“I’D never seen trains so tiny before,” said Nadia Krupen. “I like trains, but they are much bigger in Belarus!”
Nadia is ten and had just taken part in a long circuit on the model steam railway on the edge of Ecclesall Woods, along with her ten young Belarusian friends and various adults from Sheffield and her home country.
Her translator is English teacher Zhana Pash-kevich, who has taken a holiday from work to accompany the 11 young Belarusians for their month-long stay in Sheffield as part of the local Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline project.
“I love my job and I love children, so I’m happy to come here to help them. Also, It’s a good way to improve my English,” said Zhana.
Every year the Sheffield link of the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline brings a group of eastern European children to Sheffield for a month.
“It’s a health visit,” said Sheffield CCL chair Mick Ring. “A month in Britain can boost their immune system by up to two years.”
One of the main effects of the various radioactive materials still in the Belarusian soil following the Chernobyl disaster is to compromise the immune systems of people living in the area, said Mick.
The result is that children may often be more prone to colds, sinus trouble and other ailments. Doctors have said that the immune system can effectively be ‘recharged’ by the chance to spend time in an uncontaminated environment, like Sheffield.
The visiting children, usually between the ages of 10 and 12, are hosted by local families. While here, they have dental and eye tests and are sent back to Belarus with a year’s supply of vitamins.
The children also see the visit as a holiday, of course, and the charity organises a round of trips and activities. This year, so far, the group has visited Gulliver’s Kingdom amusement park, the police dog training centre at Hillsborough, the seaside, the model railway and a local fire station, as well as plenty of parties, picnics and visits to the swimming baths (a rarity in Belarus).
There’s plenty more to come over the next week or so, including a visit to the local Guide camp.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the steam explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which sent a plume of radioactive materials into the skies of Europe. Zhana Pashkevich was a teenager at the time.
“26th April 1986. The disaster happened not far from where we live, but people didn’t know anything about it for two weeks. The first of May was a national holiday of labour and spring, and everyone was outside for festivals in the streets. I remember that day it started raining and the rain was white, the grass and the leaves were white and no-one could explain it.”
Information gradually came out and some people moved away with their children. “But eventually they had to come back, to their homes and to work.”
Although some of the radioactive material decayed naturally, some will remain in the soil for many years, from where it can contaminate food and water supplies. Poverty in the largely agricultural areas of Belarus where many of the visiting children live means that the population has little opportunity to move elsewhere.
“We just try not to think about it, and to be happy,” said Zhana.
The trip to Sheffield is hugely popular and Mick said he’d bring 100 children over every year if he could. Thousands of Belarusian children would like to come, he said. The charity is always on the lookout for sponsorship from local companies, and for volunteers to host children for a month.
This year Jenny Rist volunteered for the first time to host two girls from Belarus.
“We thought it was a worthwhile cause and we’re really enjoying the whole experience and getting to know the children,” she said. “They’ve loved all the events, and the games we’ve got out to play with them, like KerPlunk. So it’s given us the chance to play all these old games too!”
Jenny said she’d recommend volunteering to other local families and Mick pointed out that all families receive plenty of support before and during the visit.
Zhana passed on her thanks to all the volunteers and sponsors.
“Sheffield is big and beautiful and interesting,” said Nadia Krupen, in English. “And Sheffield people like laughing,” she noted in translation.
“Many children would like to come here on holiday but not many of them are so lucky.”
lwww.ccll.org.uk/sheffield; tel 2589283.