Children living in aftermath of Chernobyl disaster visit East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 18:51 20 June 2019 | UPDATED: 18:59 20 June 2019
Leanne Reeve was not born when Chernobyl exploded. But when the Waveney mum heard some of its youngest victims needed help, she did not hesitate.
More than 30 years ago the Chernobyl nuclear disaster launched a radioactive cloud across much of Europe. This spring the catastrophe played out on our television screens again, in a drama being rated one of the best shows of all time
Nine-year-olds Anna and Nastya, of Belarus, live with the real consequences all their lives.
Their homeland was poisoned and people are still developing cancers linked to the effects of the meltdown.
But for four weeks the girls are being treated to some of the best that East Anglia has to offer - the best people, days out, healthcare and fun.
They have just seen the sea for the first time, and the girls who arrived with little more than clothes they were wearing will go back with new bags, crammed with dresses, tops, leggings, shoes and souvenirs - plus vitamins, a new pair of glasses for Nastya, and dental fillings for both girls.
It is the first time the girls have ever left Belarus, and it might well remain their only trip abroad.
Chernobyl Children's Life Line (CCLL) has been bringing children from some of the poorest families in Belarus to Britain since 1991. The Waveney and Chet group has been hosting children for five years.
Late last year Leanne Reeve, of Worlingham, near Beccles, heard the 2019 visit might have to be cancelled because not enough hosts could be found.
Six months on, her own two daughters are delighted to be playing with temporary big sisters Anna and Nastya.
"I thought it's just a month out of our lives, but it could make such a difference," said Leanne. Seven-year-old Molly added: "When I heard they were coming I screamed with joy because I was so excited."
Anna and Nastya speak barely a world of English and are chatting in Russian; Molly and five-year-old Ivy, who speak even less Russian, are chatting in English. And the four children are communicating beautifully as they draw pictures, share stickers, dress dolls - and request pizza and ice-cream for tea. "Play is a universal language," said Leanne, but admits translation apps have also been invaluable.
Ten children, aged from nine to 11, are being hosted by families in and around Beccles, Loddon and Lowestoft. Each weekday is full of trips and appointments with the charity volunteers but at weekends Leanne and her husband, Andrew, have added some of their own favourite family days out, including Anna and Nastya's first ever glimpse of the sea at Lowestoft. "They were so excited!" said Leanne.
Each day is recorded in the scrapbooks Anna and Nastya are putting together as permanent mementos of their visit and once a week they video-call their families back in Belarus, where Anna's mum is a milk-maid and Nastya's parents are a cleaner and a builder.
Leanne said the most challenging part of the month has been fitting everything in. She works nights as a health-care assistant; Andrew is a paramedic practitioner; their daughters have school, clubs and parties; their guests have a full week-day programme and even the occasional sleep-over - but also love being at home drawing, playing hide-and-seek, or petting Barney, the family's Labrador. "And the glitter!" said Leanne. "On rainy days everything gets covered in glitter!"
The Chernobyl disaster happened before Leanne and Andrew was born, but they both watched the new HBO series. "I had to make sure we'd finished it before they came. I wouldn't want them to see us watching it. I don't know how much they know about what happened," said Leanne.
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They were given a brief pen portrait of the girls, telling them Nastya is kind and calm and loves bright-coloured clothes, and Anna, also kind and friendly, loves animals and clothes with sparkles on.
Leanne hopes they will all stay in touch beyond this month of respite from a life in the shadow of the world's worst nuclear disaster - and one day she might admit the trick she has played to ensure all four girls get enough rest to make the most of each day. "I moved the clock an hour forward!" she said. "By eight o'clock they're all in bed - thinking they've stayed up until 9."
In April 1986 a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in the former Soviet Union exploded, creating the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen. It was just a few miles from the present-day border with Belarus, where 75pc of the radioactive fallout landed, affecting 90 per cent of its land.
It could take centuries to rid the country of contamination.
Chernobyl Children's Life Line (CCLL) brings children from Belarus and Ukraine to Britain for a month's respite holiday each summer.
Alison Stannard of the charity's Chet and Waveney group said it costs around £750 per child, which covers travel, essential clothing and shoes and activities.
She said: "We have been extremely fortunate to be supported in our fundraising activities, by a number of private individuals, businesses and organisations and in particular by the customers of The Butcher's Arms in Beccles who have raised the full cost of this year's visit."
Some of the group's activities have also been sponsored or funded by local attractions, and The Observatory opticians in Beccles and John G Plummer dentist at Caister-on-Sea gave their services for free. Local people also give clothes for the children to wear during their stay, and then take home.
Each host family is thoroughly vetted and supported by other charity volunteers who have hosted in the past and can help out with an occasional daytrip or sleepover.
The charity organises weekday activities including days out, the chance to choose new clothes, craft and drama - and medical appointments.
Alison said the children benefit from eating nutritious food and breathing clean air. "It also gives them the opportunity to experience normal family life here in the UK and to have the 'holiday of a lifetime' that they will never forget. The children generally come from the poorest of families and will probably never have another opportunity to have a holiday abroad or paddle in the sea."
To find out more contact Alison Stannard at email@example.com or visit facebook.com/CCLLChetandWaveney