In 2020, for the first time in 23 years, volunteers with a local charity were unable to embark on their twice-yearly trips to Belarus
2020 brought many traditional rituals to a shuddering halt. Numerous events and activities which had been annual fixtures were either postponed or cancelled.
One such practice derailed by the pandemic was the twice-yearly visits by a Waterford based charity to help citizens in Belarus. Since 1997, volunteers with Chernobyl Aid Ireland have been embarking on missions to the former Soviet country to deliver donations and undertake voluntary work.
Chernobyl Aid Ireland is a voluntary organisation run under the leadership of Liam Grant, a retired paramedic originally from County Tipperary but living in Listerlin, South Kilkenny for many years. The charity consists of members from throughout Ireland, including a large cohort from across the South-East.
Liam initially began travelling to Belarus with Chernobyl Children’s Project when the charity was seeking volunteers in the nineties. He was incredibly moved by his experiences and so motivated to help that he went on to spearhead the efforts of Chernobyl Aid Ireland which has been making a huge difference to the lives of ordinary citizens in Belarus for 23 years. Many are continuing to grapple with the fallout from the events of April 26th 1986.
On that day, at reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the town of Pripyat, a sudden power output surge took place and, when an emergency shutdown attempt was made, a more extreme spike in power output occurred which caused a reactor vessel rupture and a series of explosions. A resulting fire sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and across an extensive geographical area including much of Belarus.
When the full extent of the catastrophe emerged, charities around the world were founded in order to deal with the long-lasting fallout from this cataclysmic event. Before Covid-19 restrictions were imposed last year, volunteers with Chernobyl Aid Ireland were ready to depart on another expedition to Belarus. Four trucks were due to travel in a convoy across Europe, while 30 volunteers would also fly from Ireland.
“Air fares were paid and the trucks were loaded and ready to go,” explains Liam.
The rapid spread of the virus, the subsequent closure of borders and the imposition of extensive travel restrictions, left the charity facing a predicament.
“We had a lot of big jobs planned,” says Liam. “Everything had to be unloaded and put back into storage.”
Items ready for transportation included clothing, various building materials, as well as large quantities of salt for use in a special system designed to extend the life of shower units. Liam says there was a lot of disappointment, both in Ireland and Belarus, at being unable to travel in 2020.
Many of the same volunteers travel with Chernobyl Aid Ireland each year, meaning close friendships have developed with the people they meet in Belarus. Throughout the pandemic, Liam says volunteers have remained in contact with their Belarusian friends on a regular basis.
“We probably have more friends in Belarus than we do here in Ireland!” he remarks.
Over the years, Chernobyl Aid Ireland has been recognised for its wonderful work including when Liam received an award from the Department for Humanitarian Affairs in Belarus in recognition of his humanitarian work. The award certificate references his “humanity, compassion and significant personal contribution to the implementation of humanitarian projects in Belarus”.
When volunteers with Chernobyl Aid Ireland embarked on their initial trip in the late nineties, they identified the Grozovo Boarding School, located 100km south of the capital Minsk, as being in need of serious refurbishment.
This former military barracks, home to an orphanage and school, was quite derelict and lacking basic facilities. There was no hot water and overall living conditions were very poor.
“It was in a terrible state,” recalls Liam.
Since 1997, the building has been renovated with new PVC double glazed windows, dry-lined and insulated bedrooms, new shower units with hot water, new kitchens and a fully functioning farm. All of this improvement work has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Irish people towards Chernobyl Aid Ireland.
Liam praised all who give their time freely to travel and use their skills and enthusiasm to help improve the lives of others. “Everyone gets stuck in,” he says.
The charity’s truckloads of aid normally arrive at centres in Minsk and are then distributed to the homeless, the poor and residents at Grozovo.
The building is now much more hospitable for the 200 residents with special needs who called it home. However, further significant work is due to be carried out. Volunteers aim to construct additional toilet and shower facilities along with continuing the general maintenance of the building.
Rest & Recuperation
The charity isn’t just transforming living conditions but also furthering children’s educational opportunities and improving their outlook on life.
As part of Chernobyl Aid Ireland’s Rest and Recuperation programme, children have been coming to Ireland during the summer months and at Christmas. The children gain an opportunity to improve their English which benefits their future career prospects. Many of the children have gone on to attend university and college – something which was practically unheard of in Grozovo in 1997.
Many of the children who have spent time in Ireland as part of this remarkable programme have developed long-term bonds with their respective Irish families. Children can visit Ireland as part of the programme until the age of 18 but, because of the strong bonds which have formed, many families arrange for them to continue visiting after this age.
One example of the success of this programme is the story of Polina Gribanova. The Dunphy family in Dunhill – John and Michele, their two daughters Elaine and Jacqueline and son Michael – became Polina’s ‘Irish family’. She first came to stay with them in 2002 aged nine. Polina became such an integral part of the family that she even started using the Dunphy surname.
In 2017, The Munster Express reported on Polina’s heart-warming story as her close connections to Waterford resulted in her deciding to get married here. Her wedding to Alex Ismailov took place in January of that year with a marriage blessing at St Patrick’s Gateway Centre and a reception afterwards at Dooley’s Hotel.
Speaking at the time, Polina praised the Dunphy family and attributed her positive experiences in Ireland with helping her career. “They have always supported me, helped me and inspired me to do so many things – to go to college, get a job and have a better life,” she explained.
She described Ireland as her home, saying: “Belarus is where I was born but this is my home. This country is very close to my heart.”
Sadly, Covid-19 restrictions meant children were unable to come on visits to Ireland as part of the Rest and Recuperation programme during 2020. Children’s Co-ordinator with Chernobyl Aid Ireland Elena Gordeeva (known to all in Waterford as ‘Alice’) says this has been upsetting for the children as well as their Irish host families.
Born and raised in Minsk, Elena lives in Waterford City and originally came to Ireland as an interpreter.
She became involved with Chernobyl Aid Ireland and was able to provide advice on dealing with the authorities in Belarus. She has participated in many of the trips to Grozovo, normally flying a week prior to the departure of the convoy. She would then meet the convoy at the border and assist with entry. Elena also worked as part of the volunteer teams at the orphanage and has seen the “massive difference” which the charity has made.
She recalls arriving at the Grozovo for the first time and observing very basic conditions. Children had to go outside in freezing conditions to access the basic shower room.
Having first-hand experience of the difference which the charity has made, Elena is passionate about ensuring work can continue in Grozovo and is appealing to everyone to support an ongoing fundraiser for the charity.
People are being asked to support Chernobyl Aid Ireland by donating directly or by starting their own fundraiser and collectively completing a virtual 2,800km journey from Ireland to Grozovo by running, walking, cycling, swimming, kayaking, trekking or whatever means possible within Covid-19 guidelines.
As the traditional St. Patrick’s Day parades are cancelled yet again this year, Chernobyl Aid Ireland is also asking people to create their own individual parades as fundraisers for the charity. Both Liam and Elena hope that all of these fundraising efforts will ensure that a trip to Belarus can proceed later in the year. They say every donation, however small, will help the charity continue its projects.
In a wonderful endorsement of the incredible work of Chernobyl Aid Ireland, Elena explains that many of the children who have participated in the Rest and Recuperation programme have donated to the charity. Additionally, when volunteers visit nearby towns during their twice-yearly trips to Grozovo, they are often warmly greeted by former orphans, now adults, who have gone on to pursue various careers. Some have come back to Grozovo to assist Chernobyl Aid Ireland volunteers with their projects.
Those involved with the charity say they passionately believe in “kindness, compassion, love, respect and the selfless giving of help those in need”. Since 1997, they have certainly showed all of these traits and hopefully their admirable efforts can continue for many years to come.
Chernobyl Aid Ireland is registered with the Charities Regulatory Authority (charity number 20037482). For more information and to donate visit https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/CAI