Living in an orphanage in Ukraine is usually a traumatizing experience, even in peaceful times. Estimates put the number of youth in orphan care in the country at about 90,000. The majority are social orphans, meaning they have been placed in institutions because their parents could not care for them on account of extreme poverty, abuse, or abandonment. Around age 16, orphans must leave the boarding schools or other care institutions because state funding runs out. Yet, having spent their whole lives without parental love and care, most are woefully unprepared for independent adult living.
We are talking on Skype. After all, I am in Washington DC, and she is in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Wearing a beanie covering most of her hair, 28-years-old Olena Kuts looks away from the camera and laughs when I explain why I wanted to interview her: to learn more about her life.
“It’s a long story,” jokes Olena.
And not an easy one. Born with Phocomelia, a condition that involves arm and leg malformations, Olena was abandoned by her parents when she was just two days old. Soon after, she was sent to a local orphanage, where she lived for six years. Lena doesn’t like to look back at those first years of her life.