Children of Ukraine rescued by football

Members of the Street Child World Cup Ukraine team play football The UN estimates as many as 160,000 children live rough in Ukraine

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As co-hosts Ukraine battle to survive the group stage of the European championships, their progress is being watched keenly by Artem Nevedrov, a 15-year-old former street child who knows from experience that football is much more than a game.

Artem, who is now happily settled with his foster family in Kolomak, 70 miles (115km) west of Kharkiv, has himself represented Ukraine in an international football tournament.

He was offered the chance to take part in the 2010 Street Child World Cup in Durban, South Africa.

It was not only an opportunity for a fantastic experience abroad - it was the first step towards finding a family after years on the streets and a brief spell in a state-run orphanage.

"I left my family to live on the streets, but I always dreamed of having a normal family," says Artem.

A team-mate from his South African adventure, Pasha Ponamarenko, 17, asked his foster mother if Artem could live with them.

Start Quote

Tanya Lyashenko

In South Africa, we learned how to live together and how to be a community”

End Quote Tanya Lyashenko Formerly homeless, 16

They were then joined by 16-year-old Tanya Lyashenko, a third member of the team organised by the Depaul charity.

Today their shoes are lined up neatly outside the back door while they help prepare a meal at their foster home in the peaceful, rural Kolomak.

A fourth team member, Sasha Filonenko, who is also 16, lives with a family nearby.

Soviet vacuum

It is a long way from the days when all four slept on the streets or in underground tunnels in Kharkiv, stealing and scavenging to stay alive, even in temperatures below 30 degrees.

The government denies such a problem exists, but Unicef estimates that as many as 160,000 children are living on the streets of Ukraine, where poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence have plunged families into crisis.

The UN agency's 2010 report on child poverty in Ukraine says the global financial crisis has worsened those problems, and workers have sometimes emigrated without arranging proper care for the children they leave behind.

Others are floundering in the vacuum that emerged after Ukraine's 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, when there was institutional state support for family life.

"My mother and father never took care of us. They drank all the time and would just come home and beat us," says Sasha.

"They gave us no food or normal clothes and my older brother and I just wandered the streets, often without shoes even in winter."

Pasha Ponamarenko (L), Tanya Lyashenko (C) and Artem Nevedrov (R) Artem Nevedrov (R) found a foster family through the friends he made at Street Child World Cup
'A Mother's warmth'

Sasha, now a smiling teenager who hopes to be an army captain, urges other children living on the streets to go to orphanages so that they have something to eat and a place to sleep.

But for Pasha, who ended up on the streets after his mother's death when he was four, staying briefly at an orphanage meant being locked in, and loneliness. "I had food and a place to sleep, but I had no freedom and never felt a mother's warmth," he says.

In recent years, Ukraine has begun closing outdated orphanages and replacing them with smaller regional hostels, where children may stay before being fostered.

But the system of paying people to foster children is open to abuse: parents sometimes pocket the money and abandon the children. Children who remain on the streets risk being abused or contracting HIV, falling into drug addiction or prostitution.

For these four, who had never left Ukraine before going to South Africa, playing in the Street Child World Cup opened their eyes to the fact that children worldwide were also living on the streets, and they shared stories about the challenges they faced.

Artem says: "I was shocked because the conditions for children on the streets of Africa were harder than for us. I learned to be grateful for every positive thing."

His favourite memory of the tournament is of kicking around a ball with his friend, Wanda, from the South African team.

A different future
Artem and his foster siblings at home in Kolomak Playing football allowed the children to escape hunger and homelessness

For the Ukrainian teenagers, playing football brought an escape from the feelings of hunger and being unloved that came from sleeping on the streets, but it also brought a sense of self-worth and the pride of representing their country - and it was the first step on a path to a new life.

"In South Africa, we learned how to live together and how to be a community," says Tanya, who lived on the streets with her brother because her parents hardly fed her.

"In the tournament, I found out what I had to do if I wanted to have a different life in future." Her brother has since joined the foster family.

Street Child World Cup, which campaigns for street children to have the rights and protection they are entitled to, will hold its next tournament before the FIFA World Cup in Rio in 2014, and will include teams of street children from 16 countries.

Today the four teenagers are optimistic about their future. Artem, still a keen football player whose idol is Cristiano Ronaldo, is also hopeful about Ukraine's chances.

"I predict: England 1, Ukraine 2" he says.

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