Northern Ireland

Chernobyl 30 years on: NI families open arms to children affected by nuclear disaster

Chernobyl children in Northern Ireland Image copyright Eveline Smith
Image caption Children affected by the Chernobyl explosion during a summer visit to Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland families have been talking to the BBC about the joys and the sorrows of hosting children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 30 years ago.

The Chernobyl's Children Appeal brought 3,400 children to Northern Ireland between 1994 and 2014.

Eveline Smith, from Dromore, County Tyrone, has hosted children from Chernobyl for the past seven years. She visited the area in 2012.

"I felt I needed to go there to see the day-to-day trials and hardships that many children and their families faced," she said.

"We came back very humbled."

Mrs Smith's son died 13 years ago, a painful incident which, she said, influenced her decision to become a host family.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Chernobyl nuclear power station, seen from a tower in the exclusion zone around the nuclear reactor in the abandoned village of Krasnoselie
Image copyright Eveline Smith
Image caption Eveline Smith with Vasil and Andrii, two children she hosted in 2011

Since then, she has hosted 17 children. Two more are due to arrive this summer.

"You get excited and anxious, but you hope that you can get through to the children," she said. "They teach us. as well as us teaching them.

"The three weeks that they stay with us helps to build their immune systems and you can actually see them looking healthier after their first week."

Mrs Smith said the visit had proven health benefits for the children.

"The young people all go through a medical before they come here to measure the radiation levels in their bodies.

"When they go back home after visiting Northern Ireland, they are measured again and, often, the radiation levels have dropped by anything from 40%.

Image copyright Eveline Smith
Image caption When they are in Northern Ireland, the children meet up for activities

"So it is a huge positive."

Her words are echoed by Emma Hunt, from Londonderry, who has hosted Chernobyl children for the last ten years.

"It is amazing when they first come," she said."Their bodies are under developed, they are small, they are so fragile.

"And, through the years, you see them coming for the four weeks' respite and how quickly their bodies catch up to the size that they should be."

She said some doctors believe that four weeks outside of the contaminated zone can add two years to a child's life.

"It means getting to eat clean food, breath fresh air. It cleans out their little bodies, their immune systems, and gives them a chance to grow and flourish."

Another child is returning to stay with Emma Hunt this year, although the arrival is always accompanied by the bittersweet knowledge that they must return home.

Image copyright Carmel McKenna
Image caption Carmel McKenna pictured with her family including her adopted daughter, Yuliya

Saying goodbye stirs up emotions.

"You don't want them to go, but at the same time, you know they have to return," she said.

It is an experience with which another host, Carmel McKenna from Dungannon, is all too familiar.

However, she took hosting one step further and eventually adopted one child, Yuliya, who first came to visit from Belarus when she was eight years old. She moved to Northern Ireland full time when she was 11 and is now a 23-year-old student.

"She was marvellous, learning things very quickly and learning to speak English in a short space of time," she said.

"It was just good to know that one child had been saved. My sons loved having a sister and they would have been devastated if the adoption had not gone ahead."

This year's hosts are now preparing for the summer's visits.

"I would love to encourage other families to come on board," said Eveline Smith.

"There is a great social aspect to it and it's good for you and your family to care for children who are not as fortunate as yourselves."

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