EVERY year for more than 20 years, Alfie and Marcie Streete have welcomed children from Chernobyl-affected regions into their home in Cork.
It is all part of the Chernobyl Children’s International’s Rest and Recuperation Programme — which this year has been cancelled, due to Covid-19.
This summer, the couple were looking forward to again hosting siblings, Inga, 12, and Bogdan, 9. The children were subjected to years of abuse and neglect in their early childhood, which led to Inga needing to steal food from local shops in order for her and her brother to eat.
When CCI staff found them, the children had been beaten, abused and were malnourished. The charity took immediate action and placed them in a CCI-initiated ‘Home of Hope’ with foster parents Luda and Sergey Sobolevy.
Reflecting on the fact that they won’t have children come to stay with them this summer, Alfie said: “This is the first time in 23 years that we don’t have children from the Chernobyl-affected areas coming to us.
“It’s sad and heart-breaking that the kids aren’t coming. We are also disappointed for the new families that joined and were due to host children this year.”
Alfie and Marcie have dedicated their lives to helping vulnerable children from Chernobyl- affected areas. The Cork Outreach Group fund-raise year-round to bring more than 20 children to the Cork area during the summer and at Christmas time.
Fundraising too has come to a halt as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.
Alfie said: “It’s heart-breaking to think about what these children have been through. We can’t undo the distress that they’ve been through, but we can help to give them very happy memories and support them to ensure that they never have to endure such hardship again. It’s all thanks to the generosity of people at our fundraisers that make this possible.”
In the summer of 2008, a six-year-old girl called Maryna Kravchuk was hosted by Shelagh and Richard Hogan in their home in Fermoy. Every year since, Marina has returned to spend time with her Irish family.
In the summer of 2017, Shelagh and Richard welcomed 16-year-old Nikita Dudko into their lives. Nikita has lived in Number 7 orphanage since birth. Maryna lived in Number 7 orphanage until she turned 17.
Shelagh spoke of her and her family’s devastation that Maryna and Nikita will not be with them this summer.
“When we got the confirmation that they weren’t coming, it was such a blow. It’s so upsetting.”
Shelagh and Richard travelled to visit Maryna and Nikita in February. She said: “Nikita looked so weak and vulnerable. We were excited then about him coming to us this summer because we would have been able to build him up. He was so excited to see us. He was hanging onto Richard and I thought he would never let him go.”
Shelagh and Richard are both concerned about Nikita because of his severe ill-health.
“I worry about how many summers he might have left in him. It’s such a big journey for him and he is so weak and so small. I really hope he can come back to us again.”
Maryna now lives in a hostel and is a ward of the state. She attends college and is training to become a gardener.
Shelagh is desperately worried about how Maryna is coping in her new environment, transitioning from Number 7 orphanage to state-run communal living. She had hoped that Maryna’s trip to Cork would have given the teenager the necessary respite and support she needed from her Irish family.
Shelagh said: “We (the host families) are all so upset that the children aren’t coming this summer. It is heart-breaking. We just have to hope that we can get them here for Christmas.”
THE IMPACT OF CHERNOBYL LIVES ON
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is not simply an historic event. The consequences of the accident are carried by survivors and will be handed down to their children for generations.
Two million people in Belarus, of whom approximately 500,000 are children, live in high risk, heavily contaminated zones where they are exposed to radioactive exposure via the food chain. Some areas of land will remain radioactive for more than 24,000 years. As much as one million hectares cannot be farmed for close to 100 years.
The children that were due to visit Cork this summer are third generation survivors of the Chernobyl disaster and bear the ongoing societal, health and economic fallout from the nuclear explosion of 1986 each day.
CEO of the CCI, Adi Roche said: “These children are the modern-day survivors of the disaster. They are sleeping, eating and breathing in that radioactive environment.”
In April this year, radioactive fires blazed in the exclusion zones surrounding Chernobyl. Eight villages were razed to the ground.
Adi said: “This happened in the middle of our lockdown here in Ireland. Radioactivity is very present for today’s generation because of the fragility of the environment.”
These fires occur every summer and are an example of the types of secondary contamination that affect the people of Belarus.
As well as running Rest and Recuperation programmes, CCI run an independent living programme. This enables young adults to move into the independent living house and escape a future of adult institutions. Some of these young adults were also due to visit Ireland this summer.
Adi said: “We are trying to find alternative ways for young people to live, as opposed to living in institutions. Coming to Ireland is a cornerstone of that because they learn about the beauty of family because they don’t have any family. They learn what it means to be independent, that you can go into the supermarket, go to the seaside, meet neighbours and friends. These sorts of things are alien to them in their current environment.”
Adi explained the depth of feeling between host families and Belarussian children.
“If you could only bottle the love, compassion and care that is demonstrated in Shannon Airport when these children and families are reunited; the host families may not have had a physical umbilical cord to these children but a spiritual bond exists between the children and their Irish families.
“The families are the unsung heroes and heroines who have done this year after year. Many of the families call these boys and girls their daughters and sons. It is extremely difficult for all of them because they know that the children are struggling, especially those in institutional care.”
There has been an outbreak of Covid-19 in the Vesnova orphanage. CCI joined forces with UNICEF and raised funds via an appeal to provide sanitising agents, medicine and PPE for children and staff who are living and working in various institutions. €10,000 was donated. In June, aid deliveries arrived at nine children’s institutions throughout Belarus.
The risk of infection for children in institutional care is extremely high because there is no social distancing. Children eat, sleep and play in close proximity to each other.
Adi said: “It was heart-breaking to tell families here about the risks the children are facing. These children have compromised immune systems, severe disability and genetic disorders.
“We are doing everything we possibly can at the moment to safeguard the lives of these children.”
Because the impact of the Chernobyl disaster will continue for generations, Adi is keen to ensure that the work carried out by CCI continues well into the future by focusing on development and de-institutionalisation work on the ground in Belarus.
She said: “We all know the saying, ‘do you give a man a fish or do you give him the fishing rod and teach him to fish?’. We have elements of training and education in every programme we run so that eventually the people there will be able run things themselves.
“We are constantly building for the future to help people in Belarus make their own decisions and become masters of their own destinies.
“As long as I have breath in my body, we will keep helping and associating in whatever way we can. We will always be there in the background, keeping their stories alive.”
MORE ABOUT THE CHARITY
Chernobyl Children International (CCI) was established by Adi Roche in 1991 to give support and hope to children living in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear disaster.
In April that year, an explosion occurred in Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, unleashing 200 times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs.
CCI works with families and communities in affected regions of Belarus to help them overcome the continuing effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
As a non-profit organisation, CCI relies on its hardworking volunteers to operate its various programmes. The oldest of these programmes is the Rest and Recuperation programme which is designed to give children the respite they need from the radioactive environment in which they live. During their month-long stay, the children’s radiation levels drop by close to 50% and two years is added to their life expectancy.
CCI’s Cork Outreach Group has welcomed children every summer to stay with volunteer host families in Cork. Alfie and Marcie Streete lead the Cork Outreach Group. They have welcomed children into their home each year for over twenty years.
For more on the work of CCI see https://www.chernobyl-international.com/