“Kolya often runs away from home. He roams the streets when his mother and stepfather drink. Police caught him with his younger brother and sister as they were rummaging through a landfill to find something and sell it, ”heard viewers who came to the premiere of A House of the Splinters in Warsaw.
This film is about two educators of an orphanage, whose official name is Lysychansk Center for Social and Psychological Assistance. Children get there if their families break up due to alcoholism, violence, and as a result, children lose their homes. Many people in the hall can’t hold back their tears while the children’s stories unfold in front of them.
-Your mother has forgotten about you.
-No, she has forgotten herself. And I sometimes forget her, and sometimes remember.
There are two women from Ukraine among the spectators in the hall. This is not the first time they have seen this film, it has been running for them since September 1998. It was then that the shelter was opened, and Margaryta Burlutska and Olga Tronova became educators for children who have wounded souls from living with their parents.
“When I watched the movie, it was as if I was at home again. I don’t know if it will ever be like that again. But this film captured it in the reality that we had to leave behind, “says Olga Tronova, an educator at Lysychansk Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation of Children.
Together with her colleague Margaryta Burlutska, they escaped for a day from the reality in which they have lived since February 24, and returned a few years ago to Lysychansk, where the war gave off the thunder of explosions, which they used to ignore. At least that’s what they thought during the premiere of “A House Made of Splinters” in Warsaw.
Life has always been difficult here…
In the late 90’s Lysychansk became more and more reminiscent of a depressed city. Many industrial enterprises closed, people lost their jobs. There was devastation and chaos around, which, according to Olga, was becoming more and more controlled at that time. Many families have adapted to modern conditions, found jobs in budget institutions or went to work. “But many families could not stand this mess, maybe that’s why they started drinking. From hopelessness “, – says educator-methodologist Margaryta.
“There were a lot of homeless children in the city then. The parents had no work, and the children lived in landfills and under hatches. It was really necessary to open such a shelter” – Olga recalls.
Both educators have been working in the shelter since its opening. Margaryta loved to spend time with children, since childhood she realized that she was fascinated by the work of an educator, so she gladly accepted the invitation to work. At that time, Olga had been working as a primary school teacher for ten years. She agreed to work at the shelter because it was a challenge, something completely new, full of excitement from the launch of a new project.
“We lived with the whole team on this project, its discovery,” recalls Olga.
When she saw these children in the street, often under the influence of drugs, she wondered if she could fall in love with such a child. Because without love this work would not make sense. “But when we opened the shelter, I never mentioned those doubts again. There was no need to learn to love, the feeling of attachment arose immediately, the children gave this love themselves, “she says.
Lysychansk CSPR is a social institution for children aged three to 18 because they find themselves in a difficult life situation.
Most often they are brought by a social worker, but there are also personal requests from children. While their future is being decided, a psychologist is working with them, educators are making sure that adults go to school, and for the younger ones they are organizing a kindergarten in the shelter itself. That is, children are provided with psychological, social and legal assistance.
This transit period is first and foremost a chance for parents. If they manage to cope with alcohol or drug addiction, the children return to their families. If not, parents are deprived of parental rights. “But few children have returned to their families lately, parents do not want to cope,” – said Margaryta.
And then the child gets either to a foster family, or to a family-type house, or to a boarding school.
“Every child comes with his pain, but he immediately becomes part of our family, because our team is good. And this child becomes our home. It happens that at the age of four a child saw something that an adult did not see. Children come to us from families where they did not live, but survived, ” says Margaryta.
Olga remembers that once a girl came to their shelter. When she first spoke to her, she told the girl:
-Don’t worry, we will patch your heart here.
-I have a big hole here, – the girl replied, holding her hand over her heart.
“We don’t even know what they have gone through, we may not be fully aware of their pain. For example, young children will not tell what they have experienced, we can only guess” – says Olga.
“People have been working for us for a long time, this is a place that is addictive. Too often, we take our work out of the house, think about these children, or continue to discuss work, even when work hours are over. A person will not be able to work there without love and soul” – Olga believes.
Margaryta agrees with her: “When you come to work, and there are their smiles, they meet you, hug you. Of course, they also disobey like all children. But it seems that you have already merged with this craft, to which you have dedicated almost half of your life”.
…But the war made it even worse
“Not all the parents were able to survive the start of the war in 2014” – Margarita says
Then many children appeared in Lysychansk, who were not only in difficult family circumstances, but also learned what war meant. At the same time, the war brought even more problems to the city, which never managed to get rid of its “depressed” status. The number of children passing through the orphanage has increased.
In 2014, Lysychansk spent almost two months in the occupation of the terrorist organization LNR. Then the children were brought to a similar shelter in Kharkiv, so they were not there when active combat took place in the city. Olga and Margarita returned to Lysychansk, and the orphanage turned into a shelter instead. There was no water or light in the city itself, and the connection was poor. When the city was liberated, for the first time in many years, people in Lysychansk felt joy. “It can hardly be expressed in words. We tried to find out if the acquaintances were alive, we asked about each other. In general, people became kinder after 2014,” Margarita recalls of that period. The children soon returned from Kharkiv to Lysychansk.
And so they lived until February 24, side by side with the war. “It seams, people are able to get accustomed to everything. We heard explosions, but they were far away. That is, we knew that the war was nearby, but we did not pay attention if it thundered far away. We got used to a “peaceful life,” Olga says.
A House Made of Splinters
Margarita had a calendar at home where she used to mark important events. There she has also marked the day when the film crew of the documentary film “A House Made of Splinters“ first came to the orphanage. It was April 5, 2019.
“Journalists often come to us. I thought that they would come, film the plot and that would be the end of our cooperation,” Margarita recalls.
But the film crew stayed in the orphanage for two and a half years. “Every time we waited for them to arrive. The children were waiting for them, we were waiting for them. It was a great joy for us to communicate with them. Eventually, they became part of our family,” Margarita says.
When Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont and producer-journalist Azad Safarov first came to the shelter, they immediately realized that they wanted to make their film here. They managed to get there thanks to a human rights activist Olena Rozvadovska, who had been helping the film crew for the next few years in order to document the lives of children ethically and without harming them. The orphanage impressed Simon, Azad and Elena with its homely atmosphere. It differed greatly from the cold and sterile walls they had seen in similar establishments before.
At first, the educators felt the presence of the camera, which made them embarrassed. But later they stopped paying attention to the camera, forgot that it exists.
“We gave the Danish director Simon (Lehreng Wilmont – ed.) the opportunity to work the way he wants to see this in his film. We gave him the opportunity to immerse himself in our environment so that he could emphasize this complex topic on his own,” Olga says.
They knew that the children’s souls were wounded, but there was no point in talking about it, because everything was reflected in the eyes of the child.
“It is a great disaster for the whole country and the region where we come from. And that the children found themselves in conditions where they had to survive, not live. Behind them stretches this train from the former life with parents. But we do not constantly think about this pain, we try to compensate it with the warmth of our attitude, so we do not neglect hugs, kindness, and I think it’s right,” Olga says.
After a short pause, she adds: “It is impossible to get used to this pain. Yes, it’s a job, but it’s a job we put a lot of our souls into.”
Olga and Margarita saw the film for the first time in 2021, at the chamber premiere in Severodonetsk. They were very worried; this was the first time they took part in such a long filming. They were scared, but at the same time it was interesting to watch how the director saw their lives from the outside. They held hands and watched the documentary holding their breath. Stories of children they knew by heart unfolded on the screen in front of them.
«We know the pain of every child, we pass it through ourselves».
«And after watching the film, I felt anger again towards their parents. It is difficult to understand why they behave like this with their own children. It is difficult when the mother by the phone promises to the child that she will come. It is difficult and painful to watch a child waiting for his or her mother, but she does not come. Probably, it is a pain of all Ukraine that we have such families,” Margarita speaks with sadness, rather than anger.
Olga agrees with her: “And now, after the 24th, this problem will become even bigger, there will be more children with a destroyed psyche.”
After February 24
This day meant an emergency evacuation for the orphanage. But this time it should be much further west and further from Kharkiv. “In 2014, we were scared, but it’s not comparable to what is happening now. If compared, it seems that there was nothing then,” Olga says.
Recently, the orphanage was renovated, and for many children its walls have already become their home. None of them wanted to go and get used to some new place. Again.
Margarita was on vacation at the time, and she with her family evacuated to the west of Ukraine. Olga accompanied the children who were placed on the buses to their new home. “We didn’t understand what was happening, but we hoped to be back soon,” she said.
Currently, the children are in another orphanage, where children from similar centers of other “hot spots” of Ukraine were also brought. “The parents of these children were not evacuated, they stayed there, they continue drinking,” Olga says.
The children started to get acquainted and contact each other, but they still want to go home. When Olga puts them to bed, the same question is asked every night: “When will we go home?” It is difficult for her to answer this question because she does not know the answer.
In fact, the first “official” premiere of “A House Made of Splinters” for Margarita and Olga was to happen at the Docudays documentary film festival, which was postponed because of the war. Therefore, for the first time they managed to watch the final version of the film abroad. Olga admits that this time she watch the film differently. The educators were pleased that the foreign audience greeted “A House Made of Splinters” with such sincere interest, they were asked many questions and shared their impressions.
“But I didn’t feel as if I was talking to the foreigners, it was a conversation with close people,” Olga says. It was interesting for both educators to watch the story, which became so ingrained in their own lives, from aside, but finally they noted that the most valuable thing was the filming process itself and the atmosphere of trust between them and the film crew.
And for them personally, the film itself was not an escape from the everyday life, but rather a reminder that despite the pain and sufferings love always dominates in this everyday life.
“I realized once again that when a child’s soul is wounded, it must be healed. And this makes you even more eager to try to help the child, to make even more efforts to understand her or him. We need to give even more warmth to heal these wounds”, Olga says.
During the filming, the film crew became friends not only with the educators of the orphanage, but also with the children. In an effort to help them, the idea was born to create the Voices of Children Charity Foundation, which Elena Rozvadovska and Azad Safar have founded together.