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SALESIANS FROM SLOVAKIA HAVE SPENT YEARS EASING THE HARDSHIP OF CHILDREN IN A REMOTE PART OF RUSSIA

Slovak warmth in icy Siberia

MONIKA Svrčková, currently a governess in a children's home in Bernolákovo near Bratislava, spent three years in Siberia helping children from extremely poor families, on trips organised by a church order called the Salesians.
Svrčková, 27, stayed at three places: in the village of Čagda, where activities were held for children in a wooden cabin, in Yakutsk, and in Aldan, where she organised different children's activities in Salesian houses.
The Salesians are one of the Catholic orders active in Slovakia. There are about 250 Salesians in the country, and there are Salesian houses in 18 cities. The history of the Slovak Salesians goes back to 1924, when they first began helping young people in difficult situations. This is still the main aim of their activities. The order was originally started in Italy about 150 years ago by Turin-based priest Don Giovanni Bosco. Today, the worldwide headquarters of the Salesians is in Rome, and the Slovak branch has its main office in Bratislava.


SLOVAK volunteers in the village of Chatystyr celebrate the Day of the Reindeer Herder.
photo. Marek Miko

MONIKA Svrčková, currently a governess in a children's home in Bernolákovo near Bratislava, spent three years in Siberia helping children from extremely poor families, on trips organised by a church order called the Salesians.

Svrčková, 27, stayed at three places: in the village of Čagda, where activities were held for children in a wooden cabin, in Yakutsk, and in Aldan, where she organised different children's activities in Salesian houses.

The Salesians are one of the Catholic orders active in Slovakia. There are about 250 Salesians in the country, and there are Salesian houses in 18 cities. The history of the Slovak Salesians goes back to 1924, when they first began helping young people in difficult situations. This is still the main aim of their activities. The order was originally started in Italy about 150 years ago by Turin-based priest Don Giovanni Bosco. Today, the worldwide headquarters of the Salesians is in Rome, and the Slovak branch has its main office in Bratislava.

It was the Slovak Salesians who started the charitable activities in Siberia. Juraj Kyseľ, the director of the Salesian community in Banská Bystrica, says that although English and Irish priests carried out voluntary work in Siberia before the Slovaks arrived, their mentality was very different from that of the local people. He believes that the Siberians accepted Slovaks more readily because of the cultural and linguistic links between Slovakia and Russia.

The Slovak Spectator recently talked to Monika Svrčková about her experiences in Siberia, and the charitable activities the Salesians organise.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How and when did you find out that the Salesians organise charitable activities?

Monika Svrčková (MS): A friend of mine went to their meetings, and in 1996 she took me along. I soon began to like it. I admired those people and I found them very interesting. But even though I enjoyed meeting them, I never thought that I would really go abroad and actively participate in their activities.

TSS: When did these activities start?

MS: They began a long time ago, about 10 or 11 years earlier, when the first Slovak Salesians went to Aldan, Siberia, to look into the situation there. They then wrote a letter saying that they needed some young volunteers to help them.

TSS: How many of you went to Siberia at first, and where did you stay?

MS: I went to Siberia for the first time in 1997. We stayed there for three months during the summer and organised children's camps. There were eight of us, divided into three groups: One group stayed in Yakutsk and did some of the final work on a community building that was about to open; another group went to Aldan, where they organised some camps for poor people; and the third group went to Čagda, which is a small village. I was placed in that group.

TSS: What activities did you organise for children?

MS: We organised daily camps for children. In the morning, many children from the village would come because they had nothing to do during the summer. All they did was hang out in the village while their parents were either in the garden or out hunting. We organised different activities for them, such as canoeing, hiking in the taiga, and drama. We also talked to the children, and the conversations were based mostly on ethics. Each February, the children are already fighting for places on the Salesian camps in the summer, but only 20 children can be accepted.

TSS: So the parents don't really look after their children?

MS: The parents often don't know or care where their children are. The situation in the villages is difficult: Alcoholism is a big problem and the children are given little in the way of upbringing. Sometimes the children don't even have parents, and their grandparents raise them or they live with their friends. The nuclear family as we know it doesn't really function over there. A mother often has five children, each of them with a different father.

TSS: What is the reason for that?

MS: There are various economic problems that are typical in Russia. The woman is the head of the family and her husband is often away from home and has lovers. The wife does all the work: She often has two jobs and has to take care of the whole family as well. The men drink and are often alcoholics.

TSS: Did you have any problems with the language?

MS: I speak Russian, and with the children it was very easy. Maybe it was harder to communicate with the adults in the first month or two, but the children could understand. Thanks to children I could overcome the language barrier.


THE YOUTH of Čagda get together with Slovak Salesians.
photo. Marek Miko

TSS: How are the children in Siberia informed that a group of Salesians is coming?

MS: It is very easy in the villages because an aeroplane flies in once a week and nothing is kept secret. A village functions as one big family and the phones are interconnected, so one family can hear when another is on the phone. Instead of listening to the radio they listen to each other's phone calls. And everyone knows everything: What the weather is like in Aldan, what is going on, and so on. They come to see who arrives.

There is a little wooden house in Čagda, and people know that it belongs to the Salesians. When we arrive they already know that something is going to happen and they spontaneously come to ask when we will start the activities. We tell them that we need two days to settle in and after that the summer camp for children can start. We also bring humanitarian aid, because the children often have nothing to eat or wear.

TSS: Who finances that?

MS: The Salesians financially support this charitable activity, however there are also many donations from other people.

TSS: You said that the children seek out the Salesians by themselves. Do their parents encourage them to participate?

MS: Children come by themselves and they often bring their parents to take part in the activities, so the opposite happens.


IN Čagda, the place Svrčková liked best.
photo. Marek Miko

TSS: How old are the children?

MS: They are usually between 10 and 18 years old.

TSS: What is the main problem in the villages?

MS: I found that people in the villages need hope. It is very important for people in the taiga that the world knows about them, that they're not forgotten. They think that no one cares about them, that if something happened to them, if the village ceased to exist, no one would notice. So hope is very important to them. That's why they wait for the aeroplane to arrive.

TSS: Are the current tours any different from those 10 years ago?

MS: The tours back then were very different from the ones that take place today. Three Slovak priests decided to start the Salesian activities in Siberia. It was their initiative and they had no idea when they would return. They didn't know anything about the people living there, and they didn't know the language or the conditions. It was an exploratory trip by three adventurers. Then the Salesians made some contacts and the activities started to grow.

TSS: Are these activities for children for free?

MS: They pay if they can, but usually children work in order to participate - they clean up the chapel or they clear the snow from the roads. But this is only symbolic so that they appreciate what we do for them.

TSS: Do you get paid for doing these activities?

MS: This is voluntary work so all I get is an allowance. I feel that a person can devote some years to this kind of charitable aid. In my case it was a total of three years, and I have to say that it touched my heart.

TSS: How would you describe the main purpose of your work in Siberia?

MS: The activity was mainly aimed at children in need of support. They often say that when they come to the house of the Salesians, they feel that they have come to an oasis of comfort and calm, where people smile at them and talk to them. The Salesians' work is not aimed at promoting the Catholic church, which is basically considered a sect and one of the most dangerous religions in Russia. We would have problems if we were promoting the Catholic faith, and we would be denying people their freedom.

TSS: What kind of religion do people practise in Siberia?

MS: They are Russian orthodox. They wear black clothes and hats. Even though their religion is close to the Catholic church, they are against the Catholic religion. Most Russians are born orthodox.

TSS: When you talk about Siberia, I imagine freezing weather and snow. Was it hard to get used to that?

MS: The winter is freezing in Siberia. The hardest winter for me was in January this year, when the thermometer showed minus 56 degrees Celsius. The winter lasts eight months, and the Salesians usually go there in the summer.

TSS: Which places have you visited in that area?

MS: I have visited almost every city. After Čagda I went to Yakutsk, which is the capital of the Yakutsk Republic (eastern Siberia), in 1998 to 1999, and I went to Aldan the last time, where I got married in September last year. My husband and I wanted to stay there longer - for at least five years. However we had to return this year because the climatic conditions were horrible.

TSS: Where did you have your most intense experience, and what was it?

MS: Every place was special in its own way, but I feel the most incredible experience was in Čagda, where I was sent. It is a village with about 700 inhabitants, on the bank of a river deep in the taiga. The people who live there don't have water supplies or functional central heating. They have to carry their water in buckets. The people are naturally kind and religious, generous, open, and intelligent, because they are at one with nature. It was a great experience to live with these simple people. I have never met this kind of humanity in adults and children. Everyone is important to everyone else. Coming face to face with that level of humanity was the best reward.

TSS: You say that the people are friendly. How is it possible then that the parents don't care much for their children?

MS: They don't do it on purpose. There are no job opportunities in the villages. As the people over there often say, there is nothing to do so they drink. And that's how they become alcoholics. The other reason for so many people becoming alcoholics is that there is a long winter, and almost no light. There is light for only three hours a day so people get depressed easily.

TSS: What was your best moment with the children?

MS: The chapel was closed for repairs for a short time and the children kept coming to the house. The same kids knocked on the door every day, asking when it would open and why it was closed. That's when I realised that our activities do have a purpose and that the children do miss them when they are not there.

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