‘Our message is that there is always hope’
The excitement is palpable, the energy infectious. Not surprising in a house with 12 children under 16. Each child is as anxious as the next to display their own special talents to the visiting Irish delegation.
The Lord Mayor of Cork, the Irish ambassador to Lithuania and Belarus, and Chernobyl Children International (CCI) chief executive Adi Roche, sit on the couch or on the floor in the front room and prepare for an impromptu talent show.
The children then take turns. One child proudly shows off the drawings in her art folder, two of the boys play traditional tunes on a second-hand piano, while Dasha, 11, stuns the audience with her performance on the tsimbaly, a traditional Belarusian stringed instrument played using two small hammer-like devices.
She has won medals at regional competitions for her tsimbaly playing.
Their foster parents, Irina and Dima Sarapas, are islands of calm amidst the excited chaos. Having raised four of their own children, they are now caring for these 12 foster children, all aged from six to 16. They stand back and let the children have their moment of glory.
The audience applauds and the children bow, wide smiles across the faces, each bursting with pride.
The intimate little show stands in stark contrast to the fate which awaited the children had it not been for the intervention of CCI.
Each child was either orphaned or abandoned. Each has their own tragic story.
In some cases, it included neglect or physical abuse, or a shocking combination of both. In the more extreme cases, children were subjected to years of horrific sexual abuse. They were each facing life in state care.
But thanks to CCI, they and hundreds of other vulnerable children like them are now being raised in loving and supportive homes like this. And most importantly, they are being raised with hope.
This house near Glusk, in eastern Belarus, is one of CCI’s Homes of Hope — one of a 30-such homes which have been established as part of the charity’s pioneering new approach to foster care in the country.
As part of the foster-care model, the charity has sourced, bought and renovated 30 such homes all over Belarus to target the estimated 25,000 orphans and vulnerable children living in the Chernobyl regions.
This home is sponsored by philanthropist Norma Smurfit, the doyenne of Irish charity work. Another home has been sponsored by telecoms company, eir.
CCI holds the deeds to all the properties and, following an assessment, it places children in need with foster families who then move into the homes.
The charity enters into a legal agreement with the families and, after 15 years, it gifts the properties to them in recognition of their contribution to caring for the children.
The programme has placed 300 children in such homes, saving them from a life in state care. It is the equivalent of closing two orphanages. And more Homes of Hope are planned.
Ms Roche said the opening of each new Home of Hope is another step towards ending the culture of de-institutionalisation in Belarus.
“These children have deep emotional and psychological scars,” she says. “Many have been neglected, abused and abandoned and would have ended up in institutional care.
“We are endeavouring to break the cycle of poverty and abandonment in Belarus and give children a chance to live in loving homes with a real family.”
The Homes of Hope programme is one of several innovative projects being pursued and developed by CCI across Belarus.
We visit the home of Sveta Cherniavskya to see how her family has benefited from its community care programme.
Her home is down a wide, muddy potholed road on the outskirts of Gomel.
We step through a gate and walk over narrow wooden planks to the front door. Her husband works two jobs, including driving a truck by night, to support his family.
Sveta cares for their four boys, Daniil, 15, who is at school, Tima, three, 18-month-old Ilya, and Nikita, 14, who has cerebral palsy and suffers dozens of seizures a day.
As we arrive, Nikita is asleep in a front room after a difficult night, but he wakes soon afterwards, and walks into the living room on his toes. CCI is hoping to arrange for an operation to straighten his feet.
Sveta links his condition to the nuclear accident. Born with a compromised immune system, he received vaccinations as a toddler, which she believes triggered the chronic deterioration in his health.
But because the state no longer issues what is known as Chernobyl certification, which would have covered some of their medical costs, the family is struggling to cope themselves.
Without CCI, they would be lost, Sveta says.
The delegation also visits a CCI and Irish Aid-funded day-care centre, which is providing care to a region of 50,000 people, and visits the homes of people in rural areas who are benefiting from outreach programmes.
The need is as great as it ever was and support is required now, more so than ever.
Ms Roche said people here feel very isolated, especially the parents of children born with defects and abnormalities.
“They are ground down by poverty,” she says.
“Our message is that there is always hope. We are here to carry their burden, share their pain and suffering.
“We know there are huge problems in Ireland but I would ask people to reflect on the power of volunteerism, solidarity and of intervention.”
Hope of a brighter future in a house without toys
It’s still very raw, the shock, sorrow, and grief etched on her young face.
Cradling her little boy, Yaroslav, aged just one, Danilova Maryia, tells us how her partner took his own life just weeks earlier.
A silence falls on the room. Little Yaroslav, mystified by the appearance of so many strangers in the house, buries his head in one of his mother’s shoulders.
On January 6 — the Russian Orthodox equivalent of Christmas Day, Danilova tells us. Tears flow, again.
Yet another heartbreaking story of human misery from another town in the Chernobyl-affected region.
A widow at 26, Danilova is now struggling to care for her three children — Yaroslav, who looks pale and underweight for his age, and Andrei, eight, and Sofia, three, who are at school.
Standing in the sparsely furnished front room of the rickety house she is squatting in on the outskirts of Glusk in south-eastern Belarus, Danilova tells us her story.
She was abandoned by her parents when she was eight. Her husband left her some years ago, and her partner took his own life just weeks earlier.
There is a small shrine to him on a table in the corner of the room. A small candle, sitting in a glass of salt, flickers under a faded photograph of him.
The candle is the only working light in the house today. Power cuts occur regularly in the area. And even when the power is on, Danilova doesn’t have enough to pay the bill.
She is trying to raise her three children on the equivalent of just €120 a month.
The front door is broken, The fridge is empty. The pipe leading to the sink is broken. Panes are missing from several window panels and a bitter cold wind sweeps inside. There are three young children in the house, but no sign of a toy.
Neighbours brought the family’s plight to the attention of the Chernobyl Children International (CCI) charity soon after it built a day-care centre in the town nearby.
The centre provides a range of medical services to people in the region, but its staff have, in recent months, begun a community outreach work, bringing whatever help and supports are needed into peoples’ homes. Danilova is one of the people it is now supporting.
Adi Roche and the Irish delegation deliver a food parcel — beans, rice, pasta, biscuits, that kind of thing — and Ms Roche tries to figure out what else can be done to help them.
When Danilova asks what else she might need, she replies: “Nappies.”
As we prepare to leave, Adi hugs the young mother, and touches Yaroslav tenderly on the cheek.
Turning to the interpreter, she says: “Tell her whatever she needs we are there to help.”
We leave, rocked by their story but knowing that at least Danilova and her children are on CCI’s radar. There is a prospect of a brighter future.
‘While there’s breath in me she won’t go into state care’
Devoted grandmother Nadezhda Pribysh had always vowed that, for as long as there was breath in her body, she would fight to keep her severely disabled granddaughter out of state care.
Little did we know, as we waved goodbye to her on a crisp, bright afternoon last February, the last of the Belarusian winter snows melting beneath our feet, that she would breath her last just weeks later.
Tragically, Ms Pribysh death came even as she was trying to secure crucial documentation that would have ensured she became Nastya’s legal guardian, thus removing the worry of Nastya ever being placed in state care.
Her death leaves Nastya facing an uncertain future — another innocent victim of the Chernobyl disaster 30 years ago.
Nadezhda, or Granny as she was known to Chernobyl Children International (CCI) volunteers, was part of the charity’s community care and hospice programme.
Granny was just 66. She looked 20 years older — grinding poverty and years of relentless hard work and stress taking an obvious toll.
She stood protectively over Nastya, who chewed a bandaged-fist while strapped into a walking frame she was clearly outgrowing.
Granny told us she had been Nastya’s sole carer for over a decade. Despite her own ill-health, she said she was determined to care for Nastya at home.
Against desperate odds, Granny, like many others in this region, fought a daily struggle to deliver that care at home.
“While there is breath in my body she won’t go to one of those places,” she said defiantly.
CCI had been helping the pair for more than a decade with medical and practical care needs, ranging from providing them with food parcels, medical supplies, and equipment such as a walker, as well as medical and therapeutic services for Nastya.
But word came through from Belarus just over three weeks ago that Granny died suddenly days earlier.
She had presented at a local hospital for routine medical tests that would have allowed her to become Nastya’s legal guardian.
But doctors discovered she had kidney failure. She died a few hours later. There was nothing the medical staff could do.
CCI staff on the ground in Belarus are still trying to find a long-term care solution for Nastya.
It is hoped that she will be placed in the Vesnova care home. However, because she’s 18, that place will be difficult to secure.
Adi Roche of CCI has vowed to do everything in her power to help, and paid a moving tribute to Granny.
“The love, dedication, and care that Granny showed Nastya will stay with Nastya forever and with us as a true testament to the strength of the human heart,” she said.
‘I can see my son is getting worse, day by day’
The rain lashes the window of her small apartment as Natatsaha Tatarinceva weeps openly — her teenage son is dying in the bed in the corner of the room.
Marie Cox, Chernobyl Children International (CCI) medical co-ordinator, who visited the family in October, speaks in hushed tones.
“To be honest, I’m surprised Sasha is still alive,” she says.
We apologise for intruding into their world — a small ground-floor apartment in a non-descript Soviet-style apartment tower on the outskirts of Gomel.
But Natatsaha, a single mother and wheelchair user, insists we bear witness to the heartbreaking scene.
“It’s important the world knows,” she says.
Sasha, 19, was born healthy — one of the lucky 20% of children in Belarus who have been born healthy after Chernobyl.
A photograph of him as a bright, smiling toddler, sitting on his mother’s lap, rests on a shelf near his death bed.
When he was just two, he underwent a tonsillectomy at a local hospital. The procedure was barbaric.
The Belarusian health care system was on its knees. The hospital did not have an anaesthetic machine.
Sasha, like countless other children who underwent tonsillectomies at the time, underwent the procedure without anaesthetic.
He was brought into an operating theatre and strapped to a chair. His head was held back and his mouth forced open.
A doctor inserted a long, scissors-like instrument towards the back of his throat, a nurse grabbed the back of his head and shoved it forward violently in the hope the blade severed the tonsils.
Screaming, he was bent over a bucket to collect the blood.
During the recovery, he suffered toxic shock and a range of complications, which left him with severe brain damage.
Shocked by the procedure, CCI co-ordinated a fund-raising drive some years ago to buy a specialist anaesthetic machine for the hospital to ensure that no other children had to endure what Sasha went through.
Today, he lies in a bed in the corner of the tiny apartment — his tortured body twisted under the sheets.
He is being supported by CCI’s new hospice programme. Its palliative care outreach team members visit regularly, the care and management of his extensive pressure sores one of their main concerns.
Natatsaha, who has, not surprisingly, suffered from depression, maintains a bedside vigil. At times, it can take up to three hours to feed him, she says. Still clinging to hope, she weeps as she says she does not know what else she can do to help him.
Speaking through an interpreter, she says: “Maybe you could help. Maybe there is research on managing pressure sores?”
We discuss in English how long Sasha may survive. But it is clear that keeping him comfortable is the only realistic option now. It’s only a matter of time.
“When I was younger, I thought it would be easier to care for him as the years went by, because I would get more experience. But it’s been getting more difficult,” Natatsaha says.
“I can see that my son is getting worse, day by day. It means the world to me that the hospice staff come here regularly. Without them, I wouldn’t cope.”
Because CCI home-visit teams go the extra mile, helping her with chores and providing emotional support, Natatsaha has recently started to venture outside — just to get some fresh air.
She inhales deeply, and says: “I can’t explain what it was like before. I was very depressed. But with the support, now, it’s a little easier.”
Adi Roche reaches out to clasp Natatsaha’s hands, and tells her: “We’ll keep you and him in our thoughts and prayers, we’ll light candles and send lots of hope.”
But as she leaves, she tells the team to ensure the family gets whatever it needs, fearing the next time she visits, Natatsaha will be alone.