‘It’s hard to say goodbye’

Some of the children from Chernobyl with local hosts at the Derry City Social Club.  (0707JB24)
Some of the children from Chernobyl with local hosts at the Derry City Social Club. (0707JB24)

July is a bitter sweet month for Siobhan McNally.

Siobhan is group leader of the Derry branch of Chernobyl Children International (C.C.I.). The Derry branch was founded 20 years ago and is the only one of its kind in the North of Ireland.

Little Andrea with friends Sasha, Dasha and Vika from Chernobyl.(0707JB28)

Little Andrea with friends Sasha, Dasha and Vika from Chernobyl.(0707JB28)

The reason behind Siobhan’s mixed feelings for the month of July is because each year for four weeks she hosts two Belarusian children affected by the Chernobyl disaster into her home. All of the children arrived in Derry on June 27 and will return to Belarus on July 25.

“It’s great when they arrive and when they are here but it’s very hard when I have to say goodbye to them. They are all such lovely wee children and they love coming to Derry - it’s like a wee holiday for them,” says Siobhan.

“It can be very tough because there are a lot of tears. It’s also tough for the children because although they are so happy to be here they want to go back to their own families.”

In April 1986 a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. An explosion at the plant sent large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere and right across the then U.S.S.R. and most of Western Europe. Many people lost their lives as a result of the disaster and 26 years later the effects are still being felt.

Since 1992 the Derry C.C.I. branch have been bringing children affected by the Chernobyl disaster to Derry and Donegal. When the children arrive, they are placed with a host family with whom they are with for the entirety of their stay. All of the children are from Belarus.

Siobhan has welcomed Alina (12) and Katsia (12) into her home many times over the years. Siobhan says that the reason she decided to get involved was because she felt awful after watching a documentary about Chernobyl.

“I think it was eight years ago I that I first became aware of C.C.I. I remember watching a programme about Chernobyl on a Wednesday night and the deadline for applications to be host family was two days later. I applied and within the next few months I welcomed children from Chernobyl into my home.

“The reason I do it because the children need our help. It’s been proven that every four weeks children affected by Chernobyl spend outside of the country adds another two years onto their life expectancy.”

Siobhan takes unpaid leave from her job every July to be with the children. She says that the work carried out by the Derry branch of C.C.I. would not be possible but for the support of the local community and families from Derry and Donegal.

“Although the children are only here for four weeks we use the rest of the year to fundraise. One of the things we are trying to raise money for is to combat what is known as Chernobyl Heart - it’s a heart defect that is found nowhere else in the world except the places affected by Chernobyl. The condition is fatal but for £1,000 we can help a child get an operation that would save their life.

“We also owe a lot of thanks to the likes of Specsavers who gave free eye tests to all of the children, seven local dentists who checked all of children’s teeth, the Derry City Social Club for hosting a disco for the children and Lisnagelvin Shopping Centre for paying all of the money needed to take the children to Dunlewey next week.”

Emma Hunt is the press officer for the Derry branch of C.C.I.

Emma has been involved with various Chernobyl charities for nine years and says that welcoming children into her home is one of the most rewarding things she has ever done.

“Two girls called Yuila (17) and Uylana (11) stay with me. They are great wee girls and they so happy when they are here.

“Yuila was born with a hearing defect and when she’s here we try our best to try and get her the help she needs - she’s an amazing girl.

“Like Siobhan says, it’s great when the children are here but it’s tough when you have to say goodbye.”

Rosaleen Bradley is from Burnfoot in Donegal and she has welcomed a little Belarusian boy called Zhenya (11) to her home on three occasions.

Rosaleen and her husband Shane have four children of their own aged from one to eight. Their youngest child was born last year and as a result they were unable to bring Zhenya to Ireland.

“Zhenya is an amazing boy. Although there’s a language barrier there we always manage to get our points across.

“My three boys really get on with Zhenya and he loves nothing more than taking part in a game of hurling and he’s also taken to shouting ‘come on Buncrana’ when we take him to GAA matches,” smiles Rosaleen.

Rosaleen’s husband is taking part in a sponsored cycle from Malin Head in Donegal to Mizen Head in Cork on July 22. All monies raised will be donated to the Derry branch of C.C.I.

Anna Khristo (14) is from a town called Ivianiec near Minsk in Belarus.

This year’s visit to Ireland is Anna’s sixth and each time she stays with the same host family.

“I am very happy when I come here,” says Anna smiling. “The people are very kind and Patsy and Joe [host parents] are so good to me.”

Anna’s parents and grandparents are all dead and she lives with her cousin back in Ivianiec.

“I would like to come and live in Derry someday. It’s a lovely city and I am always happy here.”

Twelve year-old Katya is also from Belarus and she has visited Ireland seven times.

“I like it here. Everyone is so friendly and the family I stay with are so kind and caring. Next week were going to a wedding - it should be fun.”

Majella McLaughlin and her husband Paddy have been welcoming the same two girls, Sasha (11) and Tanya (10), to their Donegal home for the last three years. Majella and Paddy have no children of their own but for one of month of the year their house becomes busy with the sound of the girls enjoying themselves.

“It’s very rewarding for the host families because you are giving children a chance to do something that they would otherwise not be able to do. The two girls that stay with us are amazing. Our house is quiet for 11 months of the year but when the girls come it’s busy, busy, busy. Sasha and Tanya are so well behaved and when it’s time to say goodbye at the end of the four weeks, there can be a lot of tears. I miss the hugs and kisses when they are gone,” says Majella.

For further information on the Derry branch of C.C.I. or to apply to be a host family (deadline for next July is October 2012) contact either Siobhan McNally - 07588866865 or Emma Hunt - 07775855638.

Also, C.C.I. member Paddy Brady is organising a ‘Take Me Out’ charity event at Pitcher’s Restaurant in September. For tickets contact either Siobhan or Emma.