Saturday, February 21, 2009

This year over 1,000 orphans in Belarus received a visit from an Irish charity

As our car makes it progress through a seemingly endless forest in the countryside of Belarus, snow hangs off the trees and I can’t help but reflect how the idyllic scene has been played out on Christmas cards that decorated Irish fireplaces for as far back as I can remember.

But for many of the 13,000 orphans spread across 57 orphanages in the country which was most affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster (60pc of the fallout landed on Belarus), homely Christmas scenes are a memory or most often figments of their imagination.

That is except for the over 1,000 children who this year – and for nearly 10 years previous –received presents, a Christmas party and much needed improvements to their orphanage when Santa Claus and his helpers rolled into town with help from the people of Ireland.
It was while covering a story for a Sunday paper 10 years ago on the efforts of Irish aid groups in the Chernobyl area that International Orphanage Development Fund (IODP) founder Tom McEnaney sparked on the idea of bringing Santa to orphans in time for the Russian Christmas which falls on 7 January.

Since then and without fail groups of Irish volunteers have raised the money to buy the toys in answer to the children’s letters to Santa as well as identify and execute much needed improvements to their living conditions.
In this time many of the orphanages the group has worked for have received on average €300,000 each to pay for everything from new roofs, windows, beds, medical equipment as well as sports equipments and books to nourish growing minds.

This was my second trip with the group and while I found it hard to tear myself away from the warm living room hearth at Christmas I had to agree with fellow fundraiser Noleen Behan, a senior civil servant, it made sense once I was on my way. “It’s always hard but every year it gets better,” says Noleen.
The proof of this was my return to Osipovichi, an orphanage for 90 children with physical motor difficulties after one year. My first visit there was also my first time to ever visit an orphanage and on that occasion I felt numb as I surveyed cold rooms, inadequate windows, antiquated equipment and poor lighting.

The first thoughts to often run through your head when you visit an orphanage is of loved ones back home and how young relatives could ever survive in such a place. At the same time I witnessed and understood genuine love and commitment from the orphanage’s staff who were doing the best they could with limited resources.

A year later I was instantly struck by how warm and bright the orphanage was as happy smiling children welcomed us in. Since our visit a year ago the orphanage received 50 new beds, fluorescent lighting put in place throughout as well as ultrasound equipment to stimulate and develop the children’s muscles.

Santa on the day was Donal McNally, an architect from Dublin, who was an absolute natural and whose other mission was to sketch out plans for a new equestrian centre for the orphanage. Another key plan is to replace crumbling exercise baths installed in the 1930s with a modern swimming pool to help stimulate the orphans’ development.

I was pleased to run into two boys at Osipovichi that I met last year, Yuri and Dima, who regaled me with tales about their visits to America and their love of the cinema and Harry Potter, whose books grace the library there thanks to the IODP.

As we sat down to drink tea with the orphanage director, the resident doctor, a lady called Tatiana told us how she was about to resign last year because she didn’t have the medical supplies to help the children until the IODP bought them while on the trip last year. “All the staff were shocked by the improvements. We didn’t expect so much. We have found it to be emotional and inspirational,” she said in a trembling voice.

The next day, after a long trip across a snow-blasted landscape to visit Berezino, we met 21 of the orphanage’s 91 children. There we were dismayed to learn of the Belarus government’s plans to close as many orphanages as possible to make way for SOS villages and foster homes. Overall, this may be a good thing, but ultimately the foster homes will need to be better than the homes many of the children had left behind.

One of the key strategies of the IODP has been to make the orphanages as self-sufficient as possible and often farm equipment from tractors to piggeries have been acquired and put in place. But in Berezino’s case the piggery was shut down as the government intends to use the land to build houses.

The importance of farm equipment was underlined by Tom who on his return from an orphanage called Dubrovno in the north of Belarus revealed that it hadn’t received a subvention from the state for over six months. “They were able to grow potatoes and feed themselves and also generate a small profit from what they grew themselves,” he pointed out.

The next day we visited Rudensk, a home for children aged 8-20 years who have mental disabilities or have been sexually abused and who mostly hail from the Chernobyl region. It was my turn to don the red suit for over 105 of the 164 children present this year.
We received a warm welcome from the Rudensk orphanage’s director Valentin who told us the children there have come to expect the traditional visit from Irish Santa Clauses with toys and sweets for the children. This is important across all the orphanages, he said, because the Belarus state can’t afford to send the children presents every year.

Rudensk is a particularly special orphanage as many of its young athletes have competed successfully for gold and silver medals at the Special Olympics in Ireland and China.

“It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to this orphanage without the IODP and Tom. Everything we had was being destroyed through wear and tear,” Valentin said, pointing out that in recent years the orphanage received over €300,000 in fiscal aid from the IODP.

Aside from requests for vacuum cleaners and a lawnmower, Valentin said that what’s vitally important in time for the Spring is that the children receive new clothes and shoes. Rudensk works to equip the kids with vital work skills to handle everything from farming to working as mechanics. “We have been able to produce over 100 tons of vegetables this year,” he exclaimed proudly. “The main thing is to ensure the children can work when they graduate.”

Valentin, who has been at his post for over 21 years now, pointed to the sad fact that some of the children who attended Rudensk are now sending their own children to their orphanage.

One of the first things you realise about these orphanages is a large number of the children are defined as ‘social orphans’ insofar as they have been put in the orphanages for their own good to escape homes blighted by alcohol, drug and sexual abuse. Valentin’s revealing statistic is that out of over 10,000 children in orphanages in Belarus, only 1,500 don’t have parents.

“There is a law today that biological parents have to pay for their children’s upkeep at the orphanages but this is difficult to arrange. Many are alcoholics and it’s difficult to track them down,” he regrets.

As various groups of children with broad smiles trooped up to receive their presents from Santa and demonstrated their gratitude through songs and dances, Valentin’s words echoed in my head. But there is something mystical about the chime of a child’s laugh that keeps you in the present. However, it’s the future Valentin is concerned about.

They party atmosphere at Rudensk was sustained by Aileen Durkan, a former nurse and a businesswoman who lives in Dublin, who brought face paints to entertain the youngsters. Their laughter competed with Aileen’s as she expressed genuine amusement as kids with newly painted faces ran to wash the paint off just to be painted on again. Something tells me Aileen would still be there today painting their little faces if she could.

In many of the orphanages we visited children were absent because they were visiting families who welcomed them overseas, mainly in Ireland and Italy. “Most of the children visit Italy because Ireland doesn’t invite as many of them as Italy,” he said.

The warm glow and happy atmosphere at Rudensk was replaced by the more formal and militaristic environment the following day at Krivichi, a children’s prison, home to 24 boys all attired in some form of camouflage garb. Krivichi opened in September and can accommodate 68 children. It is specifically for children with health ailments who have been convicted by a court. The most common offence was theft.

Responding to barked out orders the boys trooped to and from their lunch. All semblance of military order disappeared as they smiled gratefully as I handed them their presents of MP3 players, with the one exception being a Flash memory card. Ordered ranks dissipated into chaos as they ran to play with additional gifts of chess sets, pets and PlayStations.

Tom and Donal just narrowly defeated the home teams at chess, but despite Irish honour being upheld Tom is adamant in his quest to see chess rooms installed in all 57 of Belarus’s orphanages. Something tells me he will succeed at this having already successfully installed playgrounds in all of the orphanages in recent years.

The sombre nature of Krivichi was brought crashing home with a visit to the ‘House of Culture’, an austere cooler cell in which an inmate is restrained for three days at a time. Unlike Steve McQueen who in the Great Escape had a baseball to bounce off the wall, the one accoutrement the present inmate, a 12 year-old, had was a bed with a one inch-thick mattress.

The IODP’s inspired decision for Krivichi is to invest not only in new windows for the orphanage but also an ice rink and equipment to encourage the boys to take up ice hockey, pretty much the national sport of Belarus since it is its president Alexander Lukashenko is an avid fan of ice hockey.

Our final visits were to two orphanages in Beshankovichi in north eastern Belarus, close to the region’s cultural capital of Vitebsk. The first was to a centre for children with Downs Syndrome which had 10 full-time children residing as well as 20 children who visited on a consulting basis.

Donal’s natural gift for playing the role of Santa was revived as he danced and careened around the floor to the tune of DJ Aligator’s ‘I Like To Move It, Move It’ which came from a dancing cow that was one of the children’s presents.

Ahead of the IODP’s visit many of the presents for the kids were bought in advance by platoons from a paintball team from Minsk interestingly called ‘Team Irish’ led by the IODP’s man on the ground in Belarus, Denis. The IODP makes a point of buying all of the toys and infrastructure locally as it helps the local economy.

Our final visit was to Beshankovichi Transition Orphanage, which Tom introduced to us by saying: “This place will break your heart. It is where children just taken from their homes are kept until a decision is made what to do with them.”

He explained the transition orphanage is mainly kids between three and 12 who have been taken from their parents and there’s a period where parents can reclaim their children before being sent on to an orphanage. “Usually orphanages are better places than the home they came from.” One child’s family, he said, took up floor boards to sell for alcohol.

Little boys in smart suits cautiously entered the room followed by little girls with solemn, composed faces. Once again the magic spell of Santa Claus – or Father Frost as he is known in Belarus – was evoked as uncertainty and solemnity was erased on faces that broke into the warmest, most grateful smiles I ever witnessed. Tom was right, this place did break my heart.

He pointed out on this trip that the one thing the Belarus people do is endure. It is a country that has been crisscrossed by many empires from the Tsar’s and the Napoleonic to the Nazi and the Soviet. It has also to contend with extremes from beautiful summers to petrifyingly cold winters and even colder economic realities.

But in the sacred dominion of childhood the one thing that must always endure is Santa Claus. And over 1,000 children can’t be wrong.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I love my country. I always will. But the so-called pillars that until now supposedly held it up never enthralled me. 

The church - we all know the betrayal there. The government - an ever-shifting tapestry of the underpowered, the undignified, the beholden,  the impotents - we all know that. . The judiciary - filth that follows the money flow. 

The fourth estate - has lost its voice and needs to regain it - but did it ever really have a voice and if it did, did it really use it?

The criminals … these days some carry more ammunition than the peacemakers. Others wear suits and hide behind the façade of financial institutions and collect nice bonuses for jobs badly done.

But the people … ah, now that’s where redemption lies. This nation is very good at enduring. We had a golden opportunity. We blew it with people carriers and trophy homes. Snakes and ladders, we’re back at the start.

But the people …. Ingenuity, compassion, creativity, warmth, necessity, stoicism, charity, energy, trust, ability,  ambition … the things that make us Irish … let’s go to war like salmon to the stream. A new world order will emerge. Decisions and actions now will decide how noble we truly are.

Our leaders of the future should be people of action. Not people who quote reports, policy documents and blueprints or are ordered around by overpaid civil servants or flanked by PR people. Stop appeasing, stop finessing, just do something.

Apologists and ditherers and yokels who sound ‘Stage Irish’ and have nothing to show for their years in office but stuttering and posturing on morning radio are doing nothing for families who need to put food on the table.

A change is coming, it’ll take a while but hopefully it’ll be a good change. Let’s never be short-changed again.