From Belarus to Biggar, it’s Chernobyl’s Angels of Hope mission

Angelic smiles...the children from Belarus brought to Clydesdale by the Chernobyl's Angels of Hope charity to spend a month enjoying clean air, safe food and new experiences.
Angelic smiles...the children from Belarus brought to Clydesdale by the Chernobyl's Angels of Hope charity to spend a month enjoying clean air, safe food and new experiences.

A living hell would be a description most of us would consider reasonable if we were forced to endure posioned air, food and water.

Even more so if you add into the mix horrendous health problems, primitive living conditions without heating, running water, electricity or inside toilets, brutal winter weather and a society with rampant unemployment, poverty and alcohol abuse.

Yet it is considered normal daily life for many people in Belarus who are still living with the fallout of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

A Lanarkshire charity is seeking to add a ray of hope and happiness, however, by bringing children from the town of Klimivichi to spend a month breathing clean air, eating healthy food and enjoying experiences they could only dream of at home.

A 13-strong group of seven and eight-year-old children are spending the month of August with families in the Biggar area.

The visit will not only broaden their horizons but also allow them respite from poverty and hardship, boost their immune systems and health and vastly improve their social outlook.

The experience for the children was made possible by the local charity, Chernobyl’s Angels of Hope.

Adela Keenan, who is the chairwoman, explained the vast contrast between the only life the children have, until now, known and the one they are experiencing here in Clydesdale.

She said: “What is almost unimaginable for us is daily normality for them.

“The radiation cloud from the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 blew north towards Belarus, taking most of the toxic fallout into that area.

“The economy collapsed overnight as Belarus – once so fertile that its abundant agriculture gave it the reputation as the bread basket of Europe – was unable to sell any produce.

“What little agriculture remains is consumed by the local population.

“Even 33 years later they continue to be exposed to radiation through their food, air and water, which is all contaminated.

“That decimates their immune systems and it increases their risk of heart and blood illnesses, cancers, respiratory diseases, infertility and birth defects – the list is endless.

“What only makes it worse is that, due to the lack of proper equipment and medicines in Belarus, the treatment and care of many of these illnesses is impossible.

“Added to that is the unemployment, poverty and alcohol abuse that now exists in Belarus.

“Children live in deprived households in primitive conditions.

“They have an outside toilet and no heating or running water and their houses are wooden in a country where winters are brutal, with temperatures dropping to minus 25 degrees and where there is snow on the ground for five months of the year.”

Adela is consumed by a passion to do everything she can to make a difference for at least some of the children.

She said: “What we aim to do is give them a month of love and care.

“We bring the most disadvantaged kids to the Biggar area to stay with local host families.

“They return to the same host family every August for five years, which helps them build a very special relationship.

“It is amazing the difference you see in them, physically and mentally, after five years.

“It is a wonderful feeling that they are better able to deal with the life they will face in their country after this experience.”

During the month-long visit, the charity runs a ‘school’ of educational and fun activities, based at Biggar Rugby Club.

Secretary Claire Dunbar revealed: “Not only have these children never been abroad before, they haven’t even left their town.

“So we take them on day trips and swim sessions.

“When we took them to the swimming pool, it was the first time they had ever seen one.

“They have no phones or tablets because back home they have no electricity to power them.

“So this is a different world for them and we want to let them experience what they can to help them improve their lives.

“After a month of healthy and uncontaminated food, air and water, they will return to Belarus healthier and more confident, knowing they also have a Scottish family who cares for them.

“The children also have dental and optical appointments while they are here as well as learning to speak English.

“The benefits extend afterwards, too, because the children go home with a suitcase full of clothes, vitamins and medicines for them and their families, to last until their next visit.”

One man who was deeply affected by the plight of the children was Ian McKie, who drove the bus supplied by South Lanarkshire Council to transport the children on their trips for the first part of their visit.

Ian said: “I knew nothing about their background but when I found out where they came from, I researched it.

“It is unbelievable what they have to endure at home – I found it very emotional just thinking about it.

“What is amazing, though, is their attitude. They are so cheerful and they just naturally do whatever they are told.

“Everything they are seeing here must be so unusual and exciting for them but they never get carried away or wild – they enjoy and appreciate it.

“It is very humbling to see so I hope that when they visit here, it not only helps them with their lives but also inspires people here to help.

“We should all do what we can to help these children and others who are living a life in Belarus that would horrify us.

“I would defy anyone who encounters these children not to have their hearts touched by them.

“If they can give us that gift, then surely we can give them something back.”

The world’s worst nuclear accident happened on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

People in Belarus were exposed to radioactivity 90 times greater than that from the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

To find out how you can help, visit the charity’s website at www.chernobylsangelsofhope.uk.