For 30 years the Burren Chernobyl Project has help shape, and sometimes save, the lives of young people living in Belarus. The benefits to the children are clear – with the love and affection of the volunteers bringing light when there was only darkness. More often than not however, the real winners are the people who volunteer. Andrew Hamilton speaks with two such volunteers, mother and daughter, Rosie and Ruth Byrne from Shannon.
AH: I might start off with you Rosie, how did you first become involved with the Burren Chernobyl Project?
Rosie: I first got involved back in 2000, in the jubilee year, when Shannon Parish took on a project that the whole parish could get behind. Canon Brendan O’Donoghue contacted Br Liam [Liam O’Meara of the Burren Chernobyl Project] and we became involved in the work they were doing at the time in the Gorodishche orphanage. Myself an two friends went out the first time and I got hooked, the kids hooked me in. I think my first year actually going there was 2002.
AH: What was your first visit like? Your first time actually seeing what life was like for the children over there?
Rosie: Conditions at that stage were already hugely improved from when the Burren Chernobyl Project first got involved. The children had been moved into a new orphanage and everything was bright and colourful. But the children themselves, there is around 210 of them from four to 18 years, they all have special needs of some varying degree. They are so endearing and have so much love to give – they crave attention and love. They got very little of it over the years – things have improved but for a long time it was just that their basic needs that were met. They were fed, they were washed, but care and love was not there in abundance. I think that is fair to say, without being disrespectful, that their carers, or the ‘Mamas’ as they are known, have learned from the volunteers over the years. When Burren Chernobyl went out there first, they wouldn’t have known whether it was a boy or a girl who was there in the cot, never mind a name. And they didn’t care. I remember speaking to a woman who was involved in the early days and she asked one of the Mamas what would her wish be for these children. The Mama looked are her and said ‘these children have more than my children have. There children have three meals a day’. It’s a small village and there was a lot of poverty around and the people working in the orphanage were not that well off and in those days they didn’t have a lot of training. We see ourselves as a summer camp coming to them. Is that fair enough Ruth?
Ruth: Ya, I think so. Generally, the majority of volunteers travel in the summer when the children who can go to school, are not at school. So it really is there summer holidays. We are there to fill in the days. Last year was the first year when we saw that they [the Mamas] had activities planned for every single day. It was fantastic to see. It meant that if there was a week when there wasn’t any Irish there, the kids were still getting to do something. But last year was the first year that we’ve seen that level of organisation.
AH: It’s amazing to see that you’ve had such an effect, not just on the children, but on the Mamas as well. You’ve changed their culture as well and how they approach their job.
Ruth: We definitely have. It still wouldn’t be the dream job of a lot of the people who work there. It is a poor village and a lot of them have tough situations at home themselves. But I suppose, having seen the Irish there, they have softened their approach. I always remember Mam saying how much had changed from her first year to now. The way they feed the children, especially the ones who are bed-bound, has totally changed. It’s a hell of a lot better than it was. They are taking some time and interacting with the children. They [the children] used to be numbers. They are called by their names now. It has come an awfully long way.
AH: When did you go over first, Ruth?
Ruth: Well, if it had been up to me I would have gone as soon as Mam came back from her first trip. But I had to wait until I was 18. I’ve been going now for seven or eight years I think.
AH: So do you approach your trips like you are bringing all the enthusiasm and all the affection – and it’s all abut being really positive and really given to the children?
Ruth: That’s it exactly. We go over there with as many activities and toys as we can. Simple things like soft balls – and we try to organise games with them. You can feel the burst of energy when you walk into the room. The children would have been sitting of lying very still, very quiet with no interaction, and then, 10 seconds later, the Irish arrive and everything is completely different. It’s mayhem but it is good mayhem. We go over to bring the energy. I remember a few years ago I met a number of builders who were there from a different charity. They were wondering what I was doing there, was I a nurse or what was my qualification. I just said that I am qualified in hugs and kisses. That sums it up for me. You can still make a huge impact on the life of a child.
Rosie: All of the children over there have either physical or mental disabilities. There are eight different groups in the orphanage and some of those groups are restrained in chairs or seating. It can be a very distressing thing for new people [volunteers] to see but we know that it is ultimately for the children’s own safety. There aren’t enough carers to look after them and they don’t have all the training that they need. For example, there are some children out there who can walk, but they only get to walk when there are volunteers out there. It is down to simple basic things. It could sitting down and holding a child’s hand, or it could be swinging another child on a swing. It’s different for each child.
Ruth: We take them on day trips which is great. The ones who are more capable come to a town near-by with us on a bus. That is an incredible experience for them – just to be able to get out of the orphanage and maybe go to a museum or a park. We brought them to an arcade the last time and they went crazy for it – the lights, the sounds, everything.
Rosie: And you talking about a very simple arcade. Ours [Irish children] would look at you twice if they were brought to it.
AH: Do you get to build relationships over time with certain children, who you would remember, but then they would possible remember you as well?
Ruth: Definitely. I felt like I knew all the kids before I went out there from hearing all the stories from Mom and seeing all the photos.
I remember the confused look on their faces when I was calling them by their name and they’d never seen me before. They were like ‘who is this girl?’. But after, when you go back a couple of times, they definitely remember.
They are seeing a lot of faces so after one visit they might not remember you, but after two or three visits they definitely, definitely will.
They will know your name and they will come running.
They will remember things that you might have forgotten.
You form a huge, huge bond with them. I would class them as family more than friends, especially with older ones who have a bit of chat and a bit of banter.
Rosie: Some of the older ones can be a bit more reserved about creating those bonds. I think it is like a protective mechanism for themselves. They won’t let you in easily but when you are let in, it is incredibly worthwhile.
Ruth: You’ll see it through the week. They’ll be there, hanging out with you, following you around like a shadow. But then, come the last day or two, some of them don’t show their face, because they know the goodbyes are coming. So it is very much a defence mechanism for them. They need to protect themselves. The Irish would be crying [when they leave] but the Belarusians would be crying as well. It’s not nice to leave them like that But it’s very difficult to leave with a dry eye.
AH: I’d imaging it must be very fulfilling. For a lot of volunteers I’d say that it is as much a gift for you as it for the children you are visiting?
Rosie: Without a doubt. I get embarrassed when people say, ‘your great for doing this’. I personally get far more from it and I know Ruth does as well. They have such unconditional love.
Ruth: Only the other day one of my friends was asking me had I and holiday plans – saying that I should get myself a sun holiday this year. If I get a chance to get anywhere, I’ll go to Belarus. It is holiday time for me. You come back exhausted but completely fulfilled as well. It can be tough emotionally but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Anyone who has gone out there can’t but feel the love from these kids. You could learn a lot from them.
Rosie: In one day out there, maybe in a few hours, you will feel every emotion that you can from frustration and anger to love and gratitude. It’s a rollercoaster but you do it because you love them. It is very difficult not to go back and the more you go back the more you want to. I’d move over if I could, I really would.
Ruth: You would I’d say.
The Burren Chernobyl Projects is involved in a number of projects through Belarus. Along with Gorodishce, they also offer huge support to a facility at Cherven, they run a hugely successful medical programme, and are involved in an extensive building programme in the Tarasiki adult facility. For more Information visit www.burrenchernobyl.ie
This page and opposite page: Roaie and Ruth Byrne with a number of the young people helped by the Burren Chernobyl Project in Belarus.