14:02 GMT +320 September 2017

    Life in an SOS village: how one mother brought up 17 children

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    Teacher Vera Yegorova is always ready to hear a distress signal and come to the rescue. She is an SOS mother who raised several generations of abandoned children.

    Teacher Vera Yegorova is always ready to hear a distress signal and come to the rescue. She is an SOS mother who raised several generations of abandoned children. Nine-year-old Artyom Savelyev, who lost parents on two occasions – first in Russia and later in America – is the seventeenth child in the family of this wonderful woman.

    A Mother’s bliss

    “I always wanted to have a big family with many children that would laugh happily and call me mother. But nature gave me no such chance,” she says.

    But fate ruled in Yegorova’s favor that she would, indeed, have a big family and a house resounding with the voices of children. Fifteen years ago she came across a newspaper report that Russia was launching a project to build social support villages for 12 or 14 houses, each house intended for one SOS mother and six to eight children.

    “Once in 1996, I bought a newspaper for something to read on my way to the office. I usually skimmed the news and solved the crossword puzzles. I don’t know what made me look at the inside page on that day. A story entitled ‘Mothering Is Now a Profession’ jumped out at me,” she recalled.

    The managers of an SOS village were recruiting mothers who could also educate  social orphans. Even though Vera Yegorova was a trained mathematician and computer programmer and had never taught before, she immediately sent a letter to the address listed in the advertisement. Four days later, Yelena Bruskova, the President of Russian SOS Villages, invited her for an interview.

    “They gave me a book, Every Shilling Helps, with photographs of Western villages and children. The captions said how the children were faring and what they achieved in life. It got myself thinking that nothing of the kind was possible in this country. My perception was that orphanages were a totally different thing,” she said.

    Firstlings and followers

    After several months of training, Vera reported for work as a professional mother. “It was an excruciating experience waiting for the arrival of your first children. I was afraid they wouldn’t like the house or me,” she said.

    Her wait was longer than that of other SOS mothers. Colleagues often told her that in the case of blood brothers and sisters, the elder children would frequently refuse to step over the threshold, with the younger siblings becoming hysterical. The social teachers had to coax them into the house for hours.

    “I was afraid of that. But one day, five brothers and sisters came in. They were visibly shy and just stood there by the door – they were so sad, with their shoulders drooping… But kindness was shining in their eyes and that sunk deep into my heart,” she said.

    The firstlings often asked their adoptive mother how passionately she had awaited them. She even saw the five in her dreams long before they turned up at the house. And they helped her to understand what a big family was all about. “I never chose my children; I just accepted those they offered. I never examined their personal files or medical certificates. If a child comes here, it’s meant to be. That’s his fate, and mine too – to be together,” she says.

    After some time, a father came to live with them too. Vera knew Vassily Kibenko long before she moved to the village. “He was aware that I’d never leave it here. It’s my cause and my life,” she said. This is how they found a father, the only one in the village.

    The American son

    Artyom Savelyev was adopted by an American family and lived in the United States for six months, after which his adoptive mother, Torry Ann Hansen, put him on a Moscow-bound plane with a note reading, “I no longer want to parent this child,” in his pocket. Prior to that adoption he lived in the Primorye Territory with his mother who was subsequently stripped of her parental rights. Artyom was confined to an orphanage, where he spent several years.

    “Counting Artyom, I have 17 children. He is so exhausted by plane flights and going back and forth between orphanages and parents,” she says.

    The boy came to her SOS house two weeks ago. He was accepted as a family member in no time at all and made friends with the other five children. He started attending school and likes it there, and now he’s bringing home his first good grades.

    Artyom is very respectful of his adoptive parents. “He called me ‘mom’ on the second day,” Vera confessed.

    So far the boy is still afraid of leaving the village. Not even a skating-rink, a water park, or still a children’s theater can lure him away. He never deviates from one path – the one leading from home to school and back. But he is fond of village life as it is. He is reluctant to recall his past experiences in America and says he has turned over a new leaf.

    “That he lived in America we learned from his papers. Artyom said nothing about that. He even claimed that he knew no English when we were buying textbooks for school,” Vera says.

    Family celebrations and a mother’s woes

    Children can stay under their social mother’s wing until age 15, when they have to move to a Youth House, the next stage in the SOS system. The Youth House is a hostel for young people where former SOS villagers can live and master trades.

    Children from two of her earlier groups are now educated people with jobs and families of their own. Their SOS mother is proud to have three grandchildren, and a fourth one is coming soon. Her current “third” group is made up of four boys and two girls. But on days-off and holidays the household tends to expand several times over. The “old boys” (and girls) come for a visit, bringing the number of inhabitants to 40 or more.

    New children quickly get used to the grownups even though they never lived with them in one family. “It’s important for the new arrivals to see what kind of relations we have with the first children. It becomes clear to them that they won’t be left alone in the future,” she says.

    She would never part with her dearly loved pupils, even though they are not blood kin. One year from now she is going to retire, but she hopes to be allowed to look after her 13- and 14-year-olds till they come of age. “I’ll adopt the three younger kids and take them with me. It’s for the best. It’s my fate that I am here,” she says.

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