Having lost his father in the Second World War and his mother shortly after, Helmut Kutin found a new family in SOS Children’s Villages International. Here, he shares his story and talks about the organisation’s work in the Middle East.
The saying goes that ‘you can’t choose your family’. Sometimes I wonder what it means. Does it mean that good or bad, this is the family we’re stuck with? Does it mean that the family we’re born into holds a greater meaning to our life’s path? I may never find out what the saying truly means, but that’s okay, because when it comes to what family is, that I know well.
SOS Children’s Villages International is an organisation dedicated to ensuring that orphaned children have a family and a home to call their own. There are 546 of these villages in 134 countries around the world and I have visited most of them, and earlier this year, the organisation set up its regional hub in Dubai to help us work closer with the public and private sectors in the Middle East – there are kind-hearted people in this part of the world and I believe they have the capacity to help their own. We also recently signed an agreement with the Awqaf and Minors Affairs Foundation in the UAE to assist them to plan and manage a Family Village project that will house more than 100 orphans when it opens in 2015.
I was orphaned aged 12. I was the youngest of five children in our family, which was torn apart by the chaos and hardships brought about by the Second World War. My father perished in battle like so many millions of other fathers and not long after the war I lost my older sister in a senseless murder. Shortly after that, I lost my mother, too.
I arrived at the SOS Children’s Villages in Imst, Austria, in 1953. It was a handful of houses in a small, charming mountain town (Imst is today a family destination for winter holidays, with beautiful slopes for skiers and snowboarders). The village was a very new concept that child welfare worker Hermann Gmeiner brought to life just a few years earlier, in 1949 – The first of SOS Children’s Villages International’s projects.
Hermann was an orphan himself, brought up by his older sister who became a mother figure to him and his siblings. He believed that orphans should be cared for within a family environment, with a mother, brothers and sisters, a house and a community, and that’s what I found in Imst. I could never forget my first day at the village there. I was so happy to have a home. I was eager and nervous to meet the other children – there were about eight who would become my brothers and sisters. When you live in an SOS family, there’s a tangible sense that you’re in this together and it encourages you to look out for one another, to be each other’s keepers.
My path has remained closely connected to SOS Children’s Villages International for the rest of my life. After I graduated from university, I returned to SOS looking for ways to help. In 1967 Hermann tasked me and trusted me with building a children’s village in Vietnam. The children I removed from the war zone there had a particularly strong impact on me. Every time I would bring new children to SOS Children’s Village Go Vap in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), the look in their eyes was so telling: desperation, anxiety and finally hope. Leaving Vietnam in 1976 after the fall of Saigon was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I had to leave behind 482 children, as the village was closed down by the new power, but it brought me tremendous joy and inner peace to be able to return in 1987 and continue to help. Children need an environment to heal their souls and their minds. They need space to play. They need to go to school to cultivate their curiosity. They need an environment where they can really prosper and to know that they belong.
In the Middle East, SOS has been present since 1968 – the first Village opened in Palestine, followed by others in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Sudan. We look after almost 14,000 children in the Middle East and North Africa, with a mix of villages and family-strengthening programmes. We have a major project in Rafa, Gaza, which is going through a lot of trials at the moment, as we are situated at the entrance to the city where the tunnels are so we are exposed to bombings and attacks, but so far, we have managed to keep the village safe.
Through all of my travels, from Somaliland to Dubai, one thing has become clear: a child’s greatest suffering comes from not belonging to anyone. A lack of education, nutrition or clothing is easier for a child to cope with than to be alone, without a home, without a sense of belonging.
To sponsor a child or to make donations to the organisation visit www.sos-childrensvillages.org.