Rinat Akhmetov Gives The Gift Of Hearing And Hope To Ukraine’s Children

Image provided by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation

The industrialist and philanthropist, Rinat Akhmetov, was born into the working class of the Soviet Union. His mother was a retail clerk and his father a coal miner (a profession his brother followed as well) and Akhmetov came of age as the old order collapsed. Growing up in societal disorder is something he understands and, unfortunately, the now independent Ukraine has seen its fair share of upheaval in the years since the USSR disintegrated.

This is a major reason why his Foundation for Development of Ukraine—commonly known as the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation—has, since its establishment in 2005, concentrated much of its work on the plight of the nation’s children. Given the political violence and societal turmoil that has marked the Donbas, Ukraine’s southeastern corner that has become a flashpoint for conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the last decade, much of the foundation’s efforts have had to concentrate on Akhmetov’s native region.

“We all know that a great tragedy came to Donbas in 2014. People found themselves overcome by the suffering of war. This tragedy spared no one—neither children nor the elderly. So, if we do not think about children, what kind of parents are we then? And if we do not think about how to help our old folks, what kind of children are we then?” Akhmetov states in an interview posted on his foundation’s website. “At that time, every one of us was thinking about what to do and how to help the weak and defenseless: pensioners, the disabled, children, and single mothers. That’s why I decided to establish the Humanitarian Center and tasked it with saving human lives.”

Having not followed in his father’s footsteps into the Donbas’s coalmines, Akhmetov went to Donetsk National University and majored in economics. But he did go into the coal business, founding a trading firm that managed the commodity in the first years of Ukraine’s independence. His business eventually grew into System Capital Management Group (SCM), which since 2000 has expanded into a broad conglomerate of over 100 companies that is one of Ukraine’s largest business entities, which includes one of the nation’s premier soccer teams, Shakhtar Donetsk.

An intrinsic part of the growth of SCM has been the parallel expansion of the Akhmetov Foundation, which tackles a wide array of social challenges facing Ukraine—from helping to curtail the dangerous rates of tuberculosis to meeting the sudden challenge of the COVID-19. Alleviating the suffering of Ukraine’s children and improving their health outcomes has always been at the core of the Foundation’s work.

“I have been engaged in charity for decades, and during that time I have formed a very strong team within my Foundation, who know exactly where and what kind of help is needed right now. SCM business staff are equally strong,” Akhmetov noted in an interview with Radio Svoboda in May of 2020 regarding the COVID pandemic. “Both my Foundation, and representatives of SCM businesses and FC Shakhtar participate in the work of anti-crisis centres in the regions and cities of Ukraine. Because today we all share the same goal—to help the regional and local authorities and to help Ukraine overcome the epidemic.”

Akhmetov’s efforts have been broad-based and comprehensive, with specific programs targeting particular concerns. Two of those are helping children access state-of-the-art interventions when facing significant hearing loss issues and helping orphans find loving, supportive homes in which to spend their childhoods.

The Gift of Hearing

Along with responding to COVID, one of the Foundation’s most recent initiatives is its “I Can Hear Now” program that seeks to aid children with hearing issues. Made operational in March 2018, it seeks to provide support and hearing assistance to children. Since its founding, it has provided sophisticated devices to over 200 kids under the age of seven.

One of the most important aspects of treating congenital hearing loss—and really hearing issues that develop anytime in life—is early intervention. Regardless of what devices are best suited for an individual case—cochlear implants or hearing aids, along with the therapeutic support necessary to make their use successful—the earlier a child begins to learn to adapt to their hearing issues the better. But diagnosing hearing loss in young children, much less treating it, demands well-trained medical professionals and access to sophisticated modern hearing devices—neither of which are cheap.

This is where the “I Can Hear Now” initiative steps in. It seeks to ensure that children with serious hearing issues get the help they need. Most cases involve hearing issues that are discovered during infant screenings, though some children do develop problems a little later in life. What is consistent is that the expense of successful treatment is oftentimes out of reach of the parents struggling to do what is best for their children.

According to Yuliia Yershova, the Chief Communications Officer of the Akhmetov Foundation:

“To date, more than 200 project participants who had deafness from birth or lost their hearing at a later stage received hearing aids (earphones). These modern devices operate at various frequencies and adapt to a child’s individual features. These are sort of mini-computers that compensate for exactly the number of decibels that a person lacks. An important principle of the project is to help as quickly as possible, since hearing aids must be provided before the age of seven. If a child receives this help on time, he or she will learn to speak and will be able to develop in a full-fledged manner.”

The issue usually boils down to parents who cannot afford the significant cost inherent in hearing aids, cochlear implants (which require minor surgery as well), and other customized care. The Akhmetov Foundation bridges this gap.

“We were prescribed some hearing aids that cost 75,000 hryvnias [$2,734], but I am a single mother and I cannot collect such an amount, and no one would give me a loan,” explained Iryna Baranevych, whose daughter Sofiyka is a beneficiary of the program. “I am thankful to the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation. When I asked for help, they really helped me. I am very glad that my flower will be able to hear everything.”

In the case of Sofiyka, her condition required a unique approach that simply was out of reach for her family without external support.

“Simple devices would linearly raise all sounds by the same level, and she would hear some sounds very loudly (they would interfere with the perception of the world around her) while other sounds could be hard to hear,” explains audiologist Ilona Chernova. “With these devices, the child will be able to normally hear low-frequency and amplified high-frequency sounds.”

It was a similar story for Alina Boguslavska, a girl from the Donetsk region.

“My daughter was born an absolutely healthy child. She began to pronounce her first words before the age of three, but then I started noticing that Alina did not respond to sounds. She ceased to speak,’ explains her mother.

Treatment for Alina required sophisticated hearing aids that her single mother could not afford. However, the “I Can Hear Now” program stepped in and got Alina the help she needed.

Given that congenital hearing loss is present in four of every thousand babies born in Ukraine, the need for support for those born with hearing loss is constant. The Akhmetov Foundation currently targets its interventions to the most vulnerable children, including those under the age of five with newly discovered hearing impairments, orphans and foster children, and families with more than one severely ill child, two or more disabled people, or who have been displaced by violence in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

This kind of targeted, systematic approach is part of Akhmetov’s evolution as a philanthropist. His Foundation now seeks to approach systemic issues with systemic solutions.

“For me, charity is, first of all, the ability to feel someone else’s pain. It is the ability to share someone else’s pain. It is a systematic fight against systemic problems. It means openness and, of course, commitment to delivering results,” Akhmetov illuminates in the interview on the foundation website. “I have always been engaged in charitable giving. I have never been indifferent to someone else’s pain, helping others as much as I could. However, the stages of my path in charity were different. In the beginning, I simply took money out of my pocket, quietly, to help those in need. I think that a situation like that is familiar to many: say, you know a person who is in distress and who needs help. You help that person, and that’s wonderful! Then, at some point, you realise that unfortunately, there are another million people suffering the same misfortune, which means that we are talking about systemic problems. Only a consistent approach can help us overcome these problems.”

Making Homes For Orphans

The work of the Akhmetov Foundation has long been centered on the plight of children in Ukraine. With the cultural disruption that has swept Ukraine in the aftermath of independence, and continuing tension with Russia, many children have taken the brunt of the political fallout. The plight of orphans is especially troubling.

This is why, in 2009, the “No To Orphancy!” program was established by the Foundation for Development of Ukraine. Like the subsequent “I Can Hear Now” scheme, it is a targeted intervention to alleviate the suffering of children who, through no fault of their own, face unique challenges.

“The philosophy of our foundation is simple: systemic approach of tackling systemic problems. Orphanages are a systemic problem. To win, we need to have a systemic approach,” explained Akhmetov in an interview in 2011 not long after this campaign was launched. “As for the philosophy of the foundation, first, you need to have eyes to see these problems. Second, you must have a heart to feel the pain of others as your own. Third, you need to have the right mindset in order to solve problems. And, of course, we must be open to all partners with a caring attitude.”

Over the course of its operation, the program has helped place nearly 8,000 orphans into new adoptive homes. The project seeks to develop a network of foster families that reduces the number of children living in orphanages and to promote the full adoption of children into permanent family situations. It operates a crisis center in Dnepropetrovsk, mother and childcare centers in Donetsk and Kyiv, and another four family support centers throughout Ukraine. An infrastructure for aiding orphans has been built that serves the entire nation.

Again, the development of the “No To Orphancy!” effort is an example of taking a systematic approach to a persistent problem that has become intertwined with the broader forces shaping Ukrainian culture and politics.

“There are always three reasons behind orphanages. The first one is poverty, when one of the parents, for example, a single mother, finds herself in a difficult situation and decides to abandon her child. The second reason is a lack of responsibility, when dysfunctional families are deprived of parental rights. The third reason is the biological orphans. Today, there are 96,000 orphans in Ukraine. The task now is not to let this figure increase,” Akhmetov continued in the 2011 interview. “If the government, business, and society work together, this problem will go away. We need to take the best European experience in this area and get rid of this problem in our country, in each region, not only in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk. When there is a problem and we admit that this problem does exist, but we say nothing and do nothing, then it means that nobody is going to solve it. But when there is a problem, and we are drawing attention to it, discussing it, looking for the best possible solutions, then this problem will not last long. A child’s happiness must win. There should be three allies: government, business, and society. A child must grow up in a family, a child must have a home.”

Popular on True Activist