BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Home Correspondent
By Jane Labous
Producer: Simon Coates
Each summer in recent years, Dorset has welcomed children from areas of northern Ukraine and Belarus blighted by the radioactivity released by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear site in April 1986. During their stay, the children receive health checks and enjoy the hospitality of local families. So how are they faring? Jane Labous has been to meet this year's visitors - and their hosts.
Cue: Thirty-three years after the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Soviet-era Ukraine exploded in April 1986, the soil, rainwater and ground water in northern Ukraine and Belarus still contain highly radioactive elements, including isotopes of caesium and strontium. For the past ten years, a charity project has been offering children from those countries a summer health retreat here in the UK. It’s based on the idea that a period away from their contaminated homelands can be beneficial for the children’s well-being. Jane Labous has been to meet this year’s group of children and those who are looking after them.
Under the apple tree, in the dappled shadows beginning to stretch across the lawn, Arseni and Slava – both ten and from Belarus – are playing Lego. It’s a golden summer evening. This English garden in Poole, with its vegetable patch blooming with runner beans, courgettes, tomatoes and carrots, may not be that different from Pinsk, the village in Eastern Europe where these boys are from.
But for one thing. Pinsk lies within one of the many scattered areas of contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The boys are being hosted by retired teachers, John and Carolyn. “Somebody came to the church where I play the organ, looking for host families,” explains John. “We live in this lovely house, with woods and a recreation ground next door. So we thought, why don’t we do it?” “We’re mum and dad for the month,” smiles Carolyn, eyes wrinkling as she spreads a cloth for dinner.
To the table she brings roast pork with mountains of home-grown courgettes, broccoli, carrots and potatoes. She urges the boys to tuck in, and they do, feasting eagerly. “Where they live, vegetables and fruit can still be contaminated,” says John. “The plants suck up radioactive particles through the roots.” Often, children from the affected regions are anaemic, have problems with their eyes and teeth, and find breathing difficult. In later life, they can suffer from brain tumours, bone diseases, infertility and mental health issues.
There are sixteen children from Pinsk visiting Poole this year, all aged ten or eleven. They stay in pairs with rigorously-vetted host families, mostly retired couples whose grown-up children have left home, or young families with kids the same age. “It’s like having lots of grandchildren!” chuckles John. Technology now means that he can keep in touch with past visitors. “Fadim was one of our first boys. He’s now in the Belarus parachute regiment.”
The Pinsk children seem a picture of health, their eyes bright with laughter, their clear pale skin freckled by the sun. But cancer is on the rise, Natalia, their teacher, tells me.
Arseni grins when I ask him to tell me his favourite things about England. “The country, this house and the games we play,” he says, through his translator, Tania. Do you know what happened at Chernobyl, I ask. “It was a nuclear power station,” says Arseni, “and it blew up.” Slava nods. “The teachers told me about Chernobyl and my parents gave me more information. We’re told not to drink rainwater, or eat berries from the forest,” he adds. And that is pretty much all they can tell me.
During the month, each child visits a doctor, a dentist and an optician. For the past 15 years, Graham has offered free dental check-ups for them at a practice near Wimborne. Debbie, in reception, seems thrilled at the chaotic waiting room packed with boys and girls playing card games and Connect 4. “You’ve never seen so many children happy to be at the dentist!” she laughs.
Later, though, one of the girls is in tears after having a filling. Arseni too has cavities that need 45 minutes to fix. But Graham tells me he hasn’t found anything serious. Each year the children’s teeth which he sees get better. “From the type of decay,” he confides, “I’d say it’s just poor diet now.”
Lynn and Chas are playing snap in the garden with their visitors, Anna and Milana, aged ten and eleven. At the weekend, these retirees take the girls on outings in their motorhome; to the owl sanctuary, the heavy horse centre, to swim in the sea and for picnics. “Generally, their health is not as good as an English child’s of equivalent age,” says Lynn. “We hosted one with an inability to absorb nutrition. Another had a thyroid problem.”
Outside on the yellowing summer grass, I sit in the shade with Pavel, Matsvei and Valnyia. She wears a unicorn T-shirt and has plaits to her waist. They all think the food here is much healthier, they tell me, although there isn’t as much soup. You drive on the left, and it’s much cleaner, no rubbish on the streets. Oh, and the sausages are smaller, adds Pavel.
His face lights up when I ask him if he’s enjoying his trip. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the sea, and it’s so cool!” he laughs. Back home, adds Matsvei quietly, “I don’t go fishing and I don’t touch wild animals.”