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Why we keep bringing Chernobyl children for holiday in Northern Ireland

Three families who work with a charity to give the young people the holiday of a lifetime tell Leona O'Neill of the joys and sorrows of putting them up in their own homes

Mairead Rafferty's group at the Ulster American Folk Park
Mairead Rafferty's group at the Ulster American Folk Park
Mairead Rafferty, group leader of Newtownabbey Chernobyl Children Appeal NI, Belfast
Michael Donnelly, director of the Chernobyl Children Appeal NI in Larne
Eveline Smith , former chairperson of the Chernobyl Children Appeal NI, Omagh

On April 26, 1986, Chernobyl was the scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster when an explosion at a newly-built nuclear power plant unleashed 200 times more deadly radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs.

The radiation from the scene impacted on seven million people in Ukraine and bordering Belarus and Russia and the effects are still being felt by generations today.

The area is still highly radioactive and is likely to remain so for up to 20,000 years. Incidents of thyroid cancer in children are particularly high in the area today.

Every summer, families from Northern Ireland open their hearts and their homes to children affected by the disaster.

The Chernobyl's Children Appeal has brought more than 4,000 children over to Northern Ireland between 1994 and now.

Three families have spoken of the joy and sorrow of hosting children from radiation zones for rest and recuperation here.

Larne father-of-three Michael Donnelly (74) is now the Director of the Chernobyl Children Appeal Northern Ireland. Married to Anne-Marie and with three sons - Danny, Connor and Ronan - Michael was inspired to start hosting back in 1996 because of his own work in a power station. He has since hosted over 60 children.

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The Chernobyl accident was a power station accident and I had spent my working life in a power station," Michael says. "I was a shift charge engineer - basically generating electricity - at Ballylumford Power Station and that inspired me to help these kids.

"I remember watching the Gerry Kelly Show in 1996 and they featured the charity and I got in touch. My wife Anne-Marie and our sons were all behind the idea. The kids just fitted in with the family from day one and the family got to know and like the children. We have hosted over 60 children.

"The first child we ever hosted was a young boy called Sasha. He was eight years old when he came here. He did not have health issues. He was from a very deprived area of Belarus. He is now a human rights lawyer in Switzerland.

"When a host parent brings a child here for the first time, there is a very special bond between them and a lot of the time the host parents bring the child back as a returnee. They have to do that at their own expense, but they do. It's a bond that lasts for a lifetime."

Michael says that his visits to Belarus were a shock to the system and knows that for a lot of the children coming to Northern Ireland, it is the first time they will have seen the sea, mountains or even an indoor toilet.

He says that some of the children who are brought over get help from medical professionals here. He says some of the children who have stayed with his family have passed away in the years since.

"We can't really bring children over who have very serious health issues," he says. "But we would bring children over here to have very specific operations to do with their eyes or their limbs. We have had seven or eight medical cases where we have brought children over to the Children's Hospital in Belfast.

"And we have also brought doctors from Number One Hospital in Minsk to Belfast for training. That's all done through the charity.

"There have been quite a lot of children who have come to stay with us who have passed away from cancer and other ailments at a very young age.

"There was a young boy from Ukraine and three weeks after returning from his holiday here he was dead. He had a congenital heart defect and it just stopped working. He was 10 years old. But there is the other side of it too, where a lot of the children we brought over are now coming back over as interpreters."

Michael says that hosting children is a very rewarding experience.

"I get a great sense of humanity, helping those who cannot help themselves," he says. "And who are suffering through no fault of their own. I would recommend it to others who want to help also. It is a very rewarding experience."

Co Tyrone mother Eveline Smith (53) has been hosting children for nine years. Married to Iner, and the mother of two sons, Mathew and Christopher (who died in 2002 in an accident at home), she says that Christopher's death influenced her decision to become a host to Chernobyl children.

I started hosted Chernobyl children in 2010," the Dromore woman says. "In July of that year we hosted Michelo and Andre from Ukraine. They were both 14 years old. They were from the same school and village.

"The first experience was nerve-wracking for us. We didn't know the language, but in the first few days the kids were there, the anxieties just disappeared and we all just settled in to it. It felt like the kids were there for a lot longer.

"There was always plenty to do for the children when they are here. Every year the group has a three-week programme that is laid on by the community in Tyrone and Fermanagh.

"They would have provided tickets for Marble Arch Caves, and had a civil reception for them and given us tickets for the swimming pool and things. Lusty Beg Island would have put on activities, and surfing in Bundoran." Eveline says that the Chernobyl children are very resilient and she loves to show them that there are so many opportunities out there in the world for them.

"There have been a few children with health problems," she says. "There is one little boy that we got back for medical reasons.

"There was a child called Nadim who had a tumour at the back of his right eye where he was losing his sight. There was very little that could be done. It wasn't cancerous but it was causing problems with regards to the loss of his sight. We got him back again, more for health benefits than anything else.

"The kids are resilient. They are growing up with the effects of everything out in Belarus and Ukraine. They know no different until we bring them over and just let them see that there is a different side of things. If they work and strive hard and learn plenty, there are more opportunities in life to succeed.

"There are so many great activities for them when they are here. Outdoor activities and surfing, all those things have great health benefits for them when they are out in the fresh air. And then they are getting the advantages of the fresh food, meat and fruit when they are here."

She says hosting children can be a "very emotional experience", but one that is very rewarding.

"It is emotional bringing the children here," she says. "You are getting excited and worked up to get everything in place before the kids come and then it's just a busy three weeks whenever they are here.

"And then they get attached to your family and there are tears when they are going back, on both sides. But then they have reached a time when they want to get back and see their family.

"There is a bond created with them. And they will never forget their experience here, because they all go back with a photo album full of memories, which is beautiful.

"I do find it very rewarding to host the children, because it feels like you are giving something back to society. I think that it is nice to give someone something that we take a lot for granted."

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