Being Here: Caring for Moscow's Street Children

John Varoli approaches Pushkin Square swinging a backpack off his shoulder when three barefoot and bedraggled children abandon their begging and rush toward him.

"Privet, Dzhon!" they shout in greeting, jumping up and down on the sidewalk as Varoli hands each of them a banana.

For the past two years, Varoli, 26, has devoted himself to helping homeless children on the streets of Moscow. He gives them food, clothing and medicine, and has even helped a few of them find new homes.

"It started small and sort of snowballed," said Varoli, an American who initially came to Russia to work in a soup kitchen. He befriended many of the people who came for food, and would often accompany them to the train stations, basements and makeshift shelters they called home.

"In the beginning I was pretty naive. I didn't realize how bad the streets were," said Varoli, who studied Russian at Cornell University. "I came here thinking Russia had very few social problems."

Together with a Russian friend, Varoli started appealing to other activists from charity organizations to take in some of the children, particularly those most at risk of being kidnapped or injured, as well as those who seem to be heading toward prostitution.

Today, Varoli knows most of the children who live at Paveletsky Station, as well as many of the families who are renting rooms in the Ostankino Hotel, which has become a shelter for refugees and homeless families.

He helps them through a charitable foundation he founded with friends, relatives and church members from his hometown in New Jersey. The foundation, called Off the Streets, gives Varoli a stipend and has given money to 10 of Russia's "family orphanages," which take in at least five abandoned children each. At times discouraged by the lack of state social programs to help homeless children and families, Varoli says the direness of the situation has inspired him. "It does seem hopeless, but that hopelessness has really motivated me."