Sheffield families are enjoying a special summer holiday as they play host to children from Belarus whose lives are still affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Life coach Lisa Read and her family are looking after a little girl called Darya, aged 11, who is known as Dasha.
The children come for four weeks and this year Dasha is one of five boys and six girls visiting the city for a month until this Saturday.
Lisa and her family are taking part for the second time. They hosted a little boy two years ago but had to drop out last year because of a big family wedding abroad last year.
Lisa said: “We absolutely loved it, it was a really nice experience. I like to think I’m making a real difference to these children.”
They got involved because Lisa’s husband Jason works for Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield. Lisa said: “They got a letter in the office saying that the charity was desperately short of host families. He said are we interested in this. I thought, what do we want to do that for? We have three children of our own. But we went to a meeting and came away inspired.”
Lisa said she didn’t realise how much children were still suffering the after-effects of the gigantic nuclear explosion that hit a power plant in Chernobyl in 1986. Lisa said: “Heart problems and thyroid cancers have increased among young people. They didn’t used to have problems like that before and they are really common over there now. It’s such a poor country. They have have huge social and economic issues as a result of the disaster.”
She added: “I thought, just do it. I want my three children to have experiences in life and learn about other cultures. They will recognise how lucky they are.”
Apparently the youngsters from Belarus had never seen an escalator, an automatic door or a supermarket conveyor belt.
While the children are here, they take part in lots of group activities with their host families, as well as having check-ups with dentists and opticians. Although cancer care is excellent in Belarus, other health services are not so good. They also get minerals and vitamin supplements.
Lisa said that Dasha is having a great time. “When we took them to Gulliver’s Kingdom, she didn’t get off the roller coaster for an hour. Luckily there weren’t many people there! She just sat at the front. I don’t know how she did it.”
She said it’s interesting to see the change in Dasha and the other children. “They start off very polite, they always make their beds. I think they get it drummed into them that they have to help out in the house when they are here. She’ll set the table and clears the plates.
“They start to get quite cheeky as they get to know you. Dasha will say, ‘No, no, no, not going to bed’!”
Because Belarus is about the size of the UK but only 10 million people live there, families have had to be aware of safety issues, including road safety.
Lisa added: “We worry about paedophiles but kids there have a lot more freedom. They go to bed when they want. They might be found a mile away from home when they’ve walked off! We have to keep an eye on them.”
There is a translator to help with the language barrier but families also improvise at home. Lisa said Dasha can read some English and she put a Russian keyboard on heriPad and they use the Google translation tool, which is a bit rough and ready.
She added: “We have learned a few words of Russian. Dasha needs to do eye exercises, so I tell her glaza, which means eyes, to remind her to do them. Her parents wrote a letter to the family. I was expecting a Russian letter but it was all handwritten in perfect English. I asked the interpreter and it turned out Dasha had written it herself. She is quite amazing.”
She is also very bright, sporty and plays the violin and piano, said Lisa.
Apparently Dasha is quite fussy about food, hates vegetables but loves fruit.
Having cereal instead of ham and bread for breakfast was quite a change for her.
Lisa said of the disaster: “I think the kids don’t really understand what happened. They‘re just happy, normal children.
“I think it’s really brave to be an 11-year-old and living with a family for a month without knowing anyone.”
The Read family are having a great time. Lisa said: “My children really, really enjoy it. They’ve already asked me to do it again next year.
“It makes me really family focused. It’s so easy to leave the children to entertain themselves during the holidays while you do some work. But now we go out and do stuff every day as a family.
“Our children get lots of treats for being involved but we have to pay for them to go.”
Lots of businesses and organisations offer free or discounted activities for the youngsters.
The group also does fundraising and Lisa took part in a skydive that raised £500. She added: “I feel like I benefit enormously. It’s very heartwarming to feel you’re doing good. I work with kids on confidence building, so it’s right up my street. I get an enormous benefit out of it.
“We’re aiming to make Dasha feel she is really welcome and loved while she is here.”