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Children at a Belarus orphanage welcoming the writer and her visiting team.

I’VE just celebrated another birthday. I was in Belarus at that time and there were no candles, no scrumptious dinner, no family members, no presents and no cake.

But the heart was still in the right place because I would have already reached my full potential in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is self-actualisation.

In self-actualisation, a person comes to find a meaning to life that is important to them.

Hoping to make a difference to the lives of orphans and the neglected elderly, I signed up as a volunteer for a week with PASHLI. “Pashli” is a Russian word meaning “Let’s Go”.

The aim was to improve the living conditions and expand educational and social opportunities within the target groups.

Most of us have a place to call our own. We have a home where there is a mother and a father. But not the estimated 25,000 Belarusian children in state custody, according to Belarus Digest last year. These children may be orphaned or have parents who are unfit to care for them due to alcohol or drug addiction, crime or constant unemployment.

In 2014, 2,644 parents lost custody of 3,110 children.

When we stepped into the orphanage, we were warmly welcomed by a throng of children of all ages. They presented us with a Belarusian cake and speech.

It was heartbreaking to see them rush forward just for a hug. We were possibly the only foreigners who cared enough to visit them in months.

It was inevitable that throughout the week, Maslow’s five-tier pyramid of needs played on my mind constantly: basic needs (physiological and safety), psychological needs (belonging, love and esteem) and self-fulfilment needs (self actualisation).

Were basic needs met?

The thing that struck me at the orphanage was the lack of personal space or privacy. There was hardly a time when a child could be alone. They were constantly surrounded by other children or adults. Even the toilets do not have doors.

When I visited the science room, they were eager to show me the class pets. There were beetles of various sizes living in a small plastic box.

The interesting thing was that the children let the creepy crawlies run all over their fingers. It was the most natural thing to do. There was no aversion or squeamishness. Most of us wouldn’t purposefully engage in such an activity. It made me wonder whether we modelled our fear after a significant adult.

One of the team members asked why the choice of beetles as pets rather that the more conventional house pet like the cat?

The answer was obvious. Low maintenance — beetles need little care and food. Were the orphans like the beetles themselves, suffering from little care and food?

Food was pretty basic. We had potatoes, chicken, meat patties and pancakes for the week. The style of cooking was the same.

If some of us didn’t want to see another potato, chicken, meat patty or pancake after the week, imagine what the children had to eat every day. I had less choices being a pescatarian.

The team put up new ceilings and floors, and painted the walls and fence. Although my forte would be around children and crafts, I was roped in to put up a ceiling and sandpaper walls.

Having been on visits to bunkers and pre-war buildings, I was advised specifically not to touch the walls or inhale the dust because of the toxic lead content. So, that was a worrying note.

At the old folks’ home, I saw how the elderly were treated. The air stank and even when I returned to my room after the visit, the smell lingered on my clothes.

Were psychological needs met?

We had a pamper night for the teenage female orphans. They were treated to girly stuff like hair wraps, comfort food, manicure and make-up.

One of the team members gave a talk on the importance of self-worth and respect.

As for the elderly, there were lots of tears on the last day that we visited them. We called them babushka (grandma) or dedushka (grandpa). One babushka hugged me so tightly and pressed into my hands a string of plastic beads for me to keep, so as not to forget her. It was one of the few possessions she had.

Were self-fulfillment needs met?

Statistics reveal that very few who start adult living independently are success stories.

Not being able to integrate well into society, they fall between the cracks and crime rates reach up to 80 per cent for such children. Even when they become parents themselves, they end up sending their children to orphanages. This perpetuates the “institutional” cycle.

Now I am a year older and a year happier being, doing the things that I like and being with the people that I love. But what about the orphans, the babushkas and the dedushkas so many miles away?

I fell sick during the trip and it took me another week back in Ireland to recover. It could be an accumulation of many things: the dust, what I saw, what I felt and what I left behind.

Dr Koh Soo Ling was a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara and now spends her days enjoying life as it is.

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