I love this holiday season. I come from a relatively large family, and over the years, we have spread out across the country. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only times in the year where there is even a chance we will all be together. We all converge on my parents’ house and celebrate by eating and drinking too much, being far too loud, and generally being obnoxious.

But there is one family member I am always more excited to see than anyone else—my niece. She is two and a half years old and is simply a delight to be around. She has the most mischievous little smile, an infectious laugh, and boundless amounts of energy. She makes me chase her endlessly around the house only to hide behind her mom’s legs if I am ever about to catch her. She loves it when I make silly voices/faces, and she loves hitting me in the head with her toy monkey. She is the most adorable child I know, and she is loved by me, her parents, aunts, uncles, everyone.

When I was on the Calvin Hungary semester in the fall of 2008, we took a trip in November to an orphanage in Ukraine. No one told us ahead of time that we would be doing this, so it was quite a jarring experience after spending all morning hiking around hills and eating delicious homemade food. We pulled up in front of a nondescript building, and a nurse told us that we would be spending time with children aged one to three who had been abandoned by their parents. We were told to simply hold and play with these kids for an hour because the orphanage was short staffed, so the children rarely had anyone physically hold them for longer than it took to change a diaper.

It was heartbreaking to see so many kids in that room. Some had simply been left by their parents who could not afford to raise them. Others had been placed there after being abused by their parents. All were abandoned and forgotten.

One girl in particular stands out. Her name was Japuca, and she was three years old. Her father had beaten her, and she still had lacerations all over her body, despite having lived in the orphanage for months. She could not walk. She could barely talk due to mental disability brought on by a head injury. But she had the smile of an angel when someone held her.

I was talking to a friend about this trip, and she said she remembered two things quite distinctly—the sounds and the smells of the place.

The sounds I remember are the sounds of joy and laughter. Of the babies giggling as we held them. Someone singing rap lyrics because he didn’t really know any lullabies.

But the sound my friend remembers is the sound the kids made when we left. Crying and wailing. She said it was heartbreaking hearing that sound while walking away because there was nothing she could do.

I don’t remember that happening. We were only there for about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and for the last chunk of it, I was holding one small baby, named Mamu. He fell asleep in my arms, and it all became very insular in that moment, and I was surprised when I realized that I was the only person still in the room, except the professor telling me we had to go.

But I do remember the smells. The whole building smelled as if liberal amounts of cleaning products had been used to mask the odor of decay, and the decay was winning despite the best efforts of bleach and 409. Even the kids smelled. It was as if they weren’t bathed every day. They all had fresh diapers when we were there, but the scent of feces and urine still lingered underneath the surface.

One hour spent in an orphanage in a Ukrainian village whose name I do not know over six years ago. I still remember it clearly. And I sometimes wonder what happened to all of those kids. To little Mamu and Japuca. And I’m sad that they didn’t grow up with all the love and happiness that my niece has. But I hope that for an hour on a crisp November afternoon, they felt some measure of peace and joy.

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