Eileen Dixon had always been aware of the Chernobyl Children’s Project and its Galway branch Camp Claddagh and last year decided to host two little girls from the ‘red zone’ in Belarus, one of the areas worst affected by the nuclear disaster of 1986.
“We’d always been thinking about it. We heard them on the radio, looking for families. We just rang up Fiona Conneely and it sort of kicked off from there. She’s been running the organisation from the start, really,” explains Eileen.
Eileen and her family are this month hosting two of the 22 Belarusian children affected by the Chernobyl disaster who have been brought to Galway for a rest and recuperation programme through Camp Claddagh, of which she is also PRO.
Families can choose whether they would like to host boys or girls, but the decision as to which children are sent to Ireland is made by social workers in Belarus. As well as the obvious health risks posed by radiation in the area, Eileen explains that many of these children come from difficult family backgrounds.
“A lot of these children have problems, there’s an awful lot of alcoholism in Belarus. They’re nearly like social orphans, because they don’t have a great family structure. Not all of them come with that problem, but a high percentage of them do,” says Eileen.
The main problem, of course, is the radiation. The land in Belarus has been poisoned and will remain so for generations, meaning that children born long after the 1986 catastrophe continue to suffer health problems.
“I’ve a ten-year-old here at the moment, and she’s fitting into age five to six clothes, she’s tiny. A lot of them are malnourished. Because they eat from the land, a lot of the food is contaminated. This little one, they have a little plot, and they sow all their crops, so they’re eating potatoes from already contaminated land. It’s a vicious circle for them really.”
The two children, Tatsiana and Nastassia, aged nine and ten, have never been to Ireland before. The health benefits of a one-month stay in Galway – an extra two years added to their lives – are so huge, Camp Claddagh tries to ensure as many children as possible benefit, so repeat visits are rare.
The visible change in the children’s demeanour over the month is stark, explains Eileen. Tatsiana and Nastassia have only been in Ireland three days when Eileen speaks to the Galway Independent, and already she can see a difference.
“You look at them arriving, they have little rucksacks, they have very little with them, and they look so pale and pasty, and they go back and they’re beaming. You can just see it in them – they blossom, really, and that’s only in a month, and it is rewarding,” says Eileen.
“They crave a lot of fruit and vegetables. They seem to have a lot of vitamin and mineral deficiencies so they crave a lot of that. They eat copious amounts of fruit; it’s unreal. They’re just continually eating fruit.”
In her second year involved with Camp Claddagh, Eileen has also taken on the role of Public Relations Officer, which, she says, mainly involves “drumming up support”. Camp Claddagh, like any charity, has been affected by the country’s recent economic woes. It costs up to €800 to bring a child over to Ireland for a month, and host families have to raise as much of that themselves as they can.
“We’re working hard for what we’re getting. Funds are down. It’s a big ask for people to take children into their home, but the rewards are big too. We’re always looking for more families. The more families we can get, the more children we can bring to the country.”
In her second year with Camp Claddagh, Eileen says she hopes to remain working for and with the organization for many years to come.
“It’s great for my children too. They’re eight and nine, and they see another side of life. Even the other children in Cornamona, they realise how privileged they are. It’s all about sharing, really.”