TRCH Priscilla

Friends of Chernobyl’s Children Gives Respite to Hundreds of Young Belarusians Affected by Radiation Poisoning in Hucknall

24 September 19 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Jay Wilkinson
photos: Fabrice Gagos

After the worst nuclear disaster in history decimated the Eastern European landscape in 1986, one group in Britain decided they wanted to make a difference to the young people in the worst-affected areas. Since then, Friends of Chernobyl’s Children has set up a number of regional groups throughout the UK in order to help hundreds of young Belarusians receive respite from the poisonous contamination that still lingers in the air, water and food with month-long stays in the UK. As one of the host families at the Hucknall group, David and Barbara Palmer have been taking children affected by the disaster for the past fifteen years... 

Located 320 miles north of the disaster site, the fallout from Chernobyl hung over the Belarusian city of Mogilev like a dark shadow of death. Finding themselves at the epicenter of a poisonous radiation cloud blowing across the country, the residents were helpless to stop the deadly effects that came with it.

About 70% of the radioactive fallout from the disaster landed in Belarus, contaminating an estimated quarter of the country, a fifth of its agricultural land and at least seven million people; Chernobyl International estimates that the catastrophe cost Belarus 20% of its annual budget. It’s easy to consign the events of 26 April 1986 to the annals of time, but the ripples of the worst nuclear disaster in history are still being felt today.

The lethal fallout of Chernobyl haunted a generation of children in Mogilev; classmates being born with extra fingers or toes was nothing extraordinary. Nor were lung problems, burned skin, depreciated gums or enlarged thyroid glands – considered a possible cause for cancer. Despite many being born after the accident itself, children in Mogilev were among the worst affected by the Chernobyl disaster. 

Amid the confusion and panic that immediately followed that auspicious April night, a group of British people came together to determine how they could offer respite, if only temporarily, to the children who were suffering. The result was Friends of Chernobyl’s Children who, for the past 25 years, have been funding yearly visits to the UK for those living in the most desperate circumstances in the most contaminated areas of Belarus. 

We had a lad come to stay with us during the first year who was suffering from cancer. I actually had to carry him to the bus after we picked him up from the airport – he was just skin and bones

“It all started when we met a friend who was hosting a young girl. We started playing little games with her, and she was giggling away. As we drove home, we had a discussion and decided that we wanted to host too,” says David Palmer who, with his wife Barbara, has been hosting children as part of the Hucknall group of Friends of Chernobyl’s Children since 2004. “We were involved in the first group that brought children to Hucknall. The idea was to bring them across at the age of seven for one month every year, for five years in total.”

The project funds trips for hundreds of children every year, during which they receive recuperative care in the form of educational activities, healthcare, leisure, nutrition and the care and attention of the host family, something that the Friends of Chernobyl’s Children website describes as a “month of love”. 

“Host families have the children in the mornings, evenings and weekends, and during school hours they’re in an educational environment,” David says, “Some groups use church halls, scout huts or leisure centres. The Hucknall National CofE Primary School make a classroom available for them each year.” Days are also interspersed with trips out: “They go to the dentist and opticians in the first week. If they need spectacles, DI Blow Opticians in Hucknall will provide them free of charge.” 

Although the level of medical care in Belarus is improving, the visiting children differ from the average British child in that they actually look forward to a trip to the dentist. “They love it because they know that they’re able to get any treatment they want, as well as anaesthetic,” David tells me. “The dentist told us that one of the children had received a couple of extractions without any anaesthetic, and there were still bits of tooth left in the gum.” 

The true extent of the Chernobyl disaster damage remains shrouded in mystery and misinformation, owing much to the secretive nature of what was then the Soviet Union. A BBC report from earlier this year attests that although only between 31 and 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the event, the true cost may number in the hundreds of thousands.

Death rates among those involved in the cleanup – known as the Russian liquidators – rose from 3.5 to 17.5 per 1,000 between 1988 and 2012. Disability rates among that same group also rose dramatically; in 1988, 68% were regarded as healthy – a number that dropped to just 5.5% over the following two decades. The same report states that mortality rates linked to the disaster in areas like Mogilev have gradually increased after years of breathing radioactive material and eating contaminated food.

“We had a lad come to stay with us during the first year who was suffering from cancer. I actually had to carry him to the bus after we picked him up from the airport. He was just skin and bones,” David remembers. “After spending a month with us he’d lost his greyness, his cheeks were pink again, he’d filled out, and was much more cheerful.”

While keen to stress that he has no direct scientific evidence to prove the health benefits of the UK visits, David attests to that not being an isolated incident: “We weighed another girl who came to stay with us when she first arrived. She was seven years old and only weighed 2st 7lbs. After a month, she weighed 3st. But when she came back the following year, she was back down to 2st and 10lbs.” He also recalls another girl who suffered from bad chest infections: “She used to suffer terribly every winter, but she doesn’t any more.” 

However, not every experience has been a positive one, at least to begin with. “One girl turned her back to me and refused to talk to me at all,” Barbara, who has spent her entire professional life working with children, remembers with a smile. “She would scream every time I tried to talk to her – she didn’t want anything to do with me.” Whether it was homesickness, or a reaction to the unfamiliar environment, the relationship soon thawed: “I didn’t think I could have her back, but it wasn’t about me – I was doing it for her. I knew she was going to benefit from the five years staying with us, and towards the end it got much easier. The last time she was here, she wouldn’t stop talking to me!”

The language barrier can be problematic, with a group of 24 children often being accompanied by just two translators. “They can’t speak English and by-and-large we don’t speak much Russian,” David says. British food has also proved something of a stumbling block on occasion, with gravy in particular providing a source of confusion. “One child asked us why we were pouring soup all over their dinner,” former policeman David recalls. “They also told us that they loved cauliflower and carrots, but when we made some, they wouldn’t touch them. We later found out from one of their translators that they would only eat them raw.”

Friends of Chernobyl’s Children are responsible for all of their own fundraising and, as is the case with the optician and dental checkups, are reliant on the generosity of both the host families and other members of the local community. “We take them swimming every week, cycling in Clumber Park, play football and rounders, do treasure hunts, take trips to Speedwell Cavern and Newstead Abbey. We’ve even had an Elvis impersonator come over from Benidorm!” says David, who also acted as Chairman for the Hucknall group. “One day when we were out with the kids, a man stopped to ask if they were our grandchildren. After I told him that they were from Belarus, he gave me £10 to get them all ice cream.”

Despite the generosity of the host families, fundraising each year is always difficult. “Kim, our fundraiser, hosts picnics and golf days to raise money,” David says. “Belavia Airline always gives us a special rate of flights too.” But insurance and visa costs are rising, putting additional pressure on the hosts: “You have to pay for children’s visas now, which you never used to have to do,” David adds. “That’s something the British Government has done. They put all of this money in foreign aid, but we’re actually trying to help children from abroad and they’re charging us more money.”

Their involvement with the group has seen David and Barbara visit Mogilev on several occasions where they were able to experience first-hand how their host children live. “They treated us like kings,” David recalls. “The grandfather of one of our children actually offered me the slippers off his feet, and insisted that I put them on!” A Friends of Chernobyl’s Children member works full-time in Mogilev, enabling the group to select those most in need of help. “It’s mostly children from single-parent or particularly large families,” Barbara explains. “When you visit where they live, you just want to bring them all back with you.” 

The impact of host families doesn’t end with annual monthly visits, as contact can continue throughout the year, and gifts are often sent back with children to help with their development at home. “You can’t really send things like laptops, because realistically their families cannot afford to keep them. So we’ve been careful to send things like clothes, medicine and seeds,” says Barbara. “Most of the families have access to ‘dachas’ – which is a bit like an allotment – but if the land is contaminated, the seeds they produce will be as well. So if they’ve got fresh seeds, there’s no build up of contamination.” In fact, following the Chernobyl disaster, great fields of sunflowers were planted across the affected landscapes to help absorb toxic metals and radiation from the soil, due to their unique ability to soak up high levels of dangerous materials.

As with most high-profile disasters, the attention of the public has a natural shelf life and, almost a quarter of a century after the original tragedy, Chernobyl is no exception. “We started with 31 groups, and now there are only 17,” David tells me, acknowledging that his and Barbara’s incredible contribution as a host family has now come to an end. “It’s a big responsibility looking after children for a month. I’m 72 this year, and even when we have our own grandkids for three or four days we feel burnt out,” says David. “We can’t take on another seven-year old for five years because I’ll be 77 by then, and you don’t know what sort of health problems might come up.”

For the scheme to continue, new host families in the area will need to be found. With the surprising popularity of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries this year, the lasting impact of the disaster has been thrust back into the public consciousness, something David and Barbara hope will help get more people involved with Friends of Chernobyl’s Children as hosts.

“It happened a long time ago. Younger people might not have even heard of Chernobyl, and older people might just think ‘Oh, that’s done now,’” David says. “But when you look at the half-life of the radioactive waste, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of years, so it’s still very much ongoing. There’s a big need for host families – it’s just a case of finding them.” 

When you visit where they live, you just want to bring them all back with you

For David and Barbara, it’s clear that being involved with the project for almost two decades has had an immeasurable impact on both them and the children they have hosted. “I remember this small girl who sobbed all the way to our house. We just thought ‘What on Earth have we done?’” Barbara remembers of one of the first children they hosted. “We put her in bed at night and she started crying again. I sat and rubbed her back until she fell asleep, like I would with one of my own children.”

Fifteen years later, and that girl is now 22. “She’s engaged, she’s running a small restaurant in a food court and has just taken her exams with a view to being a teacher,” David recalls with a smile. “She’s just visited us to celebrate our Golden Wedding Anniversary.”

For more information on how you can become a host family for Friends of Chernobyl’s Children, visit focc.org.uk or email [email protected]