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Ten Days in Belarus with the Children of Chernobyl

As well as making donations to organisations in the village, the Friendly Society also welcomes applications from individuals of all ages. In the March round, Ben Allen, well-known to many of us for his starring role in the Footlights production of ‘Joseph…’  was given a grant in support of his plans to work on a play scheme in Belarus for the Children of Chernobyl charity. We are grateful to him for writing the following report on a fascinating and worthwhile ten days.

After a two-hour flight, we arrived at Minsk airport, eager to set off to the village of Zashirye for our ten days of work – though after a five hour journey in a minibus/van, our enthusiasm inevitably wore off. As we arrived in Zashirye, I felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety: excitement at the prospect of the next ten daus, but also anzious about staying on my own with a Belorussian family I had never met before. Fortunately, my worries were soon put at rest , as my host family, the Zayats, made me feel really welcome, and within a few days I felt like one of the family.

The first day was mainly devoted to unpacking our resources, which had been sent over to Belarus some months previously. We also got to look around the school, at which we were to do the play scheme. It was a fairly large school, and looked a bit like a typical American high school on the inside, with many large murals on the walls depicting children playing in idyllic settings, and beautiful sunsets over misty lakes.

That evening, I experienced my first dinner with my family, though the father was not there, as he worked extremely long hours (from 6.00 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, with two days holiday a year). I was given copious amounts of food, usually some sort of meet and potato variation with vegetables, and was given much Russian wine, a ‘weak’ drink at 19% alcohol. After several toasts to love and my family, I finished my large meal feeling extremely satisfied. Later, we all walked around the village, which is not like any village you would find in England – or anywhere really. In fact it is more like a town, with its high rise flats and other large square buildings. 

The second day was really the first day of the play scheme, and children from Zashirye and two other nearby villages gathered at the school. While waiting outside, there was a gas explosion in a nearby building, blasting a window off and making a large crashing sound. I was then amazed to see that none of the children, some as young as four or five, had even looked around. This was the first moment for me when I realised how hardened these children are. This was also made very clear from other things I saw. For example, a young boy of four fell off his bike one day on

concrete. Iwas expecting him to cry, or at least play up to the injury, as there were many adults around. But instead he just picked himself up, rubbed his hands on his coat and got back on his bike again. 

In the play scheme, I was mainly responsible for drama and music activities. These were especially fund and interesting for me, as the children do not really get the chance to do anything like it. We found that the key to getting them to join in is just to become really silly and make a fool of yourself as much as possible – not too hard then. I found that, after this, the children were much more willing to participate. It was really magical watching some of them standing just thinking of what they could do in some of our games, and I am sure that nearly all of the children thoroughly enjoyed them. 

I also ran other activities in the arts and crafts sessions in the play scheme. It is impossible to pick out single moments, as I was continually being amazed by the children. The same is true for the whole ten days, in that words can never do it justice; not the people, the feel of the place or the things that I saw people doing that really struck me (not to mention the smell of home-made vodka). 

By the end of the ten days, we were all completely drained, physically and emotionally. After some tearful goodbyes, we all piled into the cramped minibus and set off for home. Some minutes of silence followed, when we were all personally reflecting on what amazing people we had just met, and were leaving behind. I suddenly felt very guilty about leaving them: we seemed to have brought so much happiness in just ten days, and now we were just going. But one thing I learnt when I was there was that these people do live life as best they can without stopping to complain about trivial things as we all do too much. It was a real eye-opener, and made me think about the next time I complain about having to work six hours at Tescos. 

I would finally like to thank the Westbury Friendly Society for their kind donation to my travel costs. I am very grateful that I am so lucky to live in a village where young people are supported in such a good way.

Ben Allen


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