Krivichi is a place that has taken me by surprise and with me, a piece of my heart.
It is a closed institution for young boys (12- 18) in conflict with the law. The boys spend between 3 months and 2 years here. World Without Borders travels annually to host a camp in the institution in summer. These camps are run by youth leaders who promote a healthy way of thinking and conducting their lives. The theme for this camp was motivation and team building, building trust and comraderie between the boys. Giving them tools they can take with them when they try to restart their lives after their sentence.
The first time I visited Krivichi was in April and I was quite apprehensive about it. I had met some of the boys at the youth gathering a few weeks previously and if I’m honest it was this group I engaged with the least, I found them to be quite standoff ish. So yeah, going to the institution for the day where we’d meet 80 or so of them was a little intimidating and on top of that neither of our supervisors were going to be there so I felt quite vulnerable with my crutch of a translator taken away from me.
I couldn’t have been more foolish to have felt that way. We got on really well that day. Thankfully one of the other volunteers spoke English so we did have help when needed. Many of the boys were warm and welcoming. They wanted to hang out and interact with us. Leaving that day we were feeling really positive about the week we’d spend with them in the summer.
The week wasn’t long coming round (I swear were in some sort of time vortex here). We headed off on Monday morning. There were ten of us five team leaders/youth workers and five volunteers. Monday afternoon was spent getting to know our teams and designing a group name and logo on a poster. I must say, thank God for name tags!! I was still struggling with some names by the end of the week!
Throughout the week we did many team building games and tasks.
The highlight for most of the lads was when a football team from Minsk came to play against them. In fairness to our boys they played brilliantly. In fact, they were leading for most of the game but alas were beaten. I really enjoyed this afternoon, the Minsk coach spoke to the boys about what it takes to be a good team, all the hard work, needing to trust in each other and listen. It was fantastic to see all the boys unite, chanting and cheering for their team. Despite loosing I feel it was a fantastic experience for them, I actually think it was better that they lost, I feel they could take more away from it in that sense, understand that they had more to learn.
A game they always ask for is the towel and water balloons game, mighty craic altogether! We had a barbecue for them on the last evening which was a lovely way to end the week. It was a shame they had to go inside so early because it all felt a bit rushed and they’d have happily stayed as would we. Each day we’d play music too. There was one lovely moment where we had a bit of a seisiún with the ukuleles and we made a band and had a party piece. The boys could read English so they sang along and we had a No. 1 hit on our hands! Thank you Elvis for the beautiful song. ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ became our song for the week. It was another moment of connection, for all of us involved and even for the on lookers, who took a few steps closer to listen and be a part of it too.
Personally though, my highlight of the week was getting the opportunity to really connect with these boys. Have proper conversations, personal conversations, about why they were there or about their family. This was rewarding for two main reasons, the fact that I could actually conduct these conversations myself – helped in no small part by their patience – this really was a big mile stone for me. And the fact that they wanted to talk. It meant so much that they were comfortable sharing. It was interesting to hear their different opinions and get a glimpse into their world.
Some of them have really had it tough, and when you hear it you think it’s no wonder they’ve ended up here, thankfully they came here because without intervention, maybe it could have been worse. Saying that, I know that the challenge is even greater when they leave here, leave their support system, this is unfortunately where many fall back into their old habits.
While drugs and assault were common offenses, for a large majority of the boys it was something as simple as drinking under age, in public and getting caught.. many times. Hearing those stories was tough because we all know it’s not just them that have done it. The fact that their friends didn’t get the same punishment must be very difficult for them to accept. Some of them understand why they are there, and know that they did wrong. They’ve accepted and have vowed to be different when they leave. Others are (understandably) a little bitter, “why me? Why not the others?”
My views and opinions of the institution changed a lot over the week, back and forth each day, depending on who I spoke to. At one point I was feeling it was just like a very strict boring school, they’re young lads who didn’t have good role models or support, they were dealt a bad hand. Then one day we were up the village and a woman asked who we were, what were we doing and when we explained she said “Why do you bother, it’s a prison.” This makes me sad. This is what we’re fighting against. We’re trying to tell the boys that Krivichi doesn’t define them, it doesn’t mean their life is limited. Then we meet this and we know that society is judging them, marking them with a stamp before they get a chance to prove themselves. We have told them to ignore it but God, to have someone say it so harshly to us (and we’re not even living in the institution) it shook me a bit. I’m glad these boys are made of harder stuff than me.
On the last day though, we were taken out of our little bubble of the camp for a short while. There were Independence Day celebrations. Officials from the local police station came and they all performed some military marches. Seeing them all in this gear (which they normally wear during the year) made us see things in a different light. It suddenly felt more real, more intense.
On a somewhat lighter note – they had a bizarre sports day after these marches. “Sports Day”, what could be strange about that Ruth? Well, there were the usual activities such as long jump, sprinting, pull ups etc. but then we had shooting and grenade throwing.. I mean I know this is great practice for them if they do decide to join the military but when someone says “Sports Day”, I guess we can put that one down to cultural differences!!
I really do have high hopes for some of these guys. One lad in particular was counting down the days till he was going home. I think it’s around now. Himself and another boy are already planning a trip to Ireland with me. We’ll see 🙂
For now, thank you Krivichi, the staff and the boys, thank you World Without Borders and the volunteers for an unforgettable week.