08 Mar 2005 14:21:00 GMT

Ten years of humanity in Belarus

Source: NGO latest
by Elena Nyanenkova in Minsk

Now raise your right hand.

We repeat these simple motions many times a day, without realising how lucky we are. There are thousands of people out there, though, who will be never able to pick up a pen and write their name or take a walk without another's assistance.

Disability can happen to any of us, at any time. It happened to Minsk resident Natalya Lavrik when she was just 40.

She was working as a nurse and bringing up a son. She had never had any complaints about her health. But suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, she had a stroke.

Since then, she has been bedridden. When she speaks, her vocabulary is like that of a child. "They are very kind," says Natalya about the nurses that care for her, slowly pronouncing every word. Then she tries unsuccessfully to add some more words. She simply can't remember most of them.

Natalya is a patient at the Belarus Red Cross Charity House in the town of Pinsk. It was established in 1994 as a round-the-clock institution for the most vulnerable people. Today, it has 19 full time beds.

"Our primary objective is to ensure medico-social and psychological rehabilitation of single and destitute people suffering from chronic, difficult-to-treat diseases," explains Olga Zhukova, the head of Pinsk Charity House.

"At present, about 30 per cent of our patients are under 40 years of age. Most cannot move or eat without help," she adds.

Refugees, homeless people and other people in a desperate need can also find temporary shelter here. The average patient stay is about 30 days. In that time, they receive three meals a day, full medical examinations, psycho-emotional support, and medical treatment. Every year, about 200 patients benefit.

Although funds are in short supply, the Red Cross nurses have created a cosy, warm and homely atmosphere. The place is full of flowers, clean and light, and all rooms have its special decorations.

Well-known Belarusian poetess Natalya Pristupa sits confidently in her wheelchair, surrounded by piles of papers and her poetry books.

At first sight, it's hard to believe that she is physically handicapped. But she is - Natalya was born without a spine, her legs and hands are motionless. She can sit in the wheelchair only when she wears her corset, but as it constantly hurts her, a nurse has to remove it several times a day.

But her willpower and hunger for life keep her working on her poems eight hours a day. As she cannot move her hands, she dictates her poems to the nurses. And during long winter evenings, the big family at the Charity House gathers together and listens to her poems.

"This place has given me a new life," says Natalya, "Here I meet people. Here I have discovered the world. Before that I was housebound, as my elderly parents can't provide me with the care I receive here."

Natalya calls the 12 Charity House nurses angels, and many would agree. Most of are aged between 20 and 25. Besides medical assistance, they spoon-feed their patients, wash them and assist them the everyday things that we would take for granted.

The Pinsk Charity House's financial situation is parlous, despite some funding last year from the Austrian Red Cross. The institution is presently funded from local sources only. "Some people help us with food, others bring clothes for the patients," says Olga Zhukova. "We are very grateful to any kind of donation."

The Charity House currently has no funding to cover the wages of 6 of the nurses for this year, while the other 6 work for a tiny salary - some US$ 50 a month. But all of them say they would work here for free, as they simply could not leave their patients, with whom they become friends, to the mercy of fate.

The Minsk Delegation of the International Federation is continuing to seek funds for this unique establishment - the only one of its kind in Belarus. During the 10 years of its existence, more than 1,700 people have benefited from its services.

"This house is the best example of the real humanity," says Natalya Pristupa. "If I could, I would stay here for ever."

[ Any views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not of Reuters. ]