What it feels like to in­vite Chernobyl’s chil­dren to hol­i­day in your home

Betty Cun­ning­ham (57) re­flects on how host­ing teenagers from the stricken re­gion each sum­mer has en­riched her own fam­ily’s life

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

Isaw an ar­ti­cle in the lo­cal pa­per about 10 years ago look­ing for host fam­i­lies for chil­dren af­fected by the Chernobyl nu­clear dis­as­ter. That put it on my radar. I was work­ing with Bank of Ire­land at the time and I didn’t think it would fit in with my job. But then I went to an in­for­ma­tion meet­ing held by the lo­cal branch of Chernobyl Chil­dren In­ter­na­tional. I re­mem­ber be­ing told that for ev­ery four weeks a child would spend in Ire­land, it would add two years to their life­span.

I live in Bun­crana, Co Done­gal, and I heard about the ben­e­fits of fresh food and fresh air and all the health ad­van­tages to kids com­ing here from con­tam­i­nated ar­eas. I was im­me­di­ately on board.

It’s rec­om­mended that you take two chil­dren for the four weeks. From all my ex­pe­ri­ence now, I would def­i­nitely tell peo­ple to take two. A child can be as young as eight or nine and it might be their first time away from home. If they have some­one around their own age who they can speak to, it can help.

My hus­band, Paddy, and I started to pre­pare for it. Our own kids were small at the time. We felt it was an op­por­tu­nity to give some­thing back. We had a com­fort­able fam­ily home and we felt it would be good for our chil­dren, An­ton (17), An­drea (12) and Adam (9), to re­alise there are peo­ple less well off.

In 2011 we got two girls from Be­larus. Dasha and Vika were aged seven and eight when they came to us that first sum­mer. Vika had come from a fos­ter home. The girls would slot in with our ev­ery­day life. They loved Bun­crana and go­ing to the shop­ping cen­tre in nearby Derry. They came back to us a sec­ond year.

The year af­ter that, we took in two boys from Be­larus. That was 2013, and Vlad, now 15, and Zhenya, now 14, have been com­ing to us since. Vlad’s sis­ter had been com­ing to Ire­land for a few years, so he was re­laxed about it. Zhenya was very ner­vous and timid at first.

You get to know a bit about their home cir­cum­stances. Both live with their fam­i­lies and they’ve no med­i­cal is­sues. They would never have met be­fore they came here. They’re good friends now, al­though they only meet up again on the plane com­ing over to us. The boys slot into life here the same as our own fam­ily. You try to fig­ure out what they like for break­fast, lunch and din­ner. They love chicken din­ners and spuds and gravy, but they’re a bit like our own kids when it comes to veg­eta­bles. When they first came, they had a room of their own. Now they share with my youngest son, Adam. He loves shar­ing with them and I’d hear them all laugh­ing and gig­gling at night. I might tell them to stop mess­ing, and they try and mimic the Ir­ish ac­cent. The first time they came, they’d never seen the sea. I re­mem­ber one evening it was cool, but they wanted to go to the beach. Vlad and Zhenya were so en­thu­si­as­tic they put their swim­ming togs on and ran in even though it was cold. They were go­ing to get in come hell or high wa­ter, whereas my own three knew how cold it was. In the evenings, they’re up in the green on the es­tate play­ing foot­ball with other kids. They love a bit of PlayS­ta­tion, the same as any other kids. My old­est son is a typ­i­cal teen — he wouldn’t be out play­ing with them now.

Even though Vlad and Zhenya are teenagers them­selves, they’re a lit­tle bit more in­no­cent than kids that grow up here. They’ll still run around and play hide and seek with my two younger chil­dren.

When you don’t see them for a year, they grow so much. I re­ally no­ticed it this year — they had both filled out. I prob­a­bly no­ticed it more be­cause Zhenya is taller than me now.

I’ve never had one ounce of trou­ble with the two boys. They’re just great boys. As a mother, when they’re leav­ing, it’s tough see­ing them go. When you know you’re go­ing to see them again and it’s not even a year down the road, it’s eas­ier.

Ev­ery year it just seems to come around faster and faster. There is a cut-off point. Once they reach 18, they don’t come any­more. I don’t even think about that. They’re our sum­mer fam­ily, and our fam­ily just ex­pands when they’re here. It might be a bit like hav­ing cousins to stay, ex­cept they’re more than cousins to my kids. They’re like my own chil­dren now. They would al­ways have given me a hug at night, but they’ve gone a bit big for that now.

The lan­guage has never been an is­sue. We got a phrase­book. Ev­ery­thing you might need to know is in the book, from words for the bath­room and sit­ting room to ask­ing ‘are you hun­gry?’. Kids are very adapt­able. They pick up words very quickly and the boys speak a good bit of English now. They could hold a con­ver­sa­tion with you, no prob­lem. I haven’t used the phrase­book in years.

There’s a real feel­good fac­tor about do­ing this. It’s the op­por­tu­nity to be able to help some­body. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re great, but to give kids an op­por­tu­nity is what it’s all about.

It doesn’t take much. They fit in with what­ever’s go­ing on and go swim­ming with my kids. The chil­dren in the neigh­bour­hood would be call­ing, ask­ing: “Are Vlad and Zhenya com­ing out to play?” They’re like part of the fam­ily. The big­gest thing is to carry on as nor­mal. You don’t have to go over­board. Just start as you mean to go on like you would with your own kids. You don’t have to have chil­dren your­self to be a host fam­ily.

You can be a sin­gle per­son, but it’s not for every­body. We’ve had peo­ple come on board and it doesn’t work out for them — it’s not what they ex­pect. We’ve been re­ally lucky with our two boys. They’re just lovely, well-man­nered kids.

Vlad wants to do some­thing with com­put­ers and go to col­lege — his sis­ter is now in col­lege. Zhenya doesn’t talk much about school and doesn’t know what he wants to do yet. In time, when they get older and get jobs, I do think they’ll come back and visit. This has been a big part of their lives.

If you’re some­one who might be in­ter­ested in host­ing kids, you just need to ask your­self, ‘Can I give the time to take chil­dren into my home?’. Time is all you re­ally need. You can have prob­lems, but it’s noth­ing that can’t be solved. It’s a great chance for the boys, but it’s hard to let them go. For more in­for­ma­tion, see chernobyl-in­ter­na­tional.com In con­ver­sa­tion with Kathy Don­aghy

I’ve never had one ounce of trou­ble with the twoboys

HOPE FROM TRAGEDY: Vlad and Zhenya and, be­low, the wreck­age of the Chernobyl nu­clear power plant

BIG HEART: Betty Cun­ning­ham and her fam­ily hosted chil­dren from Be­larus

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