Private charity focused on helping the homeless and the poor have always existed in Russia. Before the revolution, it was customary and honorable for wealthy citizens to help the homeless, build almshouses and hospitals. During the Soviet era, the state took upon itself all the obligations to help those in need, and yet I remember how adults in my family would always tell me, then a little girl: “the hand of the giver shall never be empty,” when we saw beggars at churches or in metro stations. We were not a religious family, so I think that was more about the Russian spirit of giving to those who are in need, without asking for justification.
My mom and grandmother explained to me from a very early age that we all should always help others when presented with an opportunity. Regardless of what kind of story a person has. The sheer number of small private charitable groups in Russia, which are found in almost every city, suggests that many Russians hold the same position.
I found out about Yulia Khakimova from my friends in Kazan, where she lives as well. Growing up, I have spent every summer there. Yulia has been helping the homeless and poor in the capital of Tatarstan for over ten years. Nowadays, she has a page on Instagram that shares the news of people in need and helps find funding for various projects. Yulia goes above and beyond in helping others and is often the last resort before a family loses their rental flat for unpaid bills or a retired grandma runs out of groceries and medicine.
The story of one of the people she had helped has gone viral in Russia. An elderly Soviet officer Vladimir Alekseevich ended up in a Kazan shelter for the homeless with a severe disability and without documents. After desperately trying to help him, Yulia invited the old man to live in her own house and was able to raise funds for an expensive surgery, which restored the veteran’s eyesight and hope for life.
Yulia agreed to give Draftsy an exclusive interview about her work.
D: Yulia, how did you start helping people?
Y: We have been helping those in need for the past 12 years. I wanted to help kids, so I started going to orphanages, eventually, friends and like-minded people have joined me. At the very beginning, our work consisted mainly of trips to nursing homes, boarding schools, and shelters. We brought the essentials and basic medicine to lonely veterans and helped low-income families with home repairs and groceries.
In 2014, the war began in Donbas (Russia-Ukraine conflict – Ed.). I remember we were sitting in a cafe, having lunch. The news was playing on TV, with reporters saying there was a shooting in Ukraine, bombs have exploded. Residents could not leave the country, because the banks were closed, and it was impossible to withdraw money for a ticket.
The server brought me a check for lunch. I looked at it and realized that for the same two thousand rubles that I have spent right there, someone could buy a train ticket from Donbas to Kazan. I was dumbfounded that while we eat at the restaurants and have our lives generally go on without a change, people in Ukraine live under bullets and have no way out from the country. From that day on, my family and friends began to save money and help Ukrainians in whatever way they could.
My children even opened their piggy banks, gave me the money that they were saving for the summer holidays, and asked me to transfer it all to Donbas.
We then sent all the funds we had to civilians that we found through online chats. How we transferred money to them is a whole different story. We sent funds through other cities and middlemen, who all took a fee for their services.
At first, all those who came from Donbas stayed in my house and with our friends. Then, when we had too many people and not enough houses, I had to look for other accommodations. We have organized a free cafe and a clothing distribution point. I will never forget the women who were coming to us, saying that their families had finished their last groceries and they have no money or means to get more. It was a terrible time; I have never seen so many hungry people in my life.
Of those who then came to Kazan from Ukraine, most remained in our city. They found work and received citizenship.
Afterward, not only refugees from Donbas but also local people in need began to come to our help center. We began to realize (with much surprise) that town officials often sent people to us, saying, “go to this organization, they will help you”. At the same time, we did not receive any state support or funds for our social work. We helped people with our own money, and when the funds ran out, we sold our cars. At that time, we only accepted food and clothing from those who wanted to help. We did not ask for donations or money in general.
At some point, we had too many people coming in for help, and we could no longer keep up. We had to close our Help Center and go back to normal life. However, it was impossible for my team and I to return to our main jobs (Yulia owns a small business producing cemetery monuments – Ed.) and leave charity behind. People still found us and asked for help, and there was always someone who had no one but us to rescue them. Since then, we have all been combining our main occupations with charity work.
D: What problems do you face most often?
Y: The main problem, in my opinion, is the attitude of society towards helping those in need. When we find a person or family who desperately needs help, we share their story and call for action, beg people for support. They give it to us, feel like they accomplished something good, and move on. Unfortunately, this emotional response and the desire of people to help both disappear very quickly and everyone except us forgets about the person in need. But a lot of people require financial help and assistance for weeks and months. Some veterans that can barely survive on their pension remain with us for many years.
We cannot leave someone until their life is back to normal and they can go on without help.
Our workload is growing, we have more and more people that need our assistance. We are always looking for new opportunities to find support from others.
D: Do the local authorities help you, is there enough social support in general?
Y: In my opinion, Tatarstan has a good system of social assistance. These are shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens, and centers that provide groceries for low-income citizens. People on the streets can get food and a roof over their heads.
The needy themselves are different as well. Some people end up homeless but do not want to change anything in their lives. They go to the soup kitchens, beg and continue to live on the streets.
Some have a normal pension, a good apartment, and grown-up children that help them. But they still go to support centers, come up with tales about their misfortunes and take whatever they can, in any way possible. I will never know why they do it.
Some people in difficult situations receive help and quickly get back on their feet. After a month or two, they themselves come to us with an offer of support, they want to help someone else get out of the same tough spot.
There are people who really are in dire need, but they are very ashamed of their poverty. They are afraid that someone will find out that sometimes they don’t even have food in the house. They will not ask for help, they will not go out into the streets to beg, and they will endure the unendurable. We help this particular category of people the most.
They trust us because they know that we will not share their stories on social media, we will not show their faces and not try to pry into their private lives. We will simply give them a bag full of groceries and ask how else we can help. Sometimes it is enough. Other times people open up and share their struggles and pain. We try to do what we can to make their lives better.
To sum up, we try to help most people on our own and contact government agencies only in extreme cases. We always receive support from the authorities and solve the problems together, when necessary.
D: Why do you think we are returning to private charity to help the homeless and the poor?
Y: There have been poor people in Russia at all times, no matter the government and the regime; as well as private benefactors striving to help them. In previous years, the homeless and the needy may not have been so visible, because there were fewer places where they could get help. Now there are many more support centers, soup kitchens, and people willing to help. Naturally, underprivileged citizens who take advantage of these services have become much more visible. Social media also helps to draw attention to this issue. With Instagram, it is easier to spread the word about people who urgently need help. It also helps us inform our followers about what has already been done. Positive examples of other people doing charity work are contagious, others see it and want to join in. It is the spiritual responsiveness of people that sometimes moves me to tears.
D: Yulia, what should happen to make your work with the homeless and needy a little easier?
Y: Our work can become easier if people start to notice those who need help and not pass them by. I wish we would not need an Instagram post to bring our attention to an underprivileged family or an older neighbor that could use some help. We have had dozens of cases when someone brought food for those in need, and we ended up taking the donations to the veterans living in the same building with these benefactors.
Yulia continues to help the homeless and poor of Kazan and refuses to give up in the face of any obstacles. Vladimir Alekseevich, once a homeless disabled officer and veteran, still lives with Yulia and her family. He teaches her children what he knows about wild herbs and surviving in the forest. Vladimir Alekseevuch had become a real grandfather to them.
Yulia says that help with new cases mostly comes from friends and acquaintances. Social media (Yulia is active on Instagram) helps to attract people who want to help volunteers with food, building materials, or money.
If you want to help those in need in Kazan, you can transfer funds to PayPal: radif–email@example.com or send funds to a Sberbank card via the number +79872963373 (inside Russia only).