Invited to the May fundraising dinner of the British support group for the Tikva children’s home in Odessa, the Duchess of York was so moved by the stories of its work that she asked the charity if she could visit.
The result was a three-day trip to Ukraine this month in the company of good friend Marion Khalili during which she met the “happy, resilient children” and their impoverished parents from the local Jewish community. It has certainly left a lasting impression.
Speaking on her return, she recalls one mother of a Tikva child struggling in appalling conditions: “Where she was living you couldn’t call a home — it was a cold, damp shed. I can understand how this mother thought an orphanage was better for her children than where she was living. No one would talk to her or touch her because she was an alcoholic.
“I hugged her because if no one hugs her, how will she know to hug her children?”
Around 350 abandoned Jewish children are cared for at the Odessa home, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Baksht in 1993 following a visit to Odessa where he came across hundreds of local Jewish children suffering from abuse and neglect. The Israeli and Ukranian governments are among its funders and the home also operates as a Jewish school with bar/bat mitzvah programmes, after-school clubs and summer camps. Over 500 Tikva students have made aliyah.
To the duchess — a patron and ambassador of a number of children’s charities worldwide — it was a home with a small “h”, being “so clean, neat and tidy. And the children were so happy. It was very encouraging to see excellence like that. The orphanages I have seen all over the world have been so shocking. I have always wanted to go to a place that I could go back to the [British] government and give a solution [for the care of orphaned or abandoned children].Tikva is the solution.”
She becomes emotional when talking about the children she encountered. “Oh little Nat, I couldn’t get over little Nat, he must be two or three and he was just so cute. He was such a happy chap because he didn’t know any different. For him, he was growing up with all his friends around him.
“There was also Sasha, so pretty and lovely. Mummy didn’t really want her. Sasha had these big eyes which looked at you as if to say, ‘I’m worth it’, and she would never have had that feeling if it had not been for Tikva. She was completely confident and strong.
“Imagine your mother rejecting you. And the mother went on to have twins. She liked the twins but rejected Sasha.”
Asked if she will now be campaigning for Tikva, the duchess responds: “This is more than a campaign, this is a movement. A Tikva movement to get more countries to understand that they can help homeless children by using the example of Tikva.
“I think Tikva is such a good blueprint for what can be done in Serbia, for example. The orphanages are in such a terrible state and we need to show the Serbian government that it doesn’t need to be like that.”
She adds that the Odessa home exemplifies the “family feel, compassion and understanding” of the Jewish faith.
“I love the Friday nights and Shabbat. I love the feeling that you are protected and supported.”
She recalls that backing being extended to her when Richard Desmond and Sir Philip Green invited her to address a Norwood event three years ago when she was going through “a terrible time in the British press. That’s why I went to the Tikva event. I was so grateful for the support I get from the Jewish community.”
Tikva international development director Yael Simon says: “It is clear the Duchess of York wanted to learn as much about Tikva as she possibly could.
“Her enthusiasm for what we do is infectious. She had a natural gift with the children and made time for each and every one of them.”