Giving hope to the forgotten children of Chernobyl

From left, Patsy McLaughlin, press officer, Martin Roberts, fundraiser, and Siobhan McNally, group leader, of the Chernobyl Children's Project. (2904PG08)
From left, Patsy McLaughlin, press officer, Martin Roberts, fundraiser, and Siobhan McNally, group leader, of the Chernobyl Children's Project. (2904PG08)

In the villages and towns surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant, shopping for food is a complicated business.

Those who are wealthy enough to afford a geiger counter check the radiation levels on the fresh produce they buy before they bring it home to their families. Those less well off just have to take their chances - knowing that their families must eat contaminated food or starve.

Poverty is rife. 1.7 million people live in poverty, one in ten of those lives in extreme poverty - which is classed as living on half or less of the recommended subsistence level.

There is no inward investment in the areas of Belarus and Ukraine surrounding the damaged plant. While a 70 mile exclusion zone has been put in place to try and protect local residents - many will still venture into the contaminated forests to forage for wild mushrooms and other food stuffs.

Even today - a quarter of a century on from the disaster which shook the world - only one in five children living in the area enjoy good health. Deformities are still common. The threat of cancer looms large. Heart problems are a reality of for many.

At a best estimate it will be 600 years before the area around Chernobyl will be habitable again - and yet according to local representatives of Chernobyl Children Ireland, many people have forgotten about the devastating long term effects of the disaster.

“In a lot of ways people have moved on - they have become apathetic to the plight of the people, and the children of Chernobyl,” Martin Roberts who was one of the founding members of the charity in Derry said.

“But the risks haven’t gone away. The children still benefit from respite away from the contamination. It is thought one four week stint here can add two years to a child’s life.”

The local branch of the charity brings between 20 and 30 young people, mostly aged between 8 and 12 to the North West each summer to allow them some respite care with local families.

When they arrived in Derry, the full scale of the horrific conditions they live in becomes all too clear. Siobhan McNally became involved with Chernobyl Children International six years ago after watching a documentary about the charity and its founder, Cork woman Adi Roche.

“The next day I contacted the charity and was put in touch with Martin Roberts. It was fate, because I contacted him on a Wednesday and he said the closing date for host families was that Friday. We filled the forms out straight away and got them back to him.”

She has taken in two children for respite care each year since. “When the children arrive they are literally in rags, dirty rags. They are very pale - their skin has an almost greyish tinge to it.

“You see just how they have nothing at home. The poverty is so extreme - it was bad anyway but the disaster just made it worse.”

Siobhan says it gives a great sense of joy to see the children thrive during their stays in Ireland. “They just fit right into the families - and get stuck in with everything. They are so full of enthusiasm that the language barrier doesn’t even get in the way - they get so much joy ouy of it, but they give it back too.”

Derry woman Patsy McLaughlin and her husband Joe became involved with the charity three years ago, by chance. “A host family had to pull out at the last minute and we were asked if we could step in.

“We did and we have been involved since.”

The Derry couple have taken care of the same child for the last two years - a 13 year old called Anna, who refers to Patsy and Joe as her Mama and Papa, as her own parents died tragically last year.

“Anna is a big part of our family. She has the run of the house when she is here and even manages to speak with a twang of a Derry accent,” Patsy explained.

But both Siobhan and Patsy know that the children they look after each summer are the lucky ones. Many children do not have the luxury of such a break.

Martin Roberts, who in recent years taken a back seat with the charity, said the need for people to offer their help - both financial and as host families - is still as big as it ever was.

“Those born with deformities are often abandoned as their families cannot care for them. They are sent to children’s homes where they live until they are four before being consigned to mental institutions. The conditions in which they live are horrendous.

“And this is a problem which has not gone away.”

While the world’s attention may well have turned to Japan and the threat of a meltdown at the Fukushima, Martin, Patsy and Siobhan argue that the threat there is nowhere close to the devastation caused 25 years ago.

“Technology has moved on. Safety regulations have moved on. Japan is a different story - the economy is different. People would be better fixed to tackle a crisis.

“Belarus was poor to begin with and remains exceptionally poor. The outcome remains bleak,” Siobhan said.

The group have warned that urgent action also needs to be taken to replace a large sarcophagus placed over the damaged reactor to prevent further contamination.

The cost of replacing the sarcophagus is estimated to run at £2 billion.

“Why the international community is not doing all they can to tackle this situation is beyond me. This could happen again,” Patsy said.

The Derry group is continuing to work closely with their parent organisation headed up by Adi Roche. Both Patsy and Siobhan recently travelled to Dublin to meet with Adi and both described as as “the most inspirational woman” they have met.

“There is much we want to do,” Siobhan said. “Fundraising is getting tougher and tougher, while costs are in increasing. Now, more than ever we need people to help out.”

The group have been fundraising through street collections, bag packing and holding charity events. So far they have raised £15,000 towards the cost of bringing children to the North West this summer. But this is still £3000 short of their target.

“When the children arrive, the host families take on the cost of looking after them ourselves. We feed and clothe them. But we need to fundraise to bring to the children, and interpreters, over to Derry. We have just received notification that cost of flights this year will be going up.”

The local branch of Chernobyl Children International welcomes donations for individuals and businesses.

As well as money to fund the project they are also looking for donations of good quality clothing, from age 4 to 18 to clothe the children.

To donate you can contact Patsy on 078503311329, Siobhan on 07588866865 or treasurer Ann Bradley on 71266768.