What’s In Your Refrigerator?

Right now, what’s in there?

That thought washed over me, as I talked with a group of teens last week. They live in an orphanage in central Ukraine, and while they are just typical kids at first glance, spending a few days living with them revealed much more.

I’ve been involved in Ukrainian orphan hosting for almost 10 years, have four precious Ukrainian-born daughters, and have lost count of the Uki stamps in my passport. It’s safe to say I felt fairly knowledgeable about how children live in an Internat (orphan boarding school), and what life is like for them. After three days living in their dormitory, I humbly confess, I knew nothing. There were several powerful revelations, but the overwhelming, constant hunger most surprised me.

Shortly after arrival, we took a group of 11 to eat a local café and they were ravenous, which didn’t strike me as odd because they’re teens. Teens eat, often and much. Over the next three and a half days, we visited the local farmer’s market and small grocery seven times, we prepared meals together in a small kitchenette in the dorm, and ate as a group. No one from our group visited the cafeteria building across the courtyard, which didn’t warrant a second thought at the time.

It was a lovely experience living with the children, and they were genuinely happy, adding more to our group with each meal – waking up smiling and making breakfast together, each helping prepare some portion of every meal; it was just simple and nice. Late night card games after dinner, and ice cream treats before the 9pm curfew – I didn’t think any of this was out of the ordinary.

On departure day, we made one last walk to the grocery, and the children filled their bags with loaves of bread, sausages, cheese, fruits, and vegetables (along with much needed personal hygiene and toiletries). We lovingly unpacked everything in the tiny kitchenette, and they began to chatter, discussing how to ensure the caretakers would not take their rations once the Americans left. The cookware we purchased had already led to some items being claimed by rogue caretakers, but protection of the food? The feeling that once these purchases were consumed, the kids would be left hungry filled me with guilt and panic, as my mind scrambled to find possible ways to get more food to them before the group departs for the US June 15th. And what about the ones left behind? There was no doubt a plan would be needed, but at that moment our driver waited and good-byes loomed so we hugged, and smiled and hid the sadness for photos and formalities.

Then, “Y”, a host boy I know fairly well, hugged me with such intent and whispered, “I have not been hungry for these three days; it was the best feeling. Thank you, thank everyone. This was the best time. I love you. God bless.” Tears had to be choked back, my internal scream silenced, the primal need to protect disregarded, as I could not process the enormity of what “Y” felt. It was so wrong, as I was walking away. How could this be the reality for these children, the children we know by name? It was simply too much and I had no idea what to do.

Yes, I have known there is not enough food at many orphanages. Yes, I have fed many children during my adoption trips and orphanage visits. Yes, I have seen firsthand the growth these children experience when they come for summer or Christmas hosting. But this was different.

The kids are often quick to share that the food is no good, or there is not enough at their Internat. But until “Y” whispered his truth, quietly but so powerfully, I never realized these babies felt constant gnawing hunger. That they were painfully in need of food, and there was either not enough or it was inedible, was just too raw and overwhelming.

So now, I’m back home with a full refrigerator and memories that haunt. We will work to find ways to get food to the children P143 knows and sponsors, and try. Try to help some. I ask that you keep these orphans in your prayers; think of them at your next meal. And consider how God wants you to help.