Breaking out of the poverty trap
Two Norfolk-based charities have been helping Latvian children and families for years, and now they are looking to break the cycle of poverty. In his second report from Riga, KEIRON PIM looks at how young people can easily take a wrong turn when caught in the poverty trap.
Kristina Rachko had an appointment with a man in Riga. They had spoken on the internet and he had made her an offer she could hardly refuse: a free flight to Ireland with free accommodation and a good job at the end of it, and the promise that she could send money home to help her family.
The 18-year-old was preparing to meet him and find out more when Hope for Latvia intervened. The Norfolk-based charity has supported Kristina as she has grown up and fortunately her brush with the human trafficking industry coincided with a visit to the Latvian capital by Hope for Latvia's founders.
The sex trade is a serious problem in Latvia, as it is in many of the Baltic and Eastern European countries. Women and girls are lured to travel to Western Europe by the promise of a job, for instance as an au pair or childminder, but when they arrive at their destination the reality is different. They face a life in prostitution, becoming slaves to trafficking gangs, who hold their passports and control their lives.
Kristina now has a new job selling flowers in Riga and is living safely in a flat owned by Hope for Latvia, but it could easily have been very different. Her home life had become difficult: evicted from social housing in Riga after falling £600 into debt, her family had to move a long way out of the city, leaving them in a bleak and isolated situation. When an apparent opportunity arose to earn her family some money, it is no surprise that she was tempted.
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Kristina is just one of many vulnerable young people to have been helped by Hope for Latvia, run by Derek Blois, and the Heart Empowering Lives Project (Help), run by Ian Dyble. The capital city is home to some of Europe's worst poverty, with many families living in cramped and squalid housing, and for more than a decade Derek and Ian have been doing all they can to improve these people's lives.
Having long supported a number of Latvian families financially, they are now working towards building Isaiah House, which should help break the cycle of poverty and let people become economically self-sufficient.
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When I travelled to Riga with Derek, Ian and their colleagues last month, I saw how their work in Latvia divides between reacting to events - stepping in and helping the kids that they support when they are in difficulty - and their more proactive work on the Isaiah House project. The projected cost is £1.25m and most of the money still needs to be raised, but Derek and Ian are confident it will be built soon. With EDP readers' help that could happen even sooner.
Hope for Latvia is holding a week-long fund-raising campaign beginning on February 3 called Pound Out Poverty week. The projected cost of Isaiah House sounds a lot but the idea behind Pound Out Poverty is that if everyone in Norfolk gave one pound, the project would be well under way. Norwich-based communications agency foxmurphy has donated its time free of charge and the Pound Out Poverty advertising posters it has created will be coming to buses, bus stops and advertising hoardings near you very soon.
When the money has been raised and construction work is completed, Isaiah House will consist of two buildings housing 28 families and will include retail units in which the occupants will work. It will be a hand-up, the idea being to get people working for themselves rather than being dependent on hand-outs.
“There will be a five-year programme,” says Derek, from Aylsham, explaining that residents will be made well aware that the onus is on them to work their way out of the poverty trap.
“That is key to what we do. Everything we do, we try to make incentive-based: 'If you do this for us then we will do this for you.' That doesn't mean we won't fight fires when we need to. If there's a problem then we will respond.”
What I saw during my four days in Riga was the tip of the iceberg but it was enough to give a vivid taste of the problems from which Latvia suffers. Across Latvia 11,000 families are described as being “in crisis” - living in substandard accommodation, the parents often ravaged by alcohol and depression, and fathers generally absent. Decades spent on the western fringes of the Soviet Union left Latvia with a dysfunctional economy, squalid and soulless housing and, perhaps most problematic, among the older generations a culture of despair. Part of the challenge facing Hope for Latvia is to raise aspirations and improve people's self-esteem, so that they want to work for themselves and improve their prospects.
“The vision is to provide accommodation where we can break the cycle of poverty,” says Derek. “We will provide training for people where we can and get them into the workplace. They will earn a wage so that after five years they can get back into society.
“Not everyone will be working in the retail units, but those who are not will be getting training. Some will need very little help, others will need a lot to get them through the system.”
Isaiah House will, in its way, help to convince young people like Kristina that their future remains in Latvia. Emigration remains tempting for many Latvians, however. Since the country joined the EU in early 2005, increasing numbers of people have left in search of a better life elsewhere in Europe. Reports suggest that around 20,000 live in the UK and up to 35,000 live in Ireland. This forms a significant proportion of the Latvian population, which is only around 2.5m. Most of these people are working as low skilled labourers; it is hard to know how many more are caught up in prostitution.
Recent years have seen other great changes come to the small Baltic country. The cost of living has spiralled frighteningly while wages have not risen at anything like the same rate, plunging many families into poverty. EU accession has brought with it greater tourism, but much of it comes in the form of British stag parties taking advantage of cheap flights and cheap alcohol in Riga city centre.
Inese Slava, aged 28, has seen drastic changes in her lifetime, with Latvia emerging from its time in the USSR (see panel, left) and undergoing the trauma of converting into a westernised market democracy.
“We used to be proud [of being Latvian] but so many people go away from Latvia to Ireland or England. We used to be very proud but now we don't have opportunities,” says Inese, who is employed by Hope for Latvia as a project administrator.
“We have cheap flights here now and people come here for cheap drinks, cheap girls; it's very famous now for that.
“When we grew up, our parents were working and we were on the street but no one was worried about us. But now it's dangerous.
“There's a lot of difference, absolutely. The rich people are getting richer and the poor get poorer. I would like to hope that things will get better.
“The average wage is about 200 lats (around £200) a month; that's what most people get. Even my dad, he gets about 200 lats, for a man who is very hardworking and knows a lot of things. He is an electrician, working for private companies. Rent is about 150 lats a month and then you need to pay for services.”
Inese, who lives 22 miles outside Riga in the city of Ogre, met Derek and Ian five years ago and since then has grown to play a vital role in enabling their charities to liaise with Latvian families.
“What I really want to see is that the families start to work, because so many families don't have the motivation to work,” she says. “It's easier to drink and even if they have some money they use it to drink. I feel so sorry for the kids, and I really hope that people will start to work so that they can live better and they will try harder. I really hope that it will change young people. I'm afraid for these children who are growing up, that they will grow back into what they have seen.”
After meeting dozens of children of all ages during my trip to Riga, I was left with the impression that they have a strong resolve to make the best of themselves and not slip into the trap that has claimed many of their parents. Sixteen-year-old Ariadna Kostina is a talented musician and artist who is making the most of her abilities despite a difficult start in life. She first came into contact with Hope for Latvia through attending a day centre for vulnerable younger children, run by the Latvian charity Hope for Children, with which Hope for Latvia works in partnership.
“When I was eight or nine, we used to go to the day centre,” she remembers. “My mother would just close the door and say 'You can go where you want and you can do what you do and don't come home until the evening'. I became like a street girl. It was really hard because all children need love but my mother never gave me a hug and never said she loves me. It is only three words but I never heard them. That is very sad. But now I am happy.”
This derives partly from the fact that some years ago she became a Christian (“I met a woman and she told me that Jesus loves me,” she says) and also from her budding musical career. Ariadna still lives with her mother, and her two brothers and one sister. She never sees her father. But she is full of enthusiasm for the future, saying: “I want to be a missionary, I want to help children and give them this love that I didn't have myself. And I want to study and get good marks.
“I study at music school, I play flute, I dance and I sing in a gospel choir. It is one of three gospel choirs in Latvia.”
We went to one of the Hope for Children day centres that Ariadna formerly attended; it was an oasis of warmth and colour in the middle of a cold and dark Riga housing estate. We were greeted by eight exuberant little kids, overjoyed to see us all, full of hugs and handshakes. The Hope for Children day centre gives them a warm, clean place to go after school, where they are fed, washed and can do their homework.
The children tend to stop attending when they are aged around 14, which is when Hope for Latvia can step in and continue supporting them, having already got to know them when they were younger. As well as suffering the direct effects of living in squalor and in broken families, these children also face the stigma of poverty.
“A lot of them get bullied at school because their poor backgrounds mean that they turn up with the minimum materials,” says Derek. “If they have excursions they will be left behind if we don't give them money. The teachers bully them. They might almost expect it from their classmates, but not from the teachers.”
Derek, a graphic designer, has been to Latvia many times since he first visited in the early 1990s and became aware of the country's plight. Hope for Latvia is a Christian organisation, established after he received a letter from a Latvian man who wanted help establishing a Christian magazine. At that time Christians had to keep their beliefs underground because of the USSR's anti-religious doctrine.
While he was there, he “saw this amazing amount of poverty and it was then that I realised my purpose for being here was to help the poor in Latvia. I had to go back and share with people that this was what was happening. We set up Hope for Latvia to support the families we were meeting. This is my 45th visit, and we are supporting more and more families on a monthly basis. But we want to help these people get into the workplace, so that they are not relying on our support.”
The people living at Isaiah House will generally be families that Derek and his colleagues feel are suitable candidates.
“Some of these families we have known for years, and we have been developing relationships with them,” he says. “We have just taken on another social worker, Inete Gingko, so we will be able to assess people. They will need to be people in great need, but who are also prepared to work with us. We can't take people on who are going to stand there doing nothing.”
In a move fully backed by Riga City Council and the Latvian government, the Isaiah House charity has bought a plot of land, has architects' plans drawn and a construction company in place to build Isaiah House. All that remains is to raise the money. You can help the Isaiah House project become a reality by giving whatever you can afford - see the panel on the left for how to donate. It could simply be a pound, or it could be more.
As Derek says: “A million pounds is 200 people giving £5,000 each. We have got a fund-raising dinner later in the year when we will be asking people to come along and bring their chequebooks.
“We would love to get on with it. If we can just get some of the money together now, say £100,000, then we can start soon.”
Ian, from Holt, also uses his charity Help to aid young people in South Africa, as well as at home in Norfolk. For him, the Isaiah House in Riga will be just the beginning: once the format is in place, it may be replicated elsewhere.
“We believe this is the first of many worldwide,” he says. “There's no reason why it can't be.”
t For more information call Derek Blois on 01263 732237 (evenings), 01263 734198 (daytime) or 07775 606661.
t See www.isaiahhouse.co.uk, www.hopeforlatvia.co.uk and www.helpproject.org.uk for more info.
HOW TO HELP
To make a donation to Hope for Latvia you can make a payment into this HSBC bank account: Hope for Latvia: account number 61140914, sort code 40-35-06. Or post a cheque payable to Hope for Latvia to: Isaiah House, PO Box 1074, Norwich NR11 6ZL. Or donate online by going to www.poundoutpoverty.co.uk and clicking on Donations.
Latvia's 20th century was dominated by occupation. Buffeted from pillar to post, the small Baltic state was a pawn in more powerful countries' games of empire-building.
Having been part of the Russian Empire since the 18th century, Latvia declared its independence on November 18, 1918, a move that was recognised at the time by Soviet Russia, the predecessor of the Soviet Union.
But in 1940 the Russians invaded and began the occupation, annexing Latvia into the USSR. Then in 1941 Nazi Germany invaded, announcing that Latvia would be “liberated” from communism. Four years later, as a new Europe was drawn up at the Yalta conference in the dying days of the second world war, Latvia was handed back to the USSR. Subsequent decades saw countless human rights abuses as Latvia was forcibly absorbed into the USSR and robbed of its identity.
Thousands of people were deported to the Siberian gulags while the rest endured a programme of 'Russification'. Russian soldiers had a right of occupancy in any home in Latvia. If a Russian soldier wanted to move in, the Latvians had to let them and either move out or accommodate them. It was not until 1991 and the August coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, right, that Latvia was able to reinstate its independence. The damage from years of Soviet rule remains however, not least in the form of the sub-standard housing that many Latvian families call their homes.