Mark Waddington, who grew up near Sheffield Botanic Gardens, is the chief executive of Hope and Homes for Children, an international charity which works to stop children being ‘institutionalised’ in orphanages when many have families who could care for them with the right support.
He is desperate to bring the world’s attention to the plight of the 100,000 children in 700 orphanages across Ukraine, whom he calls the “invisible victims” of the conflict.
They were already at risk of violence, abuse and neglect which the charity says is ‘synonymous’ with such institutions, where in the worst-case scenario children are sexually exploited or victimized. milking them for work and even for their body parts.
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But with the fighting now raging around them, they are even more vulnerable, as the buildings where they live are targeted by missiles, staff flee and many children are left alone to face the dangers of war – a situation that the charity describes as an “emergency”. of epic proportions.
Mark spoke to The Star about the huge challenge ahead after a successful mission to rescue 65 children from a safe Ukrainian orphanage in neighboring Romania, where soldiers had kindly lined the bridge the youngsters were crossing at the entrance with toys to make them feel welcome.
“It was a difficult 50-hour operation to get them out by train and bus on a circuitous route,” he said.
“Many of the children were exhausted and by the time they reached the border we had to ask some of the adult refugees fleeing Ukraine to transport seven of the children under the age of three to Romania.”
Mark said there was much more to do, with many orphanages across Ukraine down to ‘skeleton staff’, greatly increasing the risk of abuse, and in some cases children and even babies are abandoned and “left to their own devices”.
The charity is planning further rescues, but as large numbers of children are moved out of orphanages to greater safety, he said there were fears the children would lose hope of being reunited. their families if vital documents are lost in the chaos of war.
“We don’t know where many of these children are going, who is caring for them, and in many cases we don’t know where their personal and medical records are kept. It creates a trafficker’s dreamscape, which is a major concern for us,” Mark said.
Mark explained how the charity is working with authorities in Ukraine, Romania and Moldova to ensure the best possible care is provided during this time of upheaval.
Hope and Homes is also working to support families outside the orphanage system who are “torn apart by chaos” and to prevent a “child protection emergency” across Eastern Europe.
When the dust of war finally clears, the charity hopes to reduce the number of children in orphanages across Ukraine, trapped in a system that Mark says is a sad legacy of the communist era , and help them settle down with their families.