Help the Chernobyl children at home

By | September 9, 2008

HOW can you criticise Adi Roche? Last Thursday night she appeared on television in an almost unbearably poignant documentary about the hardship children face in Belarus. Her Chernobyl Children’s Project has harnessed the good will, money and energy of hundreds of equally well-meaning, generous families who host children’s holidays here. So how do you tell Roche and those families that their project is capable of harm, and that there are better ways to help those needy children? Gently, but firmly.
It’s time to state bluntly that the story of the Chernobyl Children’s Project is not a simple one of a fairy godmother saving the lives of sick children. The story of Chernobyl is considerably more complex than the one we perceive every time a plane full of pale, cancer-stricken children lands in Ireland.
Roche described as shocking the decision by the Belarusian government to prevent children travelling to Ireland, or other host countries, for an annual holiday. The ban is indeed an over-reaction, and international pressure may have it over-turned. But the Belarusians have a point.
The ban was provoked by the failure of Tanya Kazyra, 16, who was on her ninth and last visit to a family in California, to board a return flight from San Francisco on August 5. She told Associated Press: “I love my motherland and my grandmother. However, my life there is hard. And I have a family here.”
Who could blame her? Belarus is a poor country, still devastated by the aftermath of the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986. When children from there are brought to a rich western environment for a few weeks, and showered with the best of everything we have to offer – medical treatment, sympathy, nice food, new clothes and toys – well, is it any wonder they don’t want to go back? How can they face back into their old lives once they’ve seen that faraway hills are very green indeed?
The Irish government would be rightly annoyed if a well-intentioned American philanthropist took children out of Temple Street hospital to Florida or California, showed them Disneyland and showered them with treats, and then the kids refused to come home.
Giving them a holiday seems like a charitable act, but Adi Roche has to face a number of realities. The first is that, contrary to popular belief, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has conclusively proven that cancer rates and congenital abnormalities in Belarus are no higher than in other former Soviet Union states.
Whenever I share this information, people react with disbelief. The only story they know is that radiation poisoning has resulted in high rates of terrible cancers among Belarussians. But that myth was categorically debunked by the Chernobyl Forum Report issued by the WHO in 2005. The report was compiled by a team of more than 100 scientists who attempted to quantify how many people died or became ill as a result of the Chernobyl fire.
They concluded that three groups of people were affected. There were the heroic emergency workers who fought the blaze, 56 of whom died from acute radiation sickness. There were thousands of children who, due to the complete mismanagement of the crisis by the Belarusian government, were allowed to continue drinking contaminated milk from the region. Some 4,000 children contracted thyroid cancer as a result. Most of those were treated successfully, but eight did not survive.
The third group affected is the general population, which has suffered devastating long-term damage to their mental but not physical health. The legacy of Chernobyl is not one of congenital deformities and childhood leukaemias, but of a nation cursed by the label of victimhood.
Belarusian people suffer acute anxiety and any illness, miscarriage or setback is attributed to radiation instead of the general misery of life. They have been struck by what the WHO forum report called “paralysing fatalism”.
So what they need is help to get on with their lives, not encouragement to believe that which is simply not true – that radiation continues to result in excessive cancers and illness. If Roche does not acknowledge this, she is being deeply unfair on them and on us.

That said, Belarus is a poor country and many of its children are in need. But I believe Roche’s efforts are misguided. If Concern started bringing plane loads of African children here for a month every summer, people would quite rightly question the wisdom of such a strategy. Yes, those children would get a boost from good food and medical treatment. But then what? It is illogical, unsustainable and a poor use of resources to bring a child on holiday for a few weeks. It is clearly much more sensible and in the long term interests of the child to improve their quality of life at home for every week of the year.

There are other charities in Ireland who are quietly and effectively doing that. But you may not know about them because they don’t pose with deformed children in front of TV cameras – a practice which most major international charities abhor.

Tom McEneaney, the former Irish business editor of this newspaper, has been visiting Belarus for over ten years with the International Orphanage Development Project which has worked with all 60 orphanages in Belarus. The only reason I know about the project is because he’s a friend of mine. Publicity is not high on his agenda.

McEneaney observes that every time a new member of the group comes to Belarus, they are shocked to discover that the children are quite healthy. That’s because Irish people have been conditioned to expect missing limbs and terrible deformities. They are surprised to find that Belarusian children look very like ours. McEneaney praises Belarusian childcare workers who do their best with poor resources. He believes the children’s needs are, simply, “capital”. They need washing machines or cookers, proper showers and playgrounds. The IODP buys farm machinery and improves storage houses so that orphanages can grow their own food. They buy new beds and blankets locally, in order to give the economy a boost. It’s not emotive, but it’s effective and sustainable and is now extending its operations to India.

Roche could perhaps learn something from this practice. I believe she has good intentions but a bad policy. She should abandon the holiday programme and help these children only in their own country, and she should tell them the full truth about Chernobyl.

24 thoughts on “Help the Chernobyl children at home

  1. Michelle

    well done – you’ve voiced a concern that was nagging at the back of my mind – even more so after seeing the documentary, the Belarussian scenes of which were such obvious propaganda that I felt it discredited the sincerity of many of the participants.

  2. Eily

    Seconded. I read some negative comments on your post/article before I got to see the substance of it. I can’t see anything remotely wrong with it, and the tone is very measured (not something the subject of the article ever attempts to achieve). None of that will save you, of course, so put on your hard hat. Incoming…?

  3. Bijou

    Really interesting piece. Explained the gut feeling I have had for years. I dread ‘humanitarians’. There is often a lot of egoistic self righteousness at work. They can be harsh on their immediate neighbours.

  4. joe

    Great article. Brave and completely on target.

    Adi, how about an organisation that takes spoilt Irish kids to Belarus for a couple of months to see what economic collapse and poverty is like? I’ll send mine.

  5. Terry

    Sarah is only scratching the surface on the potential harm being done to these vunerable Chernobyl kids. What measures is the organisation taking to ensure they are not subject to abuse in the houses of total strangers in a country where clerical abuse was tolerated for decades? I am sure that most, if not all, the host families would never dream of abusing these kids, but it only takes one bad person to ruin a child’s life.

  6. Margaret

    Sarah, well done, yet again you have bravely opened the debate on a subject that few others would dare to honestly and openly engage with.

  7. Bernie Armstrong

    I too watched the programme on the 4th of September. I have to say I have never been so moved by anything in my life. I cannot believe that there is not a public outcry on the horriffic tonsillectomies being carried out. Was I the only person who saw this ? I have sent two e-mails to Joe Duffy but got no reply. I have 3 children myself and I could not imagine them ever having to endure the torture that those poor children have to suffer. Does anyone else feel the same way ? I couldn’t stop crying the next day and I still cant stop thinking about it. It was the wortst thinng I have ever seen. I have often watched the suffering of people in 3rd world countries and have been moved by what I have seen, but nothing has ever moved me to such an extent.

    I would welcome any comments on this.

  8. Sarah Post author

    Actually the same thing happened to Sergei Brin – Google founder who lived in Russia as a child. It’s the thing in former USSR states. Absolutely brutal but not confined to Belarus. They seem to think children get over pain quickly. Horrible.

  9. Andrew Lawlor

    Good to see you back, Sarah. I enjoyed the article, it is a most thought provoking piece. Last week I was thinking that if we had an honours system here in this country then I would like to see Adi Roche and Fergus Finlay first through he doors of the Áras to collect their gongs. I was thinking what a good thing it was that Adi was not elected to the presidency as she would not have achieved half as much in the Park as she has done outside it. Now you make me wonder if she has achieved anything at all. There is absolutely no doubting her intentions but you make a very strong argument that the Chernobyl Children’s Project Ireland might actually be doing more harm than good. Charity is such a moral minefield. I always thought that a charity like Bóthair were doing a fantastic job with their goats and cows and honey bees etc. Giving people the means to provide for themselves does seem to make a lot more sense than simple handouts. Then I read somewhwere that overgrazing was causing the desertification of Sub-Saharan Africa and Bóthair was only adding to this. So we are back to handing out bags of rice and maize, then. The WHO report you speak of has been fairly widely dismissed, although this dismissal has mostly been by the likes of CCPI and others within the charity industry who do have a vested interest. (By ascribing a vested interest to those within the charity business I am not in anyway doubting their best intentions, but a plethora of charitable organisations compete within a shrinking donation pool so they do have a vested interest in having the donating public believe that conditions in their particular sphere are very bad indeed.) So if I could open a wider question as to what one should do with ones charitable €uro. Do we become increasingly cynical and refuse to believe the hert rending appeals we see nightly on our TV screens. Perhaps we should just give to the filthy beggar on the street corner. The evidence of his destitution is there to be seen with our own eyes. That is until you see him jumping from the back of a Hiace van one morning on St. Stephen’s Green and you notice all of the other ‘destitute ‘ beggars in the back heading off to work their own particular patch. In an ever more cynical world in which charities join forces with the evil devil-worshiping marketeers it is indeed a challenging moral dilemma we are faced with when a chugger shakes his collection box under our noses.


    BTW. I notice that a negative comment stating that the article was churlish etc has been removed.

  10. Pete

    Despite my limited understanding of Irish politics, I think this article shows why you are a FG’er instead of a FF’er.
    Putting facts, science and reason ahead of pure emotion and populism is definately not part of the FF ethos.
    Of course, that is probably why FF stay in power – I’m constantly amazed by the ability of the Irish to ignore or deny empirical, provable facts that don’t match what they feel or want.
    Well done for writing it. I expect there’ll be a backlash, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I wonder if you’ll end up regretting it?

  11. KM

    Didn’t Irish American groups for years bring kids from the North of Ireland to the USA? I think they may even still do so. I’m not sure if any “defected”, that usually was the accomplished by giving out J1s :)

  12. MM

    Having read this article, watched the documentary and travelled as a volunteer to Belurus, I cannot believe that people can be so quick to take away a huge amount of work and achievement of one woman. These children have achieved a much better quality of life as a result of hard work by many irish volunteers over the years, If the opinion of Sarah Carey was the same all over the ountry then we wouldn’t have the hundreds of irish men and women travelling at their own expense, and on their own time to make such a difference, most volunteers are regular visitors to Belurus to help out as best they can. If the volunteers felt that the children and local communities in Belurus were not benefiting greatly well then surely they wouldn’t be bothered going out there in the first place. The children love coming to Ireland and whats more love to see visitors come and spend time with them in the orphanages. All Volunteers are checked out with references and also Garda clearance as well. What was viewed on televison is exactly what it is like. With newly constructed and renovated buildings, can I just add that most of the materials and appliances are sourced as locally as possible to put money back into the community, to aid them in the long term. At the end of the day, there is ongoing progress in Belurus, I think that it is fantastic that so many people jumped on the bandwagon and offered to help out to make even a small difference…Why oh why do people have to knock others who are only their bit to make the world a better place for those less fortunate..

  13. Nonny

    This post is utterly horrendous, how you can take away the goodness that this lady does in a few off the cuff unfounded remarks is absolutely pathetic. You make references to the World Health Organisations conclusions; these are the people that rank the Irish Health Care System nineteenth in the world.

    Those little children are given a chance each year to see normality, to see that there is good in the world. Who could blame that sixteen-year-old not wanting to return to the hell that is her life? How on earth can any moral person side with a government that’s children are half starved, that’s health care policies are so appalling children have to suffer horrendous medical procedures with no anaesthetic. They have a president who cares more about lengthening his term in office than improving the lives of his citizens. This is a country headed by greedy dictators who continually show blatant disregard for their people and you have the audacity to liken them to the Irish government. Their government are oppressors.

    Off course we would take enormous offence to wealthy Americans coming over to “help” us, mainly because despite its many failing our government provide free education, decent social welfare, a medical care system (though feeble, still better) and possibly most notably we have freedom. We are quite capable of bringing our children abroad to show them the nicer things in life, the Make a Wish Foundation is a testament to it. Comparing a holiday in Disneyland to Aide Roche taking sick children to Ireland in order to avail of life saving operations is disgusting. It really is disgraceful.

    Aside from the fact that whatever charity Ms Roche decides to support is none of your business. I have no doubt she does a hell of a lot more than you do. Before she embarked on her plight to help those children, those babies were left to die or be damned to a life of misery in an asylum with no prospect of anybody coming to help them. The only words of wisdom you can muster is, “So what they need is help to get on with their lives”. If you had actually watched the programme which clearly you didn’t you would have seem that Mrs Roches foundations have built a new orphanage for those children with good facilities. Her charity has build homes for young people to live in. Instead of being forced into an institution they have a chance to get on with a real life now. Hopefully by the end of this year Gomel children’s hospital will have an anaesthesia machine. Unfortunately for those little children that could have came to Ireland and availed of corrective surgery in the hope that they too (Yes they are people too dear) would get “help to get on with their lives” they have had that hope taken from them and the worst part is people like you condone it. Would that not have helped them get on with their lives?

    If your friend Tom McEneaney has no grievances with innocent children being left in filthy rancid orphanages with no medical care, no education and no prospect of getting out. If he thinks that is ok, then like you, he is either morally void or he is simply trying to justify why he does nothing about it.

    I don’t expect a reply nor do I want one but I am disgusted to think such heartless people exist.


  14. Sarah Post author

    Yes, a reply which pointed the huge number of internal contradictions in your post would be troublesome.

  15. Darren J. Prior

    You can delete this comment Sarah but don’t forget that link we talked about. Unless you want me to think that you are totally partitionist… 😯 😮 😀

  16. killian

    As someone who was an aid worker and worked in former communist bloc countries for five years I have to say this is an excellent post.

  17. Joe

    Good post Sarah.
    Re Nonnys’ rant.Ugh.I have noticed you coming up on a number of other posts(namely Fatmammycats about private schooling) ranting and raving and telling people how they disgust you whenever they hold a view contradictory to your own.
    Can you not make your feelings on the subject known without resorting to personnel abuse?If you can’t read someone elses’ opinion on a subject,may I suggest writing your own piece and reading it to yourself in the mirror,as I’m sure that is the only view you have an interest in seeing.

  18. soubresauts

    “How can you criticise Adi Roche?” Sarah asks. How can you criticize Sarah Carey?

    I had the temerity to criticize Sarah. So she deleted my comment.

    I’ll try again. I suggest people read Adi Roche’s rebuttal of Sarah’s article.

  19. Sarah Post author

    nope. you put so many links in it, the spam picked it up.

    if you try again, put it one link at a time.

  20. soubresauts

    “the spam picked it up”, you say. But my comment was visible on this page for hours after I posted it; then it was deleted.

    Either you have a very strange delayed-action spam blocker, or you mean something different by “spam”…

  21. Derek

    I have travelled to belarus on a number of occasions to work in orphanages and i was quite shocked to see that the majority of the children are in quite a good condition. they eat their own home grown food, work for a fair pay on their own farm and have good washing facilities. there is alot of propanganda with aidi roche but you cant blaim someone for being “overreactive” about shining a bit of attention on the subject.

  22. D. Kelleher

    Why does there seem to be no concern about the possible danger to Irish children of radioactive contamination picked up from these unfortunate children coming from Chernobyl? Isn’t Adi Roche, in this respect, only making a bad situation worse, despite her good intentions? I have never seen or heard this question even hinted at. Why is this – am I missing something? Am I pointing at the naked emperor?


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