Emotional day for Dnipro Kids at Easter Road
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Although for most Hibs supporters this was an end of season ‘dead rubber’ against St Johnstone, for everyone connected with Dnipro Kids, the children and the organisers, this was the culmination of nearly 17 years of supporting an orphanage in the city, after Hibs faced FC Dnipro in a UEFA Cup tie in September 2005.
And the Hibs fans gave the children and the volunteers a very warm welcome to Leith, with the Dnipro Kids taking to the field before the match against St Johnstone to deliver the match ball and again taking the applause as the kids got to enjoy a kickabout on the hallowed turf at half-time. This added to the feel-good factor around this family day at Easter Road, with kids gaining free entry and children’s entertainers situated in and around the ground.
For Dnipro Kids chairman Stevie Carr it was a day he never even imagined was possible just a few months ago, as war broke out when Russia invaded Ukraine. He was just delighted for the supporters and everyone connected with the charity coming together to enjoy a game of football.
Speaking ahead of kick-off, he said: "The kids seem excited, it means a lot to them, a little bit daunting but it is tremendous to be here today. The supporters have been looking forward to this, everybody involved with Dnipro Kids since it started. It’s probably something we have thought about for a long time but never thought possible.
“We are expecting a very warm welcome from the Hibs support, they have been absolutely phenomenal throughout.
"It’s just very emotional to be here today. The club has been fantastic. Everyone to a person has been phenomenal.
"The circumstances are horrendous and we obviously never wanted them to be here because of this current situation, but to have the kids here in the stadium after 17 years is very emotional.
"We will continue to support them for as long as is needed. When it is safe to go back to Ukraine I would imagine that is where most of them will go.
"It’s very hard to predict where we are going to be in three weeks, three months, three years. We don’t know what kind of Ukraine will be left at the end of this.”
One of the Dnipro Kids excited to be at Easter Road was 17-year-old Vlad Melnikov, a Shakhtar Donetsk fan back home, who described Scotland as “beautiful” and the people as “kind and nice”. The young man had clearly done his homework before taking his seat, and has settled into his new life in Edinburgh.
He said: "Before I came here today I went online and I was looking at everything about the team, the stadium, players’ statistics and just everything about the club, so I have an idea what to expect. So I’m hoping a lot that today will be a successful day and Hibs will win.
"I miss my home, it’s not nice seeing what is happening there, but everything here is really good for us right now. People treat us with love, but for sure I want to go home one day because my home is Ukraine.
"I’m very thankful to the people in Scotland, who generously opened their hearts and houses and they basically took good care of us. They gave us the hand of friendship, and when the war stops Ukraine will never forget the help Great Britain and Scotland gave our country.”
The teenager was still basking in his country’s win at Eurovision last night, and speaking ahead of kick-off he was hopeful of continuing that winning feeling at Easter Road.
He said: "I think it’s huge, because it is important for everybody in Ukraine. We are very happy that we took first place. Even though we have the war, it’s very important to have things like that to cheer us up.
"I watched it on TV and loved it. I didn’t expect to win, I hoped we would be third or fourth, high up the leaderboard, but not first place.
"So I’m hoping for another win today!”
And Vlad got his wish, with he and his fellow Dnipro Kids treated to a 4-0 victory for their new heroes.
Stevie added that the children are settling into life in Edinburgh, attending local schools and making new friends.
Speaking after the game, as the kids enjoyed the entertainment in the Famous Five stand, Stevie was delighted with how the day went.
"I’m really pleased. The kids have had a great time. A fantastic welcome from the Hibs support.
"They were on the pitch at half-time playing football, they’ve really really enjoyed it. We have some activities down the stairs for them, they are having a great time.
"I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long long time, it’s a shame the circumstances in which it has happened but it can’t take anything away from today, the kids have had a great time, the football fans have had a great time, I’ve had a great time.
"There will be a few tired kids at the end of today, but it’s just went fantastic, I couldn’t have asked for better.”
So some 17 years after the charity was established by Hibs supporters visiting Ukraine for a football match and supporting kids there since, the children from Dnipro were able to repay the fans in some way by being the lucky charm today to end a season most Hibs fans will be quick to forget.
However, they wont forget the instant connection they had today with the youngsters and perhaps this is the start of a happier chapter in the Dnipro Kids story, with the youngsters hopefully able to return to their homeland in the not too distant future.
When Hibs supporters first got involved with the Odinkovka orphanage in Dnipro, all the children lived together in the one building, but in recent years that has changed to 10/12 children living in units in Ukraine with orphanage mums, a system the charity has been able to replicate in Edinburgh.
Stevie added: "We got them safe, took them into Poland, flew them to the UK, provided them with temporary accommodation near Callandar and now they are in long term accommodation in Edinburgh.
"The children have started school and they are hopefully settling in. That’s been five weeks in Edinburgh now.
"Now they are here we have got a great team of people doing all the day to day stuff. It’s a huge task to sort 50 children for school, meals etc, so there is great team of people involved. I must make special mention of Mags McPherson and David Forsyth and the committee in general, there are too many to go through. They have all been fantastic.”