Helping the children of Chernobyl

Denis with Bob and Lillian Pattison. Picture: Jane Barlow
Denis with Bob and Lillian Pattison. Picture: Jane Barlow
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‘HE eats for Scotland when he’s here – last year he was 3st 1lb when he arrived, but by the time he went home he was still only 3st 2lbs. We don’t know where he puts it.”

Bob Pattison laughs as he jokes with ten-year-old Dzianis, or Denis as he’s known to him and his wife Lilian. Yet the young boy’s weight is no laughing matter.

At his age, the average Scottish child weighs around five stone, but Denis lives near the Belarusian village of Cherikov, one of the places worst hit when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown 28 years ago. Twenty-three per cent of Belarus was contaminated by Chernobyl’s radioactive fall-out – that’s 35,592 square miles – and for a largely rural country whose economy was dominated by agriculture, the explosion proved disastrous.

One small chink of light for the children of the region though is, thanks to a dedicated band of people in Edinburgh and West Lothian, a summer holiday every year in Scotland. Since 2005 hundreds of disadvantaged and deprived children from Belarus have been flown to England then driven north for a month-long summer recuperative visit, receiving four weeks of medical care, nourishment and nutrition and the chance to experience activities which most children in the Lothians would take for granted.

Bob, who is the activities co-ordinator for the Friends of Chernobyl’s Children West Lothian branch, has been a “host parent” for seven years.

“They would go swimming every day if we let them,” he laughs again. “It’s really what they want to do. They can’t get to do it at home, as there are no swimming pools and outdoor water is contaminated. But we have a whole host of activities – as well as the medical check-ups – like the climbing centre at Ratho for one.”

He adds: “Their lives over there are so different. They still have outside toilets, their homes are not insulated and it can get to minus 40 in winter, there’s no running water but a well in the street.

“Even for those children who may have a computer, their parents have gone into huge debt to pay for it because they want them educated.”

Bob, 66, and Lilian, 68, from Uphall, got involved with the charity through Broxburn Parish Church when the Edinburgh FOCC group would drop in for lunch while the children were receiving dental and optical care nearby. The couple looked after one young boy, Vadim, but he left the programme after three years, although they do still keep in touch.

“Then we were asked to take on Denis,” says Bob. His story involves alcoholic parents who would beat him – he was hospitalised at the age of 18 months – and lock him in a cupboard with no food for long periods of time while they were out getting drunk. He was eventually taken into care in an orphanage before being adopted by his new “mum”.

Kenny Turnbull, FOCC West Lothian’s organiser, says: “Denis’s adopted mum is a really lovely woman with a heart of gold. And Denis is a loving boy who always wants a hug. But he is hard work. He would never let you close a door because of his memories of being locked up.”

Bob adds: “He’s still full of mischief, but he’s just a wee boy, like any other. He needs a lot of love and attention but a more loving child you’d be hard-pushed to meet.”

Another child who has found her life changed by FOCC is Palina, eight, who is staying in West Lothian with Clare and Donald Gardner.

Kenny says: “Palina lives just north of Cherikov. Her parents separated and she and her two sisters were taken into care for a while. When Palina came out of care she didn’t speak. Even her teacher told us she said very little. Her host family has one daughter, Katherine, and last year during her stay she started to talk to her and then gradually her host mum Clare. Then there was a magical moment when she answered one of my many questions. It was so nice to hear her voice.”

Then there’s Andrei, who Kenny says, has developed from a shy seven-year-old into a confident 12-year-old. “He came on to the programme four years ago after his dad was knocked down and killed by a car. There are very few cars in the villages and the children don’t have a lot of road sense, so it’s one of the first things we teach them.

“Andrei’s mum has also passed away. She was just 32 when she had a stroke, which is fairly common in Belarus. Andrei is still quiet, but he’s a lovely boy despite all he’s been through.”

The charity also visits the children in their homes once a year, taking food, medical supplies and letters and love from their host families here. With flights, visas and all the medical aid and activities to pay for it’s an expensive business, and they rely solely on fundraising to pay for everything. Bob adds: “It would be great to be able to bring more children over, but for that we need more families to get involved. It’s a great privilege to be able to offer these children a chance of experiencing a different life. To show them what else is available in the world and to give them love. It’s all they really need.”

How disaster struck

IT was around 1am on the morning of April 26 in 1986 when a nuclear power plant reactor erupted near the small Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.

The plant, a few miles outside the town which lies close to the border of Russia and Belarus, was undergoing maintenance and monitoring, but in the process of testing reactor four it exploded and went into meltdown.

The fall-out was catastrophic. The reactor spewed more than 200 times the amount of radiation released when atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, into the atmosphere.

It took around 800,000 firefighters more than two years to put out the fire, to bury radioactive materials and to build a tomb around the plant to keep in the radioactive materials which had collapsed into the reactor.

More than 350,000 people living around the area had to be evacuated and relocated, but more than seven million were affected by the disaster. The most affected areas were in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, however sheep in England and reindeer in Lapland had to be killed after being irradiated.

In Belarus in particular, farmland, which was the staple economy of the country, was ruined and could no longer be used for agriculture. However many families still live on contaminated land, grow their food there and consume it.

There are now more than 148,274 invalids on the Chernobyl registry in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

There has been a massive rise in thyroid cancers in those exposed to the radiation when very young, as well as rises in immune system disorders, heart and blood problems, gastrointestinal problems, lung disease and learning problems.

Holidays for the disadvantaged

THE charity, Friends of Chernobyl’s Children, first started 20 years ago when one little girl from Belarus came to stay in Lancashire with Olwyn Keogh, a woman desperate to do something to help the children affected by the radiation fall-out of the Chernobyl disaster.

The following year, after massive fundraising by Olwyn, 50 children arrived for a month-long recuperative holiday.

Since then the charity has grown across the UK and there are now 31 FOCC groups, which helps children aged between seven and 12 from disadvantaged homes in the former Soviet Republic country.

The Edinburgh West branch of FOCC began in 2005 after Diane Mayall, a mother of two girls, attended a talk about the ongoing problems for children in Belarus 20 years on from Chernobyl.

Through her daughters’ school she invited parents to attend an evening talk on the subject and the following year 15 children from Belarus arrived to stay with their new host families.Five years later, Kenny Turnbull established the FOCC West Lothian group which this year will host 20 children from Belarus.

For more information about becoming a host family or to donate money to help pay for the children to come to Scotland, visit www.foccwestlothian.com or www.justgiving.com/FOCCWestLothian or www.focc-edinburghwest.org