Oksana Plekhuan sits on her bed in her room
Matthew Sawatzky

After her release from prison, Oksana Plekhuan, living with AIDS for years, resorted to sleeping on a bench where she was found by staff of an MCC partner.

Ukraine has the highest HIV rate in Europe. In response, MCC’s partners share practical help, hope and the encouragement they’ve found in faith.

For many, being released from prison is a chance to start over. For 42-year-old Vladimir Kozlov of Nikopol, Ukraine, it felt like a death sentence.

Kozlov, an intravenous drug user for much of his life, had spent 17 years in prison off and on and had contracted diseases including tuberculosis, hepatitis C and AIDS. By the time he was released in 2008, he weighed just over 100 pounds.

“They actually released me 11 months early because they didn’t want me to die inside the prison,” Kozlov says. “They wanted me to die on the street.”

Portrait of Vladimir Kozlov

Vladimir Kozlov describes his experience of being released from prison seriouslly ill and with no medical supportPhoto by Silas Crews

His situation is not unusual in Ukraine, where it’s estimated that up to 40 percent of inmates have HIV. Agencies that work with them say critically ill inmates sometimes are abandoned to the streets so the prison can avoid the expense and paperwork of treating them.

It’s a troubling glimpse into a larger reality.

Ukraine has the highest HIV infection rate in Europe. And those who work with HIV and AIDS note two unsettling trends: Many who have HIV, especially former prisoners, are left without adequate resources to care for their health or sustain themselves, and HIV rates are increasing in the under-30 population.

“People are living in awful situations. That’s why almost all of MCC’s funding in Ukraine is dedicated to HIV and AIDS projects,” says Ruth Plett of Kitchener, Ont. Plett and her spouse, Krystan Pawlikowski, are MCC’s East Europe representatives.

“In our country nobody wants these people. Our work is to help them in whatever way we can.”

Through Ukrainian partners, MCC is providing housing, food, medical assistance and items such as blankets and hygiene and school kits. MCC also supports activities and health education for young people most at risk of contracting the virus, and visits to prisons and schools where information on HIV and AIDS is shared.

Forty-one-year-old Oksana Plekhuan sits on the edge of her bed in a rented room of a house in Nikopol, which is in Ukraine’s Dnepropetrovsk region.

She began using drugs when she was 18 and spent most of her life in prison. By 2010 when she was released for the last time, Plekhuan had been living with AIDS for more than a decade.

She recalls that she was in so much pain and her legs were so swollen that she was using two tree branches as crutches to help her walk.

Plekhuan was sleeping on a bench when a worker with an MCC partner, New Life Charitable Fund, found her. The worker took her to one of the New Life halfway houses and gave her food, clothing and medication, along with a place to stay.

“In our country nobody wants these people,” says New Life’s project manager Natalia Mezentseva, who helped begin the organization after being released from prison and overcoming her own addiction. (Read more about her in First Person) “Our work is to help them in whatever way we can.”

In Ukraine, that often means helping people apply to regain the identification document that they need to receive social services. Ukrainians are required to obtain this document when they are 16 and to have it throughout their lives; without it they cannot get a job or apartment.

But many prisoners no longer have the document by the time they are released — some because it was lost before their arrest, some because they never got it back after their incarceration, MCC partners say.

Oksana Plekhuan holds her identity documentBy the time they’re released, many prisoners no longer have the official identification required in Ukraine to receive social services or gain a job or apartment. Oksana Plekhuan displays the new documentation New Life Charitable Fund helped her obtain. Photo by Matthew Sawatzky

Plekhuan received the document for the first time with the help of New Life. Before, she says, she was in and out of prison so often she didn’t need it.

In the halfway house, her health stabilized, although she is not well enough to work and her body remains covered in wounds from years of intravenous drug use. New Life helped her find a room to rent and is now seeking a permanent home for her in a dormitory for people living with AIDS.

“By myself, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” she says.

Vera Krakova hands out papersVera Krakova, Oleg Ruchitsa, Vitalik Gorbunov and Sergei Zhukov participate in a group counseling session aiming to improve the psychological health of people living with HIV.Photo by Matthew Sawatzky

When MCC’s partners come to people such as Plekhuan, they offer more than housing or help with documents. They bring their own stories, sharing the encouragement they have found.

In Zaporozhye in southeast Ukraine, Slavik Lobatch, a volunteer with MCC partner A New Chance in Life, remembers when returning to prison was like going home because he had spent so much time behind bars.

He found hope in the Bible when volunteers came to the prison to meet with inmates.

Slavik Lobatch smiles, standing in a room with deskSlavik Lobatch, standing in a home for men run by MCC partner A New Chance in Life, brings his own story of struggle and faith as an encouragement to others who face similar challenges. Photo by Matthew Sawatzky

“It was like little drops of kindness. The Gospel and these kind people helped me restore my life,” he says.

Today, Lobatch, who was last released in 2000, offers that same hope in his visits to prisons in villages around the region, talking with inmates about the Gospel, connecting with those living with HIV and AIDS and sharing information about the disease.

Vitalik Gorbunov leans over an upturned bicycleNew Life Charitable Fund helps provide people with housing as well as other assistance. Vitalik Gorbunov works on a bicycle in one of the New Life homes.Photo by Matthew Sawatzky

At a high school in downtown Zaporozhye, Oksana Aleksandrova, a volunteer with MCC partner Word of Life, stands before 16- and 17-year-olds in a health education class, animated as she warns them about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

Oksana Aleksandrova holds a document up for studentsThe rapid growth in HIV infections among youth prompted Oksana Aleksandrova, a high school teacher, to volunteer her time to  educate 16- and 17-year-old students about the dangers of HIV and AIDS. On facing page, videos also help grab students’ attention. Photo by Matthew Sawatzky

“We can save ourselves from this terrible infection,” she urges. “This is your life. Think about it. How do you want to live it?”

It’s a critical question.

HIV infection rates are increasing overall in Ukraine, but the most rapid growth is for the group between 16 and 30 years of age.

Classroom with students watching a filmPhoto by Matthew Sawatzky

In 2010, experts reported that 80 percent of the people recently infected were younger than 28 years, many of them teenagers. That transmission of the virus is increasingly coming through sexual activity, rather than the intravenous drug use of the past.

Plett has noticed that MCC partners are troubled not only by these numbers but also by the erosion of families and how many youth they see who do not have strong parental models.

“If things don’t change with this generation,” she stresses, “what happens to the next generation, and the one after that?”

Zhenya Shuvalov runs a youth club for 14- to 17-year-olds on behalf of A New Chance in Life. “These kids say to me ‘my parents are alcoholics. My mother was crying all night because her third boyfriend left her,’” he says. “They say, ‘Can you help me?’”

Natalia Tereshenko, who leads a summer camp for youth ages 7 to 16 through Word of Life, encounters children who have been living on the streets or in tents or basements in the winter and are sexually active, sometimes with adults, she says. Many drink or sniff glue and have contracted diseases, including HIV.

Natalia Tereshenko smiles standing on a porchNatalia Tereshenko manages a Word of Life summer camp for youth ages 7 to 16, including some young people who are living on the streets and at risk of substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.Photo by Matthew Sawatzky

At camp, children are given medical attention and the chance to enjoy outdoor activities. They are told about HIV and AIDS, and Tereshenko encourages them to make contact with her year-round if they need help.

It’s another piece in a patchwork of caring — like the kindness that helped change the course of Lobatch’s life when he was in prison — that partners are counting on to help reverse the upswing of HIV, especially among young people.

“I believe every child is valuable,” says Aleksandrova, who volunteers her time to teach the sessions about HIV to high school students. “I believe I can save them from this disease. If I am not hopeful, what else is there?”

Julie Bell is senior writer and editor for MCC Canada. Matthew Sawatzky is a photographer in Winnipeg, Man.