Children from Chernobyl
Chernobyl was one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters but did you know that two thirds of the contamination fell on Belarussian territory, affecting nearly a quarter of the country’s land mass? The disaster is thought to have affected at least 7 million people. According to an article by the Independent, rates of thyroid cancer amongst children, skyrocketed, and the Chernobyl disaster still affects neighbouring Belarus today.
I’m standing in the relaxation room of the SOS Social centre, a room that has been cleverly thought out on every sensory level. This is where children with cancer can come for rehabilitation and support. I feel as though I have been transported to the Italian lakes as I admire the wall mural that just oozes calmness. The thick pile carpet is soft on my feet and I am transfixed to the small globe that lights up in front of me. I feel instantly at ease and as the Centre Head smiles back at me, I can see her bursting with pride.
I’m visiting one of SOS Children’s Villages International to discover how they help vulnerable girls in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia’s neighbouring country.
SOS Children’s Villages opened their first project in Minsk, the country’s capital in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. They now have projects within 4 locations in Belarus and help an estimated 4000 children across the country each year, not just those suffering from the affects of Chernobyl.
The village I’m visiting was opened in 1993 and is the largest in Belarus. It is structured on family based care and has a total of 11 SOS-families within its community. The average household has five to seven orphaned children and the services provide emotional stability and conditions for the family with psychologist support.
In the SOS Social centre, a child with oncological disease with a caregiver can stay receiving psychological, pedagogical and emotional support from anywhere from a few days to 1.5 years depending on their progress. Children born at the time of the Chernobyl disaster are also thought to be prone to health problems and low immune systems. If there is no place in the hospital, this is their respite but funding is reducing each year.
But the relaxation room isn’t the only support in the village. I meet the psychologists who work in the organisation’s various projects and am the recipient of some warm Belarusian hospitality as I’m offered tea and find out more about the work they do.
The radiation from Chernobyl didn’t just affect the health of the country, it also affected the economy. Once the most fertile soil in the country, the radioactive land can no longer be used. A once profitable trade; the lack of work in the rural areas has led to an increase in drinking.
SOS Children’s Villages family strengthening program works to prevent the alcohol problems but with many not wanting to accept that they have a problem this can be a challenge. The problem is country-wide and monthly support is given to 100 families and 200 children per month, including mobile outreach in schools and local social centres of distant rural areas. It’s seen as a social dangerous situation and monthly monitoring is important for protection.
Three years ago SOS launched their SAFE project for victims of domestic violence. With State help being complicated to get, this is a vital service for those suffering from domestic and alcohol abuse. With the fear that their children would get taken away if they go through government services, many contact SOS directly.
But things are improving. I am told that domestic punishment is becoming more taboo with more people talking openly about violence to children.
SOS Children’s Village Borovljany currently runs a shelter to provide safety from a dangerous situation at home for women and children. They even provide aftercare and accommodation for the women afterwards and form a community to support one another and help to find a job. Children from as young as babies born up to 16 years old accompany their mum to the shelter where they can stay for up to 4 months in a safe environment receiving support.
Their child-friendly investigation room is unique and allows children to speak in a playing environment, eliminating the need for them to communicate with the police or court. A sand pit in the consultation room allows psychologists to access the relationship between the child and their relative.
They offer follow up per case-to-case basis to those living away from the projects, and work with the whole family on all issues. They are also working to launch an alcohol group to help co-dependent family members, and the wives of husbands who have alcohol problems.
“Prevention is better than working with aftercare,” says the village director who is accompanying us during my visit. We stop at a table where a small tree perches on top. “Every visitor here receives a gift.” I am asked to choose a souvenir made by the children during their summer camp. I choose a small felt owl with big round eyes and continue my tour.
I visit one of the foster homes that SOS Children’s Villages provide. The children sit poised on the sofa as I feel like an interviewer.
“I want to be a vet,” says the oldest girl.
“How many years of study do you have to do?” I ask, impressed by her choice of vocation. I’m told three years after she finishes school.
When asked how they feel about everything, the young boy replies, “School is over. Everything is good.”
They play me a video with footage from their summer camp. A song plays in the background and I ask what means. “It’s about colouring their lives,” I’m told. “Get out of the grey colour and colour their lives.”
The summer camp allows them an immersion into nature which really helps core skills. They learn skills such as chopping wood and cooking, as well as fun activities such as canoeing, and face painting, and experience life in nature for 36 days. They even have a sauna in their camp.
One of the boys cooking pancakes on the fire was once a child from the village here and now attends as a volunteer, wanting to give something back.
The summer camp takes place in July and is for the smaller children. There is another camp for the older people. Sometimes the camps from each country merge together or they travel to another country together such as visiting the winter project in SOS Children’s Village in Austria.
The children in the SOS family continue to tell me more about Belarus and where to visit during my trip as I glance at a newspaper cutting of five smiling faces and a proud looking woman standing in the middle.
SOS mothers begin their time here on an internship. After assessing whether they are a mutual fit, they sign a contract for five years. This family have been together for eights years and they tell me that they have two more children joining them the following week. I can feel the bond between them and the love that is radiating from their mum.
“Momma gives good advice,” one of them adds, confirming how important this role is for the children; children who may not have had the chance to feel supported or to flourish in their previous environments.
Even after they have left the home they are still supported at SOS Youth Facilities up to the age of 23 years old to live semi-independently. They also receive help with entrepreneur skills and internships.
According to UNICEF, the number of children in Belarus has declined by 25% since 1990. Statistics show that 5% of under 14s are forced to work, and child prostitution and human trafficking are also issues here.
With their vision that ‘Every child belongs to a family and grows up with love, respect and security,’ SOS Children’s Villages Belarus provide vital services for the psychological wellbeing and protection of vulnerable girls in Belarus, decades after one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.
How you can help vulnerable girls in Belarus
SOS Children’s Villages International works together with generous and committed sponsors and partners around the world to make lasting changes that improve generations of children’s lives. They work for children and families in 136 countries.
If you would like to help vulnerable girls in Belarus or around the world, SOS Children’s Villages offers the opportunity to sponsor a child and help give them a loving home. You can sponsor a village and help support the supportive community life of children in an SOS Children’s village, or make a donation to help their service provide emergency care, food, shelter, and protection.
In Belarus they regularly open the activities to the public where you can provide clothes or toys. For additional information about SOS Children’s Villages Belarus visit their website here.