Poverty-stricken youngsters from Belarus enjoy fresh air and healthy food in the Capital


HUDDLED together in MacDonald's, bleary-eyed from their long flight to the UK, the group of skinny youngsters stared in amazement at the food presented before them.

Holding up a small pot of tomato ketchup, one little boy furrowed his brow while asking, "Why would people put jam on potatoes?", before being encouraged to dip his chip in the sauce and give it a go.

A never-before taste in an alien country.

That was just a week ago, when 14 poverty-stricken children from the Cherikof region of Belarus touched down at Gatwick Airport.

There they were greeted by a team from the Lothians-based charity Friends of Chernobyl's Children (FOCC) who, open-armed, will house, feed and love them for a month.

Spending just four weeks in Scotland is expected to extend these children's lives by two years, helping them to cope with some of the health implications of living on land saturated by radioactive pollution from the world's worst nuclear disaster nearly 25 years ago.

"Before they left MacDonald's, they were carefully smoothing out the wrappers from the burgers with their fingers, folding them up as neatly as they could before packing them into their little bags," explains Ian Smith, one of the charity's leaders.

"They wanted to take them home to show their families."

The truth is, back in Belarus, these children have virtually nothing.

Handpicked by the charity owing to the extreme poverty they live in, they were found in wooden huts on rural land in Belarus that no longer officially exists on maps of the country.

Just over the border from Ukraine, where reactor four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1986, the Cherikof region is considered a "dead zone", too polluted for human habitation.

Yet forced by extreme poverty, these children not only live on its land, but eat the food grown in it and drink the water that runs through it.

They wash in its waters, eat the animals reared on it and every day breath in the contamination that lingers in the air and causes them life-long respiratory difficulties, as well as a host of other health problems, some yet to fully become known.

Now, sitting in the chilly wind on an open-top Edinburgh Tour bus they are a week into their month-long stay, settling in with families from the Edinburgh West/West Lothian branch of the FOCC charity who have invited them to become part of their lives.

The bright-eyed, well-behaved children will return again over the next two years, strengthening links with the families in a country that Ian describes as something from a "fairy tale" for the youngsters.

"This trip is the biggest thing imaginable for these children," the father-of-two smiles, looking over at Andrei, an wiry eight-year-old, the oldest of the group, who is staying with him, his wife and his daughters.

"One boy told me he was desperate to see a sky scraper when he got to Scotland, while another girl was dreaming of touching a pineapple.

"All of this is a dream come true for the children and their families.

This is the biggest thing that can ever happen in their lives."

Armed with two translators, the children take in the sights of Edinburgh while also taking advantage of plug-in head sets which give them an audio tour of the city in their native Russian.

Their heads move simultaneously to look at the attractions being pointed out to them as the double-decker rolls along Princes Street, makes its way past the Castle and then through the Grassmarket.

Ian explains that many of the children live with alcohol, prostitution and absent parents as a normal part of their existence.

One little girl, just eight, is raised by her ten-year-old sister as their mother is regularly away from home.

Most of them have never slept alone, instead sharing beds with their parents or siblings, and every one of them has had to be shown how to use a toilet, take a shower or sit in a bath since they arrived in the Lothians.

The trip on an open-air bus is one of many activities FOCC has tightly packed into the children's schedule.

Last Thursday, the group visited the Bathgate Dental Spa as well as Specsavers in Livingston, where staff opened up early to give each child a thorough examination.

Any necessary treatment, such as extractions, fillings or glasses was issued.

With her bright pink hood nestled around her neck, seven-year-old Sasha smiles as she explains, through Katia Kozlovskaya, one of the Russian interpreters, that she would love to be a doctor when she grows up.

"When we were at Specsavers, we discovered she cannot see out of one eye, or hear out of one ear," explains Katia.

"There is nothing they can do to fix it though.

They explained that if it had been caught sooner, they could have, but it is too late for Sasha now."

Ian explains how the children, apart from the occasional treat of a MacDonald's, are given the finest, healthiest foods their host families can

This means fresh fruit and vegetables and good quality meat, as well as multi-vitamins, which they will also take a year's supply of back home, as well as enough for their brothers and sisters.

"I love having my own room here," smiles seven-year-old Masha, who explains she has even been given her own doll by her host family.

"I also love the shops here in Scotland - they are so big!"

Most of these children, deprived of almost every luxury that a regular youngster growing up in Edinburgh enjoys, are very grown up for their age.

They understand what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and they understand they are living with the unknown health legacy the disaster could bring, such as cancer.

Although many of their parents were moved away from their homes following the accident, to less-contaminated areas, they later returned home where they owned properties and land, forced to do so through poverty.

Every day they live knowing that decades after the explosion, their children are living with its health consequences.

"The children know all about what happened at Chernobyl," says Katia.

"Here in Scotland, they tell me they feel the air is very different than at home and that it's cleaner. I come here quite often and I know exactly what they mean."

Ian looks over again at Andrei who is smiling back at him, a little boy who he says has already mastered Lego and loves to beat him on the air hockey table his daughters have at home.

He said that since Andrei has been here, he is smiling more every day.

"When FOCC first went out to Belarus to find these children, Andrei had a very bad chest infection," he says.

"He was taken to the doctor by horse and cart where he was told to return in a week, again, by horse and cart, to collect some antibiotics. This transport is like an ambulance over there.

"It will be hard from them to go back home - of course it will be - but this trip gives them hope and opens their minds."

If you want to support FOCC, through donations, by becoming a host family or through corporate sponsorship of a child, visit


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