Our foreign correspondent, Lucy Gallard, on the issue of HIV-AIDS in Ukrainian society.

It is freezing. I stamp my feet, pulp my hands and wiggle my shoulders in an effort to keep warm; an odd sight for anyone looking, but everyone seems more preoccupied with hurrying along, chin tucked in against the frigid air, to notice a twitchy foreigner in inappropriate clothing standing under a “no smoking sign” (a rarity in Kyiv). However, there is good reason for enduring such congelation. I am waiting for a girl I do not know, save the fact that she is tall and will be wearing a denim jacket, who is going to show me the way to a centre where the drug-ridden and the fallen may seek some kind of salvation from the purges of a conservative, and above all HIV-AIDS terrified, society. It is a daunting prospect, not least because I feel woefully naive and inadequate next to those who have hurtled over the precipice only to catch themselves by a twig and start hauling their exhausted bodies skywards.

As always, it all began with a student, actually the same student who has inspired the greater part of my writing since arriving in Kyiv. My muse had been telling me about her job in a charitable organisation responsible for providing solutions to those confronted with or vulnerable to infection by HIV-AIDS. The full extent of the virus in Ukraine is awe-inspiring. Some say as much as 3% of the population is infected or at serious risk of infection; one of the highest percentages in Europe.  She explained that the zones most affected by this are those that share a border, in particular to the East, where immigrants seeking a passage to European Union countries and a life of comparative comfort find themselves trapped in a hopeless cycle of poverty and joblessness. Many girls resort to prostitution as a temporary solution that develops into a lifestyle, others turn to drug and alcohol use as a means of escape. Unfortunately, both of these routes are pretty much cul-de-sacs ending in total ostracisation and in far too many cases an early death, whether through the slow wasting away of muscle and flesh or a large dose of opiates. Equally, Ukrainian girls that feel they have little possibility of a future in Ukraine are tempted to countries like Turkey, by promises of good money or education, only to find themselves held prisoners by their “employers” who force them to buy back their passports through commercial sex.

Attitudes towards working girls appear to be marginally worse than those towards drug-users. It came as a shock to me when, in conversation with a Ukrainian friend, her natural liberality and sympathy to the less fortunate came to an abrupt halt at the mention of sex-workers. “Drug users are just weak, or unlucky,” she said, eyebrows raised to their fullest extent, “… but prostitutes are … immoral!” ‘And what about ex-prostitutes?’ I ask. “Pfff … there are no ex-prostitutes; you are one or you aren’t”. Curiosity (and possibly Guardian-reader senses) pricked, I pursued it further. What if a girl is in a situation where, because of poor qualifications, ethnicity, psychological problems or a drug habit, she is unable to make enough money by legal means to survive? What if she finds herself trapped like these girls in Turkey who have their passports stolen and are kept under lock and key by their ‘generous’ hosts? “Well, I do feel sorry for the girls in Turkey,” she concedes, “…but, it’s better to die, to commit suicide than to do that”.

I should probably add that this friend is not overtly religious in any way. She comes from a broad cross section of Ukrainians who are Orthodox to the same extent that I am Anglican. That is, we go to church on special occasions if there is some nice singing or a pretty ceremony, we refer to a broad set of Christian style beliefs without thinking, and automatically assume Something exists, which in our minds appears invariably in a nightshirt, beard flowing and surrounded by harps.

Having been made aware of the HIV-AIDS problem by my student, and having heard first hand the sort of welcome that awaited those people vulnerable to the disease, I felt moved to some kind of action. I mentioned this to my muse who promptly put me in touch with an organisation where I might be of use.

This is why I am shivering under a “no-smoking” sign in the metro watching a large blond woman demonstrating the desirability of various necklaces to a small crowd of brave female popsicles from the warmth of her little boutique. Galya finally arrives, a depressingly beautiful statuette in leggings, heeled boots and the famous denim coat. Spurning my outstretched hand, she swoops in for a peck on the cheek before hustling me off to a waiting car, skipping expertly across the ice in her stilettos.

Twisting round to face me from the front seat, she fixes me with a pair of turquoise eyes and starts asking me about myself, telling me about the centre, complimenting my piercings and persuading me to get a tattoo in roughly equal measure. Her own history is interesting. Her father was an alcoholic, her brother a drug user and she had had problems with narcotics. Having received help herself she decided to give something back and applied for a job with Convictus, the Swedish organisation that is financing this and similar projects in various Eastern European countries.

“Most of the workers here have personal experience with drugs or the sex-trade,” she tells me, “so they really know what they are dealing with, and how it is to be on the other side.” What kind of services do they offer people seeking help? “Lots of different ones. We offer them free testing for HIV-AIDS and some other infections, and refer them to a clinic where they can be tested for Gonorrhea, Hepatitis etc. and receive treatment, also for free. We also give them condoms and clean syringes, offer them counseling, organise groups and programs like the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program, both for users and relatives of users. They can learn some crafts, even sell the better stuff in our online shop,” she explains. I’m impressed, and say so. I wonder how people find out about the centre, as I haven’t seen anything advertised and in the light of peoples’ attitudes towards sex-workers and drug addicts I’m guessing it’s not an easy job to organise awareness campaigns.  “We have various ways of informing people. With Outreach we can send people onto the street to places where drug users hang out, usually outside Pharmacies, or in the apartments of those in the sex trade, to spread the word. Because our workers often have personal experience they know how to communicate this information without judging and they know where to look. We also have a system where we teach current users and sex-workers about our services; they tell others around them.  When they persuade someone to visit they give them a token, which they presents to the centre on arrival. The informer then receives a present.”

Once at the centre, she introduces me to the team leader, a petite blond with perfect make up and luminous skin called Evguenia. She gives me the grand tour of the little building, starting with a comfortable looking room near the entrance where group meetings are held and tables groan under the weight of leaflets. Down a narrow corridor half taken up with boxes of condoms and syringes we find ourselves in a tiny room plastered with photos where three girls work on computers, then in her own larger office which she uses to meet semi-important people (which to my horror includes myself). Down a parallel corridor lies the dispensary where people can be tested for STIs and receive counseling in private, and finally to another comfortable room covered in paintings done by sex-workers where two more women tap away at their keyboards. This is where the girls can learn new crafts and express themselves through art. Some of the paintings are quite harrowing, in particular a pair depicting a scintillating princess in pink and orange opposite a black scarecrow with drooping wings.

All the while a silent girl with a pale face, heavy black hair and huge grey eyes has accompanied us.  I get the feeling she is studying me, and I hope I am making a good impression. Finally, some of the girls and I sit down in Evguenia’s office and get down to business. What exactly do I want to do at the centre? And, the question is posed delicately… “Why?” I explain some of my own history and motivations which I shan’t bore the reader with here, and finished by saying that I was happy to help in any way, but that the only thing I considered myself qualified for was to teach English.  Would this be useful to anyone?

They look at each other, I start wondering if I have been impossibly ignorant; what possible use could I be? What could I possibly offer them that they cannot do themselves? That’s when the dark girl of the big grey eyes speaks up. She rumbles something in rapid Russian, which I don’t catch. It sounds like a rebuke. Galya turns to me and translates, “She says you must be sent from up above.  The timing – it’s a miracle. They need English to communicate with the Swedish offices of Convictus, to represent their projects during international meetings and exchanges. In fact, they just started taking lessons with an American teacher, but it is very expensive. Teaching people still using drugs or engaged in commercial sex probably won’t work because they are not in a state of mind to learn a new language, but would you mind teaching the staff?”

I am stunned… and thrilled. We discuss times and locations and levels, finally agreeing on two groups twice a week. Over a triumphant cigarette, Evguenia tells me about her first husband who died from drug use, and her second husband who is now clean. She also started as a volunteer before becoming head of the centre. “I never thought this could touch me,” she exhales, “I come from a good family, but it can touch anyone, anywhere.” I ask what drugs people take and how they are administered. “Most of the people inject themselves with codeine extracted from cough medicine and painkillers. It is weaker than other drugs, meaning that they need to take larger quantities to get the same effect, increasing the number of toxins introduced into the system.”

So, what have I learned from this experience? That good people can be found in the cracks of society (since that day, the dark girl, Anya, has taken it upon herself to make sure I don’t die from hypothermia, providing me with gorgeous gloves, a gargantuan scarf and “wham” boots… have yet to discover what “wham” means).

However, despite the positive outcome, this whole series of events has revealed something quite ugly, not least the danger of silence (since arriving here I have been confidently though obviously inaccurately informed that HIV-AIDS can be contracted via a door handle; no wonder the infected are shunned). But perhaps most shocking was the realisation that the world really is held to ransom by the English language. With most charity funding issued from the Global West (in particular the United States) the lingua franca is English. Anyone wishing to raise finance from a western source must be capable of producing a proposal in impeccable and highly specific English, or the language native to the source. This proves a tremendous barrier to small groups with limited funding and little access to excellent English speakers.

Is it possible that we are inflicting some kind of linguistic eugenics on the rest of the world – whether intentionally or unintentionally? Only those with access to English speakers shall be saved, only those who speak like us may be trusted with our money.  In this case, people like myself are faced with a dilemma: to teach or not to teach? To play the game or not? Even to me this doesn’t sound like a choice.

More information on Convictus is available on their website.


Lucy Gallard

Image Credit – Lucy Gallard