“We need to find this woman, Maria, and her two daughters, Vera and Lyubov. They live somewhere north of the city. The school director told me they need food and clothing immediately,” said Luba, parish director of Caritas in Magadan, Siberia.
In Russian, vera means “faith,” and lyubov means “love.”
Soon I was driving north with two Russian workers on the Kolyma highway in search of mother Maria and her two children, Faith and Love. It was the winter of 1999. There was a state of emergency because there was no coal to heat the city and no money to pay for it. People did not receive their salaries. Many suffered from lack of food and clothing. In 30-degree below-freezing temperatures, people told us that the lack of heat in their homes was hardest thing to bear. With help from American benefactors in Alaska and elsewhere, the Nativity of Jesus Catholic parish led by Fr. Michael Shields began an emergency relief program. Their goal was to find and help the most vulnerable in this city of 130,000, the ones who would most likely not survive the winter.
The ugly sea of grey, dilapidated, cement apartment buildings soon gave way to frozen tundra, and low, snow-covered hills. We passed battered shacks and warehouses, many stripped bare for firewood. Hard-packed snow covered the highway, filling in the potholes, making driving smooth but treacherous. It was easy to forget, as the taxi drivers would often say, that we were driving over an ocean of frozen bones. Prisoners from Stalin’s artic death camps built this highway in the 1930s. Thousands died on their feet from exhaustion, exposure, and malnutrition. They were buried where they fell.
After a couple of hours, we caught sight of a small group of buildings on our left. My Russian colleagues assured me this was the place. The apartment was in a run-down, cluttered two-story wooden building. We climbed the stairs and knocked. We knocked again. Suddenly the door to the adjacent apartment opened and a young, teenage girl stepped out. “They’re not home,” she said.
“Do you know when they’ll be back?” we asked.
“No,” she said. “They’re usually at the school.”
“Do you know them?”
“Of course. Vera, Lyuba, and Nadya are my friends.”
“Who’s Nadya?” I asked, surprised.
“She’s their little sister.”
Nadya is short for Nadyezhda, which in Russian means “hope.”
We thanked her and eventually started heading back to Magadan. Our trip was not exactly successful. We did not find Mary and her children Faith and Love. But now we knew there was a third child, the youngest, a new face: Hope.
Eventually we did find them at the school and helped them make it through the long winter. Despite the suffering of so many, we thanked God for mother Maria’s children, Faith, Love, and Hope. They faced almost impossible odds, yet when the winter was over, they were alive and well. Despite living in a region that witnessed so much evil and death, today we know that the future belongs to them.