Jessica Thompson: Chernobyl

Image via Flicker: Roman Harak

Galway families welcome Chernobyl’s children to their homes

“SOS appeal. For god’s sake help us to get the children out.”

It all began with this simple message, received by Adi Roche in January 1991. It was a short, simple message sent by Belarusian and Ukrainian doctors, desperately begging for someone – anyone – to take the children away from Chernobyl and the radioactive environment that was attacking their bodies.

Had they no sanctuary? Had they no saviour? Had they no hope?

“There is hope. It’s you.”

This is the message Adi Roche’s charity, Chernobyl Children International, delivers. It is simple, to the point and hard-hitting. You can help. You can provide sanctuary. You can be that saviour; that hope so desperately needed by the children who cannot help themselves.

Adi Roche received the desperate plea for help while she was volunteering with a nuclear disarmament group. Five years had passed since the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl and many had begun to forget.

But Adi chose not to ignore it. Chernobyl cried for help and she would provide it.

Fast forward 22 years. It’s Monday 1 July 2013, and the Mervue Soccer Clubhouse in Galway is buzzing with excitement. Families are gathered in a room upstairs; waiting, chattering excitedly and laughing. Something big is happening and they are all involved.

They are waiting for 20 children who have come to Galway from Chernobyl as part of Camp Claddagh’s Rest and Recuperation programme. For one month every summer, the charity brings a group of children to Galway, allowing them to breathe clean air and eat and drink food and water that is free from radiation.

Since the programme began in Galway in 2006, Camp Claddagh has welcomed over 240 children from Chernobyl, sending them home healthier, happier and well-nourished one month later.

And it all started with a cry for help sent to Adi Roche in 1991. Adi’s answer to the plea was Chernobyl Children International (CCI), which over the years has expanded immensely. Now there are groups all over Ireland and in various parts of the world dedicated to saving, improving and adding years to the lives of Chernobyl’s children. The rest and recuperation programme alone has brought more than 22,500 children to homes all over Ireland.

Over the years, other disasters have come to the fore of the world’s attention, relegating Chernobyl to the realm of history, but the impact of the disaster remains.

“Despite the difficult economic circumstances many families find themselves in, our volunteers have opened their hearts and their homes this summer to children who so desperately need our help. While the Chernobyl accident happened over a quarter of a century ago, the consequences last forever,” said Adi Roce earlier this month when she welcomed 300 children to Ireland.

Every year, host families and committee members of Camp Claddagh gather together to raise the funds needed to bring the children to Galway. These funds are raised via cake sales, church gate collections, no-uniform days for schools, coffee mornings and any other methods they can come up with.

“Times are tough. We realise that,” says Fiona Conneely, group leader for Camp Claddagh, “But we managed to bring back 24 children to ensure they have a month’s rest and recuperation here and they will go back healthier than when they arrived.”

The other four children she speaks of are those who come over more regularly due to illness or social circumstances. These children return to Ireland for eight weeks in the summer and two weeks at Christmas. They have been here a month now and, along with their host families, they await the arrival of the 20 new children.

Finally, Fiona Conneely enters the room and those inside start to applaud as the 20 small children file in behind her. They are greeted by the beaming faces of excited host parents. They look thin and shy, but they are smiling. They know they have come into a room filled with love and good intention.

The host families scan the crowd of children. “Which two will I be taking home?” is the question in everyone’s mind as they gather in the centre of the room to wait.

Each family will host two children – usually of the same sex – for two weeks of the summer. After a fortnight, the two children move on to another family until it is time to go home. Many of the families would be only too delighted to take the children for the full month, and saying goodbye is never easy, but the experience is rewarding not only to the children and their health, but to the host families who gain a feeling of achievement.

Over the course of the month, the children will get a feel for life in an Irish family. Every Thursday they will get together for group activities in the city. These will include a trip around Galway in the tourist train, a tour of the Aquarium, a day in the pet farm and some time at the fun fair. There will also be sports and arts and crafts.

There is a hush in the room as the moment everyone has been waiting for finally arrives. Host families are united with the children they will be looking after for the next fortnight and suddenly, the room is alive with excitement again. In every part of the room, adults are hugging children excitedly.

A man produces a handful of ping pong balls and gives them to his children who immediately bounce around the hall, following the round pieces of bouncy rubber.

Irish children mix with Russian children, conversing in their own languages, bringing to mind long forgotten days on Spanish beaches where children, no matter what language they spoke, joined together around the one sandcastle to build something beautiful – be it mounds of sand that will be taken by the tide, or friendships that won’t be.

Soon, families start to leave. It’s time to get the children home to feed them, bond with them and tuck them into their beds for the night. These children are theirs for the next two weeks.

“For god’s sake help us get the children out,” said the message from 1991. There is hope for these children who have gotten out, if only for a month. The host families of this year’s Rest and Recuperation programme are the hope. The people of Galway are the hope. “There is hope. It’s you.”

Case Study: The McArdle family

Helen McArdle from Claregalway has been a host parent for Camp Claddagh’s Rest and Recuperation programme for three summers now.

“Two weeks of your life is not a lot. They say that there’s medical proof that a month in Ireland will strengthen [a child’s] immune system and give them an extra two years of life. As long as I’m in a position to do it, I’ll do it,” she explains when asked what leads her to take part in the programme every year.

It was during Helen’s second summer of the programme that she met 10-year-old Yana. Of the 24 children visiting Galway this summer, Yana is one of the four who, due to personal circumstances, will be returning to Ireland twice a year. She visits Helen and her family for eight weeks in the summer and two weeks at Christmas. This year Yana will be joined by a new girl from Chernobyl: Tatsiana.

Having hosted Yana a number of times so far, Helen knows a lot about what it takes to be a host parent.

“You have to be able to dedicate the two weeks to bringing [the children] around and spending a bit of time with them – even if it’s just a walk, the seaside – anything like that. You just have to have the time really,” she explains as she watches Yana play on the swings.

A pretty little thing, Yana certainly looks like the fresh Irish air has done her good. She is bubbling with energy and laughter as she runs across the playground.

Helen’s own daughter, 12-year-old Amy has developed a close friendship with the little Belarusian girl who has been sharing her home for the past month. Language is not a problem for the girls who communicate efficiently without the need to translate.

Helen has also found the language barrier quite easy to manage. Facial expressions and actions have proven to be effective forms of communication. In fact, the biggest difficulty for Helen is worry that the children would be afraid to wake her up if they needed something in the middle of the night.

“You’d hear them getting up in the night and you’d be afraid that they wouldn’t come in to you – just the ordinary things like if you have a niece or nephew staying with you,” she explains.

One of the most common difficulties among host families has been homesickness, according to Fiona Conneely, the group leader of Camp Claddagh.

“Personally as a host parent, I’ve found [homesickness] the most upsetting – when they cry. That’s the biggest problem,” Fiona explains. “Language is not a problem […] but we don’t like to see homesickness. It does upset the host family if they see that.”

On the other hand, though, the children often cry when they leave Ireland. When they have had such a life-changing experience and made so many new friends, it’s hard to leave.

Despite the difficulty of homesickness, previous host parents have noted the gratefulness the children show for the simplest of things. This is a month they will remember for the rest of their lives, and even if they don’t have it all at home, they appreciate the new things they experience in Galway.

“Whatever life throws at them, in their lowest moment, they’ll look back at something that happened to them during their time in Galway and that will maybe bring a smile to a sad situation when they’re older,” Fiona says.

It only takes one month in a child’s life to improve their health enough to extend their lifespan, if only by a couple of years. This seems like a very small sacrifice for the host families to make, but it hugely rewarding not only for the children, but the host families too.

“It’s a lovely thing to do and it doesn’t really cost anything – just a trip to the swings, the slide, the beach,” Helen smiles as Yana laughs happily on the other side of the playground.

“I think because it’s so hands-on, it’s different to donating money because you see the result. You really do feel like you’re doing something good.”

**This article is from July 2013, when I was just starting an internship with The Connacht Tribune. They sent me to Mervue one evening, where a number of Galway families were preparing to meet the children they would be taking into their homes for the next four weeks. I was very touched by the whole affair, and wanted to repost this feature to ensure it doesn’t get lost.

Written by Jessica Thompson

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