Derry woman, Emma Hunt, has witnessed with her own eyes the horrible reality of life for people still living in the wake of the Chernobyl Disaster.
Emma, a volunteer with Chernobyl Children International (C.C.I), has visited Belarus twice and for the last 12 years she has welcomed the same two sisters into her home for four weeks over the summer.
C.C.I. is based in Cork and the Northwest branch is the only of its kind in the North of Ireland.
Volunteers working the Northwest branch of C.C.I. spend most of the year raising money so that they bring more and more children from within the affected zone to Derry for four weeks over the summer.
“It’s been proven that for every four weeks children affected by the Chernobyl Disaster spend outside of the contaminated zone adds an extra two years to their life expectancy,” says Emma.
“In July of this year we brought 22 children from Belarus to Derry but because of the kindness and generous donation of £3,000 from James Deehan at City Cabs we will be able to bring even more children next year - I’d be hopeful of bringing close to 50 children here in 2013,” smiles Emma.
Emma and her mother first got involved with C.C.I. in Derry 12 years ago and since that time they have welcomed Zolina sisters Yuilia (17) and Ulanna (11) into their Derry home every summer.
“I call them my girls,” says Emma.
“The summer is not the summer if the girls aren’t in Derry. The girls get the obvious benefits of coming to country free of radiation and when they are here they are well looked after but I get a lot out of it too,
“I know from talking to the girls and their parents back in Belarus that C.C.I. has helped to change their lives for the better.”
Yuilia is deaf and in recent years younger sister Ulanna has developed a heart murmur; both of which are as a result of high radiation levels in Belarus.
The two sisters live with their mother and father in a small two bedroom apartment in the city of Mozyr.
Mozyr is 100km northwest of Chernobyl and was badly effected by the disaster in 1986.
“I couldn’t believe some of the things I saw when I went to visit the girls in Mozyr,” recalls Emma.
“Everything is so basic and because of Yuilia’s disability she receives a small monthly payment from the government but she is basically seen as a drain on government money.
“I visited the girls’ school when I was there and everything, again, was so basic. They have very little and the apartment they live in is very small and it gets very cold there during the winter.”
When Emma visited the girls last year, she had already booked into a hotel but when the girls’ parents heard of this they insisted she cancel her booking and stay with the family in their apartment.
“They are such a generous and proud people. Yuilia and Ulanna’s parents gave up their bedroom to let me stay. For 10 days, I felt like part of the family.”
As a sign of her gratitude, Emma, bought the family a small laptop computer and as a result she is able to stay in regular contact with the girls and the rest of the family through Facebook and Skype.
It costs the Northwest branch of C.C.I. £570 to bring a child to Derry for the summer. Whilst here, the children are placed with local host families in both Derry and Donegal.
Volunteers have been busy raising money for next year’s arrival of children from Belarus.
New to the charity is City Cabs proprietor, James Deehan. James says that the reason he decided to support the charity was because it was the chance to make a difference to other peoples’ lives.
“City Cabs decided to get involved with C.C.I. after a meeting between myself and Emma and Mary Hunt from the Northwest branch,” says James.
“I was well aware of the catastrophe that occurred in Chernobyl and was encouraged to hear the good work that C.C.I. do in helping the children.
“Emma and Mary explained their background in bringing children over to Ireland to stay with host families and that as well as giving the children an enjoyable experience, the visit would also help prolong their life by up to two years.
“I felt that their time effort and energy in supporting the children of Chernobyl was well worth City Cabs’ support.”
James attended a C.C.I. meeting held in the Three Flowers Bar on Tuesday night and says that the work carried out by the organisation is nothing short of invaluable.
“Further to City Cabs agreeing to support C.C.I. I attended a meeting on Tuesday past where I had the opportunity to meet with most of the team involved in bringing the children over to Derry. It was great to see first hand the effort and contribution that everyone brings in making the whole process possible. I also met with a few people who were there to show their interest in becoming a host family for the first time, this reinforced my belief in our support for C.C.I.,” he says.
Yiulia and Ulanna, along with the other 22 children, returned home to Belarus in July.
Throughout the four weeks they spent in Derry they were made guests of honour at a Derry City football match, taken to Lurgybrack Open Farm in Donegal and they were also able to avail of dental and eye checks.
“Much of what the children need back home in Belarus, they cannot afford,” says Emma.
“When we brought the recent group to Derry we were able to take them to Specsavers and local dentists for check-ups - this is all made possible by the generous donations made by the people of Derry.
“Yiulia and Ulanna said to me before they went back home that the summer they spent in Derry in 2012 was the best they ever had - that makes me so happy.”
The children who are brought by C.C.I. to Derry come from all over Belarus and most of them don’t know one another.
“Another way of looking at it is that it’s a chance for many of the children from Belarus to see the friends they have made over the years.
“Many of the host families welcome the same children to their homes every summer so it gives many of them the chance to catch up with one another.
“The deadline for new host families is next month so if anyone is interested in welcoming a child into their home next summer they should contact us as soon as possible.”
Emma says that whilst the children love coming to Derry she gets so much out of the visit, so much so she feels a little guilty about how much she enjoys it.
“I feel so bad about how good I feel when I see Yiulia and Ulanna because they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t need to be but I look forward to the four weeks every summer that they are here in Derry.
“The girls get a lot out of being here but I get a lot out of it too. It’s nice knowing that you’ve done something to help someone else.
“Over the years I have become very close with the girls and their family and I am planning to visit them over Christmas for a few days.
“They speak Russian in the cities in Belarus and if I am honest my Russian is non-existent but we get by.
“The girls’ cousin can speak English so when I am there she acts as our interpreter.
“It’s been life changing meeting the girls and spending time with their family - I can’t wait to see them over Christmas but until that time, the hard work starts now.”
In recent weeks, the local branch collected almost £800 in a street collection and they have many other events scheduled for throughout the rest of the year.
“We are hosting a ‘Take Me Out’ fundraising night at Pitchers next Friday night. Tickets cost £10 and people can pay at the door if they want,” explains Emma.
“We are also trying to contribute as much as we can to the ‘Homes of Hope Programme’.
“It’s a programme that takes children from bleak custodial state orphanages and places them in loving homes.
“We have so much going on and we are always keen to hear from new people wanting to get involved.”
For further information on the Northwest branch of C.C.I. contact Emma Hunt on 07775855638.
If you would like to make a donation to C.C.I. telephone 0818 25 25 25, or visit the website www.chernobyl-international.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook http://www.facebook.com/ChernobylChildrenInternational