Original by Yevdokia “Dunya” Sheremetyeva published on the littlehirosima blog; translated from Russian by J.Hawkand originally published at South Front. December 14th, 2015
The Lugansk Technical Boarding School was pointed out to us by Seryozha, a driver who helps us deliver the aid. His daughter used to study there. Zhenya, Seryozha’s daughter, is no ordinary girl. She has epilepsy and she’s deaf. Due to a physician’s error. There were only three boarding schools like that in all of Ukraine. They are for kids with a very wide range of ailments, including physical and mental handicaps and illnesses. They become tailors, shoemakers, cable layers, florists, artists, etc. Some have become famous. One could say this their only chance at self-actualization. But this story is not about the school, but about the people who work there.
At first, my guys went off to do “recon”, whether they need help and if so, what kind. But they didn’t expect we’d show up in a couple of days and provide a month’s worth of supplies. They thought we’d deliver buckwheat and canned meat. They were astonished to see what we brought. After all, fruit is in short supply there. And it is not delivered as part of official humanitarian aid.
They took me to Irina Yuryevna Mazayeva, the school’s director. She’s a dry, withdrawn woman, but very accommodating. Every minute a student would walk up to her to say something, share something. –While they are unloading, can I ask you a few questions? –How about I show you what our kids are doing!
We went to the art room. I saw a huge Russian panneux. –The students made this? –Of course! Irina Yuryevna beamed with pride. The whole school is decorated with the students’ handiwork–shirmas, pictures, decorations.
Kids were running all around. It was clear some of them were unhealthy. But they were all smiling. They were glued to Irina Yuryevna. –Well, go already, go. And they laugh, both her and the “kids.” We entered a room which was filled with all manner of crafts–paintings, drawings, clothing, embroidery. –We are short of materials. We could use some cloth, leather, paints, varnish…We have nothing. How are we to teach them? You don’t bring aid like that? –Unfortunately, we didn’t know…
–See that painting? Made from eggshell. We do what we can. Irina Yuryevna walks up and down the room and describes every item. It’s not just an exhibition, as far as she is concerned. It’s as if she made it all herself. Which, in effect, she did. Through her students. –We don’t have just anybody working here. It opened in 1973, I’m here since 1982. –I wasn’t even born then. Irina Yuryevna laughs. In a maternal way, with kindness.
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–See the icon? Made by our Fedya Romanov. He has the atrophy of the hands. –How did he do it? –Here’s how. With his teeth. He’s our pride, Fedya. –Where’s he now? –He left for Kiev a long time ago. He’s working there now, got married with a classmate, Lena, who had epilepsy. They have a child. –Do most find work afterwards? –I’ll say this. Who wants work finds work and is successful. There are those who don’t want to do anything. Just like with the healthy ones. We give them a good start. And many find success in life. Many start families with their classmates. –What kinds of ailments are here, mainly? –Usually it was mostly physical ailments. Like Fedya. But now there are more mental ailments. Even autism and schizophrenia. We had students come from all over Ukraine. –Ukraine…
Irina Yuryevna grows nervous. I felt awkward. I changed the topic, but our conversation kept returning to it. –You know, all of our workers stayed on during the war. The “war”, according to the people in Lugansk, were the three months of hell in 2014 when the city was under constant artillery bombardment. Even today the region is in a state of war. But most of the people here use the phrase “during the war.” Even though the war continues. –Why didn’t they depart? –This is home. We worked even when there was no salary. Off enthusiasm. No salary for six months. But everyone showed up. Never thought of not showing up. I stand in amazement. –Of course, when there was shelling we were all in the basement. But this is a boarding school where the kids live. 23 of them are orphans. They have to be fed, taken care of. Many can’t move on their own. Irina Yuryevna talks and talks. Her eyes fill with tears but she keeps on. At first I thought she told everyone the same story, but then I understood. I touched a nerve. And she couldn’t keep silent. I don’t like to ask questions of people who live here. They have their sense of duty, and it’s not always honest to ask them questions. Therefore for the most part I kept quiet. –We got hit on August 31. During the Coal Miners’ Day. A mortar bomb 20 paces away from me. But the fragments all went the other way. A miracle. They (the UAF) thought there was nobody but the “separatists” here. But we were still all here. Her son was knocked down by a Grad explosion right next to his stairwell. He fell onto his daughter. Neither was seriously hurt. –We lost all the windows that summer. Our worker, Anatoliy Gelya, spent the entire night in the building. They were shelling us with Grads. But he didn’t leave, he was afraid to leave the building to the looters. That’s what our crew is like.
The kids carried the fruit on their own. Those of them who could. Eagerly, with biting humor, egging on one another. They were running up to me and looking at me out of the corners of their eyes. I looked funny–glasses, notepad. I walked right behind Irina Yuryevna like her shadow. Scribbling, photographing. But she was the center. The eye of the storm.
When we came to the school, I photographed a sign on the wall. Only now, looking at the photographs, I read what the sign next to the entrance said. It said “Irina Yuryevna Mazayev, the best director in the world.”