerability has led ReachGlobal’s Amy Richey and youth worker Olenka Osadcha to spend a lot of time in Trieszhrina, helping kids see through those empty promises. Tonight, the two women are leading a group of about 30 children and teenagers to an outdoor game night. It’s part of a Friday night teen club called Flip, a Christian group started by New Life Church in Kiev.

Families at risk, kids at risk

For kids like 15-year-old Marta, laughing and playing here in the park offers respite from the family struggles common to Trieszhrina and other low-income districts in Kiev. The daughter of a single mother, Marta’s home situation mirrors that of many kids in her neighborhood.

“The biggest problem for our children is the absence of parents and the absence of parental care,” says Osadcha, 26, who attends New Life Church and is a leader at Flip. “Most families in Ukraine aren’t completely together, because the parents get divorced or abandon their children.” In Ukraine, 63 percent of marriages end in divorce.

“Another problem is that they [teens] become extremely dependent upon one another, and of course that means bad company and different harmful habits … beginning with smoking and ending up with other more difficult problems,” Osadcha says

Chief among those difficult problems is prostitution – an easy way for young women to make money in a country where economic hardship often gives them few alternatives. Among Ukrainian young people ages 15-24, unemployment hovers around 19 percent. At the same time, prostitution among children remains a threat – one studyfound that between 30 percent and 40 percent of sex workers in Ukraine – up to 33,000 people — are between 11 and 18 years old.

Forging good relationships

In the minds of ReachGlobal staff workers and their ministry partners in Kiev, battling this problem starts with one thing: relationships.

For Osadcha, a schoolteacher, that has meant working with youths at New Life for the past three years, leading Flip meetings, and giving presentations in schools on the dangers of human trafficking – for example, avoiding people with travel offers that seem too good to be true.

“I believe that our conversations, lessons and lectures in schools will influence the choices these young girls will make,” she says.

For Richey, forming relationships means volunteering with Flip on Friday nights and also teaching English to half a dozen Ukrainian girls one other night per week.

It’s in small groups like the English class that Richey hears the hard truths about the girls’ lives: few jobs, almost no fathers to be found and even less hope. MThose rotten family situations make many girls become so desperate that they knowingly accept invitations to travel that they know could lead to forced prostitution, Richey says.

In one recent case, Richey spoke with a young Ukrainian woman who takes care of her two mentally ill parents by herself. The woman got an offer to  work in Israel, a common destination for woman trafficked from Ukraine.

Richey and others pointed out the red flags — overpriced plane ticket, murky job description. But the woman was so desperate to escape Kiev that she was willing to trade her current life for years of forced prostitution. The woman hasn’t yet left.

“So I’ve made a very conscious decision in Ukraine to focus on prevention,” says Richey, the Kiev City Team Leader for ReachGlobal. “There’s … a lot of vulnerable populations in Ukraine, and these kids happen to be part of one.

“Kids in areas like Trieszhrina and some of the smaller villages, orphans, kids on the margins – they’re by far the highest risks in Ukraine.”

Whether they’re running around outside or watching videos inside, kids like Marta and her friends have found in Flip a safe place to do what kids everywhere want to do — just hang out and have fun.

“I like to spend time with my friends,” Marta says. “And I can study and practice my English.”

Bringing Jesus into the room

Leaders at Flip don’t hide their spiritual intentions. Osadcha says that she hopes she and her colleagues can tell as many kids as possible about Jesus and that they’ll accept him as their savior. But the typical teen peer pressure to misbehave is immense.

“It’s popular to drink alcohol, to smoke, to take drugs; and teenagers don’t want to become Christian because they want to be popular,” Osadcha says. “It is difficult to speak with them about God, because they don’t want to become Christian.”

So the Flip team builds relationships, hoping that friendship can do what other methods cannot to steer teenagers the right way.

“We get to know people, and one life at a time, we prevent human trafficking in Ukraine,” Richey says. “I want each one of those girls to understand that she is created in the image of Almighty God, and that her value is not found in a dysfunctional father and how he views her, but in her heavenly Father, and how He views her.”

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