By Lydia O’Kane
Every year 50 to 60 orphaned children from the Chernobyl region of Belarus are welcomed into the homes of Irish families to enjoy the celebration of Christmas with all the trimmings.
However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, for the first time in 20 years, the children will not be able to receive a visit from Santa Claus and open gifts under the tree.
For the charity Chernobyl Children International, the cancellation of “Santa Claus” flights is deeply disappointing. Speaking to Vatican Radio, the charity’s founder and Voluntary CEO, Adi Roche, described the joyous scenes of previous years.
“Every single year when the doors open in Dublin airport or Shannon airport here in Ireland and the children come out; the walking wounded, children on crutches, children being carried, children in wheel chairs, the mayhem breaks out as Irish families burst through the barriers and engulf and sweep up the children into their loving and caring arms.”
Unfortunately, this year, she said, “we have had to make the devastating decision and the heartbreaking decision that the children cannot travel because children who are special needs are extra extra vulnerable because of their immune system fragility… so, obviously between all the restrictions and global restrictions, we had to make the awful decision.”
Disappointment of families
Ms Roche went on to say that many Irish families who were looking forward to hosting these children in their homes over the Christmas period have been left “bereft” by the news.
The Cox family from Castlebar, in the west of the country, have been hosting Igor Shadzkou in their home for several years. But despite the fact he won’t be joining them, they are still going to leave an empty chair at their table this Christmas to remember him.
However, with all good Christmas stories, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Ms Roche said they have a plan of action.
“We are trying to send a little of Christmas to the children of Chernobyl and we’re calling it ‘Operation Santa Chernobyl 2020.’ We have volunteers down in our yard…directing the aid and packing the container to go by sea to make it in time for Christmas.”
As well and presents from Santa, vital aid will include basic medical supplies, nappies, food, sanitary products and PPE, which the charity says will be delivered to its flagship institution in Vesnova in southern Belarus in time for the Russian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7th.
Despite the economic challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic, Ms Roche said, her charity has witnessed an outpouring of support from people in Ireland, which has enabled Chernobyl Children International to keep vital services running.
“Where there’s life there’s hope” she added, and we have much to hope for in the run up to Christmas.