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Alexander J. Szikla Headshot

Helping Vulnerable Children in Moscow and St. Petersburg

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I recently had the opportunity to travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg with Professor Karl Moore and 42 other McGill students as part of the Hot Cities of the World Tour. Each year, the tour aims to bring McGill students to various cities which will likely rise to prominence and become global centers of economic activity in the coming years. While representing McGill University, students travelling with the Hot Cities tour have visited Tel Aviv, Dubai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Johannesburg and many other cities. The tour has two primary purposes. Firstly, to allow students to meet with political leaders, entrepreneurs and C-Level executives in order to bolster cooperation, communication and awareness as the global economy becomes increasingly interconnected. Secondly, the Hot Cities Tour has a social component as well. Last year, after visiting South Africa, students raised over $18,000 for the Ubuntu Education Fund; a community institution which provides support for the most vulnerable children while providing them with a pathway out of poverty. Aside from providing children with educational services, the Ubuntu Education Fund provides children with nutritional counseling, professional development, heath exams and related health services.

This year, the Hot Cities tour has set out to raise $20,000 for the Kitezh Children's Community. Collaboratively, we chose to tackle this issue based on the urgency and nature of the various challenges which Russian orphans face. Each year, roughly 15,000 Russian teenagers leave orphanages. Sadly, their fortunes are tied to the adverse circumstances which they must combat while they are further hindered by limited social assistance. Of these 15,000 teenagers, roughly a third are unemployed and homeless. Moreover, roughly 3,000 orphans resort to acts of crime and violence while 1,500 commit suicide. Most startling, approximately half of the girls released from orphanages turn towards prostitution as a means of supporting themselves.

The issues that these young men and women face are dire and omnipresent. These are the reasons why we partnered with the Kitezh Children's Community, which is located a few hours outside of Moscow. Together with a team of psychologists, volunteers and teachers, Kitezh provides these children and teenagers with a sense of family and community. Kitezh effectively provides orphans with physical necessities required to succeed, such as food, shelter and education provided by their foster families and the community. More importantly however, Kitezh provides these orphans with intangible gifts that have unquantifiable values; such as a sense of camaraderie, self-esteem and love.

The dedication and commitment put forth by the volunteers at Kitezh is incredible; both as parents at home and as members of the community, filling vital roles such as chefs, farmers, teachers or electricians. Furthermore, their engagement manifests itself in the growth which Kitezh has experienced, as they recently opened another children's community called Orion which we had the privilege of visiting.

After speaking with a number of executives and students in Russia, we truly gained quite a bit of insight into Russian business and Russian society. During our time in Russia, we visited local start-ups as well as large multinationals operating in a plethora of different industries. Naturally, this was supplemented by cultural excursions, such as visiting the Hermitage or seeing Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theater. Additionally, we toured the Skolkovo School of Business which had incredible facilities and exuded a sense of sheer opportunity; which is more than appropriate considering the Russian business climate.

I think what struck me the most about Russia is not how far it has come, but instead, how the country is still very much in a transitional state. This is clearly evidenced by large sickle and hammer emblems which remain on government buildings, busts of Comrade Lenin throughout the metro system or even atrium murals featuring the old Soviet flag. Personally, I had expected Russia to be far more developed. The country has certainly experienced fantastic economic growth under Putin, however, Russian society is still incredibly fragmented. Many yearn for the old rule of egalitarianism and equality while others are simply critical of Putin's occasional iron fist. It is simply astounding to see how much more growth Russia has yet to achieve -- politically, economically and socially.

Thankfully, there are institutions in Russia, both profit and non-profit, which have trail blazed forward in an attempt to equip the nation properly in order to respond accordingly to the challenges and opportunities demanded by the modern global economy. A particularly strong example would certainly be Kitezh, which boasts a record wherein none of their children have turned towards crime, drugs or prostitution after leaving the community. If there is one word to encapsulate what we witnessed in Russia and at Kitezh, it would be the word "inspiring."