Indoor camogie makes it to a Chernobyl Orphanage in Belarus. Kathleen Dooley gives an account of the trip.
All of you are probably aware of the Chernobyl charities that operate to help deprived children and families following the fall out of the Chernobyl disaster. In 2005 I got involved in the Chernobyl Child Care Project – well my sister actually volunteered me! It is an Irish run registered charity. The project operates all year round aiding in the building of houses and placing of kids in fostering homes. The highlight of the project is the summer camp which is organised in Zhdanovichy orphanage, Belarus every summer. Zhdanovichy is a small town just 15 minutes drive south of the capital Minsk. It as a shop, bank, train station and that’s really it. The roads are sand lanes and pot holes galore! Below is just a brief reflection of the trip last year and one has touched the life of all those who were involved.
I arrived at Shannon airport feeling like Santa Claus! Checking in with over 15 bags, bottles of water (you have to bring your own supply), indoor hurls and with one fractured hand, well let’s just say, it was a different way to travel. The flight is a charter flight which is mainly occupied with the children returning to Belarus following their trip to Ireland. It turned out to be a noisy flight as they all compared the goods and presents they were returning with. I have never seen people eat flight meals as they did! On arriving in Minsk airport all hell broke loose! The bags all come off the luggage belt and pile up, and if you don’t grab your bag, someone else will. Trolleys are a luxury and after some length all were loaded on the mini bus (the NCT rules haven’t made it there yet may I add). The orphanage itself is an impressive building which has been neglected. The grounds consist of a football pitch (well it used to be a football pitch but is now home to every weed imaginable), the main building and there is a vegetable garden used to grow the vegetables to feed the children. Children from 7-16 are catered for here. There is also an orphanage on the site for abandoned babies – yes it is as the name suggests. The children usually sleep 4 or 6 to a room and all bunk beds. The rooms are tiny. We stay in the orphanage too. The children wash their own clothes in basins of water. The clothes are all supplied from charities and the yearly visit of the Irish summer camp is a highlight for them to update their wardrobes – nearly all the county jerseys are visible out there! The orphanage is home to over 150 children. There is an orphanage director and two teachers. Education to them is the best way to get a good start and they really do strive to make it. A typical day at the camp starts with aerobatics at 7.45 – no need to head to the gym! Then breakfast is served which consists of coffee and fish. Class starts at 9am and continues until 1pm. Lunch is served then at 1pm. This is boiled chicken served with fried cabbage and potatoes – and trust me, this is not for the tender stomach! It’s time for craft classes then. This includes art work, painting, making items from clay and ice pop sticks, cooking (my class were experts in making rice krispes buns !), tea-shirt dying, jewellery making and a host of other activities. Sport classes then follow and yes I introduced hurling and camogie to them (and a black and amber flag even made its way through customs!!). Other sports include table tennis, volleyball, basketball and soccer. Ice hocking is a popular sport out there so they took to the indoor hurling like professionals – some are even considering taking trials for the Wexford senior hurling team!! Even meals are served at 6.30 and that’s fish cake with vegetables and bread. These children are extremely talented and each night they organised a concert for us. They are very proud of their dance and music cultures and very much enjoy the Irish music, song and dance too. It gets tricky trying to teach them the Waltz of Limerick and such like in Belarusian! At night, the lonely sobbing of some of the children can be heard through their corridors.
The facts behind the scene are harsh and frightening. The country is a proud one and does not like to accept charity. Most of the children suffer from physical abuse and are mentally abused too. They will use whatever, and do whatever they need to do, to survive. For the girls, they are a valuable money making asset and can be sent to work on the streets as early as 10 years of age. Most have no family and some of them don’t even know where their families are. A lot of them have been placed in the orphanage by social services and some are ill. These are children who haven’t been shown any love and are so grateful for any affection and time. They share all their toys and gifts and I have never seen children so excited to see a McDonald’s meal!! Alcohol abuse is a major problem and as is unemployment.
During our stay there the weather varied. Some days it was 30 degrees sunshine and we also got accustomed to real thunder storms. Watching the first storm was amazing and a novelty until we retired to bed that night to learn that the roof leaks! There is no money to fix the roof and each year the charity gives money to try and patch up the affected areas. Last year the charity setup a kitchen in the orphanage and it is their pride and joy! There aren’t a whole lot of cups or saucepans but that’s irrelevant to them.
We arrived at the orphanage very late on the first night but all the children stayed up to greet us. The first kid I spotted was about 7 years old and holding a teddy. He had a shirt on that was way too big for him and was wearing sports shorts. The elastic had broken in it and he was holding it up. He had outgrown his shoes and the toes had been cut out of them to give his toes more room. Yet, he was smiling and ran to hug us. I wondered how this could be let happen. It is hard to explain to you the experience and the situation. I know that I will return and hopefully give them some happy memories that might help them through the bad times. Yes, leaving it all behind is heartbreaking and hard to do, each time it gets harder. The best way to sum up the whole experience is to say, that I felt like I really made a difference to those children.