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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 18:27 GMT 19:27 UK
New hope for Russian orphans
The BBC's Richard Sargent in Moscow reports on a new scheme to give Russian orphans internships in large companies, allowing them the chance to avoid a life of crime, drug addiction and low-paid work.


Sergei ties his tie
Orphan Sergei: A chance to fulfil his potential?
Sergei proudly tries on a suit and tie for the first time.

He has known a life that few of us could even contemplate. His father died in a car crash when he was three. And then his mother hit the bottle.

Sergei's habitual smile disappears and he lowers his gaze as he re-visits a time he has strived to forget.

"I don't want to remember; I have only bad memories from then," he says.

After five years of neglect and regular beatings, he and his two brothers were taken away from their mother.

He never knew any other relatives and lost contact with his siblings, who were too old to be placed in an orphanage. He refuses to have any contact with his mother.

"But my dad was a very, very kind man," he says.

Bullying

It was a new start for the eight-year-old, a new life. A friend, Nikolai, describes the orphanage as a place without love, without warmth. But it was better than "home" for Sergei.

Companies are very excited about the programme - corporate philanthropy is a new concept in Russia but it's really taking off
Meaghan McGrath Beaumont
IFC project manager
Life in a Russian orphanage depends greatly on its staff.

Most are working there as a last resort. Bullying by older children is widespread and the over-stretched and under-paid staff simply do not have the time, and often the inclination, to give individual love and attention.

Orphans in Russia must leave orphanages at the age of 17. In Moscow, these orphan "graduates" should by law be provided with a flat and a small stipend.

But many of the 700,000 orphans in Russia are unprepared for life on the outside.

Forty per cent of orphan graduates turn to crime, 40% become drug addicts and 10% commit suicide or simply "disappear" within the first year of independence, according to the Russian NGO, Big Changes.

Only 2% enter university, compared with 45% of children raised in families.

Sergei is highly intelligent and motivated. Alongside his regular studies he has been coming to Women and Children First, a Russian NGO which teaches orphans "life-skills" to cope with life outside an institutionalised orphanage. His favourite class is English.

Paid interns

Like the vast majority of orphans, Sergei is being channelled into low-paid, low-skilled work. However, thanks to a new project at Women and Children First, he may be able to escape construction work and fulfil his potential.

Slava working at White and Case
Slava (l) says he sometimes felt too weak to go on
A Chance to Work is a new scheme run by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank Group member, and is an extension of similar projects in Washington DC and Cairo.

It will give orphans the opportunity to work as paid interns in large companies in Moscow.

Meaghan McGrath Beaumont, IFC's project manager in Washington DC, explains: "Companies are very excited about the programme. Corporate philanthropy is a new concept in Russia but it's really taking off."

Companies expressing interest in the project include AIG Insurance, Ramenka, owner of the Ramstore hypermarket chain in Moscow, and Austria's Raiffeisenbank. Negotiations with top British companies are expected to start in the coming months.

It's more than just an opportunity, it's a chance of a lifetime which can change your whole future
Slava
As well as Women and Children First and Big Changes, the IFC is working with the Russian Orphans Opportunity Fund (ROOF). ROOF provides educational support to orphans and helps them to make the often difficult transition from institutional living to independent life.

Training will be provided by the NGOs before and during work placements on aspects such as writing a CV, interview techniques, behaviour at work and dress codes.

Each intern will be given psychological support by the NGO and will also be assigned a mentor within the company.

Merit and distinction

A partner in the project is White and Case, an international law firm with experience in the field. Slava, an orphan graduate, has been working as a courier with them for the past year-and-a-half.

Sergei shakes hands with Nikolai
Sergei is excited at the prospect of a place on the scheme
Alongside the full-time job, he has been doing evening classes at ROOF to make up for poor schooling at the orphanage and bring him up to university standard.

"It was not easy," he admits. "At times, I thought I just didn't have the strength to go on."

It all paid off, however. He passed all his final year school exams with merit and distinction and now plans to go to university to study law.

He said he would recommend his experience to anyone.

"It's more than just an opportunity, it's a chance of a lifetime which can change your whole future."

As he practises his handshake, Sergei is clearly excited at the prospect of a place on the scheme.

He also dreams of going to law school. A Chance to Work could turn his dream into reality.


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