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Established only five years ago, the Epiphany Convent in Alan has become a haven for hundreds from North and South Ossetia

Since ancient times, monasteries have been “rehabilitation centers,” giving succor to the orphaned and homeless, to the fallen and wayward seeking the meaning of life, to those broken by life’s blows searching for spiritual balance. Today, too, the Orthodox Church does not neglect social problems, and since society now endures new tragedies, new forms of aid are required.

Our rehabilitation center at Epiphany Convent in Alan (Northern Ossetia/Alan), was born as a result of the Beslan tragedy, at the initiative of Priest Andre Sikojev of the German Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

It was clear in the days following the terrorist act at School No. 1, so horrific for the people of Beslan, that the spiritual trauma suffered by the victims would not heal for many long years. This means the children first of all, the ones who endured the three days of hell within the school walls. There were a total of 558 such children and adolescents under the age of 18. It was specifically with the aim of providing long-term aid of such children that the Church focused on this form of rehabilitation.

It is significant that the founding of this center for this most horrific terrorist act was the first joint project of two separate dioceses (of the ROC and ROCOR) of an as-yet-un-unified Russian Church. On March 10, 2005, in the presence of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, His Eminence Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz and Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany signed the document on the creation of the Rehabilitation Center. Some of the financing for the project was assumed by Germany’s children aid group KinderNothilfe, as well as parishes of ROCOR’s Australian Diocese, headed by His Eminence, then Archbishop, now Metropolitan Hilarion. This project, which future historians of the Russian Orthodox Church might deem historic, gave life to the Center, which has become a saving grace for hundreds of suffering children.

Since the terrorist act, nuns of Alan’s convent have had constant contact with the victims. First this was mostly joint prayer, then, a year and a half ago, the Rehabilitation Center opened and received the first Beslan families. Since then, with every new group of victims, the nuns and staff, consisting of professional psychiatrists, have become more and more convinced of the need to continue such treatment.

Almost five years after the terrorist act, the children and adults continue to suffer many problems, which hinder their normal development. The families of the parents of the victimized children cannot manage to discipline them out of feelings of guilt. Normal parent-child relations have been distorted, especially with adolescents.

The problems are greater where, after the death of one or both parents, children are reared by one father, or a grandmother, or close relatives. Many children fear sleeping in the dark to this day, and fear closed spaces. There are children who display fits of aggression, or have turned inward and shun human contact. There are parents who do not let their children go anywhere without them.

The victims’ human relationships have been damaged. They prefer solitude to companionship; for them, the world has been split into those who suffered and everyone else. There is also some resentment towards the victims because they receive benefits and continue to demand more from the government.

A significant number of victims have a distorted sense of justice, and they struggle for fairness, which they seek in the distribution of material benefits, trips and retreats. As a result, there are many who are dissatisfied, and this leads to aggravation even between victims. There are also those who need medical and therapeutic treatment.

In the face of the severity of obvious problems and tribulations, psychiatry has compromised itself from the very beginning, and the people of Beslan turn to it very skeptically. The problem is that after the Beslan tragedy, all sorts of people surfaced; not only the leaders of various treatment methods but simple charlatans as well.  Some gathered materials for their dissertations, some demanded money for “resurrection.” People began to shy away from the persistent offers of “help,” and even psychologists began to use the expression “to catch up and apply beneficial treatment.”

Local society now has more trust in the Church than in psychiatrists, which is why the Convent’s Rehabilitation Center draws whole families eager for care. But here, too, not everything goes smoothly. Nuns recall one grandmother who lost her elder daughter at the hands of terrorists, and devoted the rest of her life to grieve over her. She visits the cemetery daily and spends all day there. Meanwhile, she is left to care for her five-year-old granddaughter who was left without her mother. The old woman’s obsession leaves no time for the little girl. When she agreed to come to the Center with the girl for a few days, she was uncomfortable with the fact that she could not visit her daughter’s grave, that instead she was going to a place for rest. The girl, meanwhile, is in clear need of care; she acts out loudly, vying for attention.

Another elderly woman came with a granddaughter in her care. She walks around like a shadow, in a depressed state of mind; her grandson was killed by the terrorists—he had not wanted to go to school that day, but she forced him.

Families suffer all sorts of problems: there is a mother who lost one son while another lived—the household is gripped by a sort of “cult of the fallen,” while the living son irritates her, to the point where she actually expresses dismay that he was not the one who was killed! There are also families where the parents, burdened by guilt, give their children free rein, allowing them everything, and are already regretting it.

The fate of almost all of Beslan’s victims shows that the rehabilitation of children cannot be separated from the rehabilitation of adults. The family creates the field in which the child grows, and if the adults of a household are not emotionally healthy, this is reflected in their children. 

Genuine rehabilitation of the victims must be individualized and tends to be complex. This is not simply a personal trauma, but trauma of practically an entire city, which was held hostage in fear and grief not only for three days, but for an extended period of time.

For a year afterwards, life in Beslan could not return to normal: the identification of bodies continued for several months, there were instances of exhumation and reburial. Over the entire time, posters hung all over town with the word “seeking…” with photographs of missing friends and relatives. Since the city is not large, and everyone is related to or knows each other, memorials and grief were universal. For a year, there were no morning classes. Understandably, the aftereffects of such an enormous tragedy would not pass soon. Still, there are no complex rehabilitation projects, not even monitoring, so the programs which have been launched in Beslan are disconnected, and each one seeks to accomplish its own goal.   

How do we help?

The program for the Convent’s Rehabilitation Center of Alan was drawn up with several conditions in mind:

      -the Center is some 60 kilometers from Beslan’s center;

    -there are no long-term educational facilities; obviously, it is not desirable to keep a child out of school for long, and

      -the Center is on the territory of an Orthodox monastery.

In order to avoid conflicts with school schedules, the yearly calendar includes all school holidays, and during the rest of the year is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Center can accommodate up to 23 persons at a time, including children and parents. During school holidays, groups of children come for a ten-day period. This totals 186 working days a year.

The program’s goal is to create an environment of trust and constructive cooperation for the victims. The living conditions themselves—every bedroom houses 6-8 people—forces the residents to establish real relationships with a variety of people.  Meanwhile, actual victims comprise only 30-40% of the population, the others may not be from Beslan, but from other regions and cities, most recently from Tskhinvali. In addition to those who suffered from the terrorist act, the Center takes in invalid children, children from large, poor families. The admissions office also accepts children who suffer the loss of their parents or other traumatic experiences. Since the Center is known throughout the Republic, some seek it out themselves: recently, a mother brought a 13-year-old girl who suffered from severe stress. During the recent terrorist attack in downtown Vladikavkaz in the fall of 2008, she was home alone, while her mother was in the area of the explosion. Since then, she is wracked with fear, and her mother has to hold her hand wherever they go.

Over the ten-day program at the Center, the children are engaged in music, drawing, crafts, sports, and they stage performances. All the games and activities are geared towards social cooperation: in drawing, they must produce a single album, newspaper or exhibition, and the same applies to music and theater. The last day always includes some sort of performance with everyone’s participation.

The daily schedule includes kitchen duty, with a self-serve cafeteria. No one is to feel like a guest or a customer. Parents are encouraged to help the teachers, and share duties.

Since children come from families of different faiths, even atheist families, the administrators immediately state that prayers are mandatory only for Orthodox Christians. Everyone else is expected to silently attend out of respect for the host monastery. Fortunately, not one misunderstanding has arisen from this during the period of the Center’s activity. Those who wish may attend divine services, several children and even adults were baptized here. The children love to wander the Convent grounds, they visit the church, listen to the nuns’ stories talk about the saints and the Orthodox holidays. Time allowing, groups are taken on excursions to the more interesting ancient Christian sites and the local museum. The nuns visit the Center, too, bringing gifts, icons, books, and the children know they will attend their performances.

New Pain.

In August and September of last year, the Convent and Center came to the aid of hundreds of refugees from South Ossetia. The monastery is located in the Trans-Caucasus Magistralia, so the nuns were the first to greet the refugees as they crossed the border. During the war, Epiphany Convent accommodated thousands of refugees, and the Center took in over 200 people.  Of the latter, 50 stayed on, while the rest, receiving immediate aid, were moved to other locations. Because of space limitations, the Center could only provide lodging for mothers and children. When complications with accommodations arose, cots were set up on porches and in the auditorium. Children’s strollers and cribs were needed in addition to beds, as well as wheelchairs. Arrangements needed to be made quickly to wash clothing.

The greatest burden was placed on the shoulders of the medical personnel: they made the first physical examinations of the refugees, taking care to avoid infection among the large number of people in such close quarters. Many in fact had infections and even pneumonia, so they had to remain for several days in cold basements. Women who found a safe haven at the Center did not wish to go to a hospital at the risk of losing their place. Despite the great overcrowding, the Center had comparatively good accommodations in comparison to the tent cities which housed some 10,000 people at a time. Families with sick were taken from the Center to the Convent, where there were already refugees, and the unfinished hostel was outfitted with a makeshift quarantine area.

All the refugees were suffering from stress trauma, but the war affected children most of all: they were frightened, many refused food, they did not play, they stayed close to their mothers, and when common summertime thunder approached, they would start to cry and ask to be taken to the basement. They also sensed the anxiety of their mothers, who would worry about the fate of their husbands and sons who remained to defend their city.

The nuns and teachers at the Center helped the refugees find shelter and organized their free time, establishing a strict rhythm in daily life. Women were assigned tasks in the kitchen, cleaning the grounds and residences. This not only helped maintain cleanliness but distracted them from their troubles. When the children oriented themselves, the teachers began to involve them in games and lessons. As long as the refugees lived in the Center, they were provided with psychological support, not only from local professionals but specialists flown in from Moscow’s Roszdrav Institution: Evegeny Vladimirovich Koren and Irina Sergeevna Kichatova displayed a wonderfully informal and emotional approach. Even after they left, they would call us, send us materials to work with. They were not only concerned about the fate of the refugees, but the welfare of the Center’s workers themselves.

The Convent became not only a safe haven for the refugees, but helped organize aid to restore their material well-being, distributing financial aid, obtaining clothing, school supplies, textbooks and toys.  Assistance continues to this day, and the nuns maintain contact with those who lived in the Convent during the war; Abbess Nona (Bagaeva) periodically travels to Tskhinvali with earmarked donations.

One of the women, a mother of ten children, was taken out of South Ossetia during the war by the nuns. She remained at the monastery with eight of her children before returning home, while her two eldest sons fought together with her husband in the south. Knowing that this family was under the patronage of the Convent, the Benevolent Fund of the Moscow Patriarchate took up their cause and acquired a large, comfortable house for them in Tskhinvali. This was a great help, because until then, the entire family had lived in a residence consisting of two small rooms.  

Life goes on.

The Center began this year as usual, but with new residents. Together with the Beslan children, the winter holidays brought students from South Ossetia. For both republics, this was an important precedent. The divided people of Ossetia can only dream of reunification now, but now, the Rehabilitation Center of the Epiphany Convent in Alan has become a unified territory. 

In general, everyone who has had anything to do with the Center has been left with a good impression. Adults and children both call the Center and the Convent for various reasons, many ask for the phone numbers of the staff and go on to develop friendships. People who spend time at the Center usually express gratitude and the desire to visit again, but there is also a suggestion box here, where people can make both positive and negative comments. The box is opened in during faculty meetings, which then sums up each term’s work. This helps point out the successes and failures of the program and their reasons, and helps to avoid repeating mistakes in the future.

It is too early to draw conclusions on the work of the Center. The first year, almost half of the victims of the first terrorist act came here; only a few have come to the Center a second time. Most of the work, of course, lies ahead, but the nuns and staff are already encouraged by progress in the children’s behavior. Those who at first stayed on the sidelines and refused participation are now participating in group activities, play games with more enthusiasm, and are even beginning to smile.

It so happened that the opening day of the Center, November 6, 2007, fell on the feast day of the Icon of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” On this day, the magnificent words of the troparion are sung: “Thou art the joy of all that sorrow, and the Protectress of the oppressed, Feeder of the hungry, Consolation of travelers, Haven for the tempest-tossed, Visitation of the sick, Protection and aid of the infirm, Staff of old age, O all-pure Mother of the Most High God, Hasten, we pray, to save Thy servants.”

For all those who helped establish the Rehabilitation Center of the Epiphany Convent of Alan during Ossetia’s difficult days, these words have special significance. Here they pray and hope that through the aid of their Intercessor, blood will cease to be spilled on the ancient land of Alania. May Orthodox Christianity, inherited from Byzantium, be born again, and may the people of Ossetia turn to God with prayers of repentance and appeals for mercy.

Sofia Koroeva/ 
Nun Margarita (Kudzieva)