A year ago this weekend I was returning from a hectic week in Belarus visiting children and their families who we were expecting to bring to the UK this summer with the Friends of Chernobyl’s Children (West Leics) charity. They would be joining the charity’s programme, which provides relief and recuperative care for children suffering from the after effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Sonya and Jonathan

The week was a resounding success with thirteen new children chosen to join the programme. Coming from towns and villages to the east of Mogilev in Belarus, the children were living in very challenging circumstances but despite that, we were warmly welcomed by all the families we visited and their hospitality was overwhelming.

The children – nine girls and four boys – were incredibly interested in the programme and life in the UK and despite some nerves and worries, were excited at the prospect of traveling abroad for a month of fresh air, good food, warm, comfortable homes and fun activities. Most have never ventured any further than their nearest towns.

Even though the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened over thirty years’ ago, the effects are still being felt in Belarus – particularly the eastern regions, where our charity is focused. In addition to the radioactive contamination of the land surrounding the towns and villages in the regions, the lack of opportunities, infrastructure, low income, alcoholism and serious social problems means that life for the children is very tough. The homes we visited were a mix of wooden-built single storey houses and cramped, run down concrete apartment buildings. Often they were single rooms divided by thin wooden partitions or curtains, bedroom areas shared by the whole family and kitchens with very basic facilities and very little food.

Being able to tell these children that they would be welcomed into our host families’ homes for a month in the summer and showing them photos of children previously on the programme, the activities they enjoyed and the smiles on their faces, was a humbling experience.

On our return to the UK, myself and Sue from the charity who accompanied me, were able to share news of our visit and details of the children with our new and established host families. There was much excitement and planning began in earnest for the complex task of bringing our new children over in the Summer.

We couldn’t have anticipated what would happen in the first few months of 2020 with the news that the world was in the grip of a global pandemic – Covid-19, Coronavirus.

In early March it became clear that visits for children from Belarus would be suspended and as events unfolded, the likelihood of bringing our children over in the summer was diminishing by the day. As the UK entered lockdown and significant restrictions in travel across the world put in place, we were faced with the prospect of no visits for the foreseeable future. This was a devastating blow for the charity but especially for our host families and our children in Belarus who were so excited at the prospect of traveling to the UK. All of this has been set against the backdrop of a significant period of political unrest in Belarus.

We don’t know what the next few months will hold for the charity or whether we’ll be able to bring those amazing children to the UK in 2021. I really hope we can.

Having hosted a child for five years, seeing the children in their home environment in Belarus, I’ve seen first-hand what hugely positive effect the programme has on them. As a family, we were expecting to host again this year and it’s heart-breaking to think of the little girl who should have been with us, not having that opportunity.

Whatever happens, the charity will continue to work with our partners in Belarus so that when the situation changes we’ll do everything in our power to welcome those thirteen children I met last November into our homes.

For more information about the charity, how you can support our work and life in Belarus, take a look at our website.

Jonathan Walters
Host and charity trustee