Welcoming into their home children affected by the Chernobyl disaster has brought nothing but positives to the Moran family
ONCE again this year the Westport Outreach Group of the Chernobyl Children’s Project International (CCPI) is hosting a group of children from Belarus in Westport for a month. It is a legal requirement that children living in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 leave their homes for a month each summer to get a break from the radiation, and since its inception in 1995, the Westport Outreach Group has brought over 150 children to Mayo.
They stay for a month with families in the area and this break from the radioactive surrounds of home and the opportunity to breathe fresh air and eat safe food has been shown to give each child two years of healthy living when they return.
For over 12 years now Paraic and Margaret Moran and their family from Lugrevagh, Aughagower, have been hosting these children, and still get as much joy from each new experience as the children themselves.
When their two eldest daughters, Darian and Vivian, were aged nine and five respectively, the couple spotted an advert in a local paper appealing for host families and decided it was something they would like to be involved with.
“After we saw the advert we just went to a meeting about it and decided to take in two children,” says Margaret. “I guess we quickly got hooked on it and have done it every year since. It is only for two weeks of the year because they move between families, and the month they are here is supposed to add two years to their life. Tests have been done on the children going in both ways which have shown this, and it makes you think of how lucky we are here.”
“From day one we openly embraced this,” adds Paraic. “Our own kids at the time were nine and five and they all got on well together. We wouldn’t even know they were in the house at times.”
Misconceptions do exist that the children who come to Westport are in some way deformed or in need of pity. However, watching nine-year-old Olya and ten-year-old Lena running around the Morans’ garden – playing games with their nine-year-old daughter Frances in the summer sunshine – makes it apparent that they are just normal children who will forever live in the shadow of one of the worst incidents in history.
“There are kids who come to Ireland that might have deformities and tumours but they will often come to get medical help and will be near big hospitals,” says Paraic. “Many of the children we see will have dental problems that relate to contamination but that is as far as it stretches. Some people have a notion that there is something wrong with these kids, but they are perfectly normal in every way – save that they were born in one of the most radioactive and contaminated places in the world. In the early years the children’s eyes used to weep a lot and they would get tired very quickly, but Lena and Olya are extremely healthy. They are great.”
“They are very good kids,” Margaret adds. “Even today I was in the kitchen and Lena came along and started peeling the carrots. At times they can put our own kids to shame.”
The children don’t have a great command of English. They know basic words and host families are provided with a phrase-book, and an interpreter is also available around the clock.
The Morans say that most people will never have a problem in years of hosting the children. Occasionally, the younger children will get homesick and they generally range from seven to 12 years of age. Lena and Olya had never met each other before they came to Westport, but they have quickly become great friends.
According to Margaret, the children often don’t know what they should eat, but will generally eat anything that is put in front of them.
“Lena and Olya love apples, yoghurts and mashed potatoes in particular, but will generally eat everything. Today we had a salad and they ate everything on the plate – and were particularly taken with beetroot. They are not used to having showers every other day like we are, and some of them over the years might not be used to a flushing toilet.
“Other than this they are like any other children and do normal everyday things when they are here. They play some of the same games as Irish kids play – like hopscotch – but they might have a slight variation on it. We bring them swimming, or to the park and also do normal things with them like shopping.
“The last fine evening we had a picnic with them on the beach and they love the beach and the ocean. It was a thrill for them, even to see it. I brought them to Mulranny on Sunday and you could see that they were excited in the car when they saw the sea.”
If being in Westport adds to the children’s lives, then having them here certainly adds to the contentment of the Moran family.
“When they come they have just the clothes on their backs and for our kids to see that can be an awakening,” said Paraic. “It’s good for them to see how people in different circumstances, and less fortunate than them, live. One thing we always do is get them a pair of good winter shoes and a pair of runners as they often come with shoes that are too small for them. We like to send them back with some clothes too, but no matter how much you want to give them they are only allowed to bring so much.
“The first year it was heartbreaking when they were leaving. A bit of your heart goes with them each time because you get so attached to them. But you realise that while they want to go home, they are also sad to be leaving.”
A big thing for the Belorussian families is having photographs sent back from their children’s time in Ireland.
“I bring them up the hills rounding up sheep and I have a few ponies and they love this and love taking pictures of it,” Paraic says. “Their parents often write and tell us that when the kids get sad they look at their pictures from Ireland.”
Only children that are sick get to come repeatedly, but parents will write to former host families and it is often clear that they want to send their children back. In the interest of fairness, however, this is not allowed.
Efforts are on-going by the Westport Outreach Group to build a house in Belarus where children can live in foster care, and so far they have raised €11,000 for this. They also sent an ambulance out there several years ago – which Peter Mulchrone drove to the region.
“We have a big fund-raising flag day every December, and you couldn’t say enough about the people of Westport and surrounding areas who are always very supportive,” said Margaret.