When you do things from your soul,
you feel a river moving in you, a joy.
An Alternative Route
It's Been A long time!
No one could have predicted that it would be more than 3 years (1,151 days to be precise) before we would be in a position to travel back to Gorodishche and our “Belarussian Babies” (some of whom are actually in their 50s!). But the world pandemic, and war in Ukraine, have a way of shutting down the world which this generation could not have anticipated or understood until now. There was a planned trip in April 2020 that got called off at short notice, and so many other plans that were not possible to execute.
The new world, where Belarus is now a “sanctioned country”, makes decisions around travelling quite complex, my years of working in a field fixated on risk assessment are now standing to me as I look at a very changed environment. There have been a couple of volunteers (Ruth and Seán) that have travelled this year, but every trip must be considered based on the circumstances that prevail at that time (and a little hoping that nothing big will happen to scupper plans at the last minute).
A bonus when we plan/book, as we are not able to land in Minsk (those pesky sanctions!), we are travelling from Shannon Airport (home) and crossing into Belarus from Lithuania – although I don’t know that we would have considered this much of a bonus as we spent 9 hours on the bus (more on this later)!
New faces at the Orphanage are everywhere we go, but this means that some of our old friends are no longer to be seen. We had heard of many of the moves (I don’t want to think too long and hard about that!) and it’s sad not to have such regulars as Masha (I’ve spoken a bit about her and our special spiritual connection), Banni (the TV “poster boy” of Gorodishche for some years), Vanya (the man who wrote and performed Ojanna on our last visit), and many others. Quite a few have moved on to other institutions. My boy Kyriel is gone (but clearly not forgotten). I’m sure that those who have left now realise, as much as some have the ability to, that there is no place quite like Gorodishche.
As is the nature of where we are in the world right now, the new arrivals will not have witnessed too many Irish visitors and the chaos and mayhem (er I mean love) that such visits bring. There are some that I connect with quickly, Dasha and Dasha – more on these later, but the “Irish Twins” (in the photo) are ever-present in our visits to the hall and Group 6. Tanya and Anya are actually twins and are recent arrivals at the Orphanage. With their shock of red hair and their constant smiles, it’s hard to not notice them. They may be twins, but they are two entirely different individuals (not just their height difference!). Tanya (the tall) dances with the group that is part of the entertainment team while Anya (the small) sits in the background and rocks back and forth – clearly lost in her own (happy) world.
New faces are good, or so I convince myself!
Tanya and Anya
The Road Back To The Orphanage
Back Home In Gorodishche
The town of Gorodishche hasn’t changed much since our last visit, but why would it I ask myself! Some of the older houses that line our walking route in and out of the Orphanage each day, are affectionately known as “the Jewish houses”. These fragile wooden structures housed the town’s Jewish community in the early 1900s. Not a lot has changed to these dwellings since this time, most have running water but there are few (if any) that have heating beyond a central fire/burner of some kind. In the cold of winter (and it hasn’t reached its coldest yet) these must be difficult to warm, and I guess there is a lot of illness brought about as a result of the cold and dampness associated with living in such conditions (the book Angela’s Ashes comes to mind). Each house is a semi-detached unit, the front one faces the road and the other one behind this (I always thought they were single, detached dwellings).
On one of the mornings, I observe an older gentleman sitting on a rough-made bench outside his house. It’s -5c here, and he sits outside in the ice and snow (I can’t help but wonder if it might be warmer than inside!).
The Irish Are In Town!
We arrived, tired and emotional, on Wednesday afternoon at Gorodishche after our 18-hour journey from Shannon. We had known for some time that there was to be a big party on the day of our arrival (and no, it wasn’t just for us!). It was the official start of the Christmas season and there were dignitaries from local and national government in attendance. We were to “arrive quietly” as we were likely to create a scene – it’s always like that when the Irish are in town! We were to discover that Iryna Kostevich (Minister for Labour and Social Protection) was in attendance, she asked to meet with us after the formal meetings (and madness) were over. She thanked the Irish for all that we have done and explained that the policy of the Belarusian Government was to move away from supporting institutions like Gorodishche and to have young people supported in their homes (incentivising families to keep their children out of the orphanages).
Father Frost & The Snow Maiden
But who cares about a Minister when Father Frost is in town? Once we are spotted (and that didn’t take long) the madness began. Hugs and kisses abound (and maybe a few tears), we had finally arrived and there was dancing and general merriment to be had, the 1,151 days of waiting were over for all and we were back amongst our Belarusian friends and family again. Let the party begin!
Happy Birthday Iryna
Our Angel Of Gorodishche
And speaking of parties (nice segway if I might say so myself!). We knew there were two really big parties to celebrate during our visit (Tanya’s 22nd can wait for a while). Our angel of Gorodishche, Iryna, was to turn 70 and we planned to celebrate this in style. Why have one birthday party when you have 2 or 3 seems to be the motto in our house, and we decided that this would be appropriate for Iryna also.
She hates a fuss being made about her, yet she does this for everyone else in the Orphanage. There was a plan that she would stay with us on the night of her birthday, and for many other nights too (giving us a chance to really get to know the woman that we’ve “known” for years).
But we were not the only ones who wanted to make a big deal of the birthday girl, we marked her big occasion with many other people that Iryna is close to in the Orphanage, people that she has worked with for many years. Nina and Galya would be two of her closest friends, each was intent on keeping the party going for as long as we were in Belarus – challenge accepted 😊. I had forgotten the local method of toasting, not once or twice but three times – I certainly won’t forget that in a hurry. We made as much fuss as we could, as often as we could, to celebrate this wonderful lady. С Днем Рождения Ирина
The Craft Class
The girls in the craft class were diligently working as we called with some gifts from the Irish. Each in this group has a skill that is encouraged and supervised by Anya (she doubles as a witch in the show that we watched on the day of our arrival). Some are engaged in fine embroidery, others are painting, whilst others are simply “reading” an English magazine (a miracle on two counts). We are to return later during the visit to make sure that we stock up on small gifts to carry home to the Irish (this helps to fund the purchase of materials to make more gifts – a perfect circular economy!).
Tanya and others from Group 4 are now part of the craft class. It’s not just about art, for many in this group it’s about being part of a team, it’s about practising dexterity with weak and twisted hands, it’s about being with people like Anya who gives so much to the young people that are so lucky to be part of “her gang”. Anya makes a new year’s resolution while we are there – “I will be nice to the Irish”. When she’s not being a teacher and friend to the girls and boys, she’s a right messer and really loves being part of everything good that is happening in the Orphanage, she’s an honorary Irish woman!
A Fine Example
Gifts From Ireland
A Small Group
If two people constitute a group, then this will have been the smallest group with which I have been to Belarus! But whilst there might just have been two of us in Gorodishche, we carried the love, thoughts, prayers, and wishes of so many others with us on our journey (and, of course, their gifts and monetary donations). If all that we brought was hugs and kisses, this would be more than sufficient – our Belarussian Babies place these top of the list of their simple needs. But there were gifts and funds aplenty, making sure that we could reach far beyond those that we would meet every day in the Orphanage.
Joanne has a skill that allows her to pack 30kg worth of goods into a 20kg bag (and the charm to ensure that the nice girl at the Ryanair desk in Shannon ignores the excess). There are toys, musical instruments, jewellery for the staff (and birthday girls) and, most importantly, bags (and bags) of new clothes – socks and underwear in plastic wrapping with tags still affixed. Every group was treated to some clothes, bags picked and packed in Ireland with great thought (and a lot of love) attached.
There is joy in giving, that’s part of the reason that I keep going back (but only a small part of the “why”). To see the excitement of something that we consider so small can bring to the faces of so many . . . thank you to so many people who form part of the “group” that came with us to Gorodishche.
Galya Has Found Her Voice
Galya has been part of every trip I’ve had to Belarus. “She once was a singer” is what I was told, but that was hard to imagine as she has been mute on all of my previous visits. She has a “look” that’s hard not to notice, but like all of those in the group, she enjoys hugs and dancing. We visited the group and, to our shock and amazement, guess who’s now speaking again? Galya has found her voice and even broke out in song for us (although a sweet songbird may not be the best way to describe her offering!).
But what a pleasant surprise, not only did we hear her, but we were also there to give her a lovely winter coat (that had been donated through one of the Irish volunteers some time ago). Galya has two expressions, blank, and toothless smile, we encourage her not to smile for the photos 😊
She’s part of a group that doesn’t get out much, especially at this time of the year. The group sit around their room, staring at the television or out the window – no discos or show people to be found here. But they now have a singer back in the midst.
A Little Cold Out There!
Our Guardian Angel
Ever since we were involved in a car accident back in 2009, Joanne has been a great believer in Guardian Angels being amongst us, and the trip to Belarus once again confirmed that “there might be something in that!”.
In theory, this was going to be a reasonably straightforward journey (especially as it started off at Shannon Airport). We had a very tight bus connection in Lithuania, but then it was a clear run (no changes) to Minsk. The instructions from Liam and Seán were simple – just follow everyone else on the bus and you’ll be fine. Great in theory, but as the bus slowly made its way to the borders some nervousness crept in. There were many announcements (in Russian) as we neared the Lithuanian border, an attempt to do a Google Translate just added to the anxiety! Both Joanne and I noticed a girl that frequently got off the bus as it slowly moved from the Lithuanian to the Belarusian border (that short 2 miles took over 5 hours to navigate!).
At one point, I said to Joanne that it might be more complicated for us at the Belarusian border as we were the only two people on the bus with Irish passports.
“You’re not the only one with Irish Passports”, the girl we had noted said to us as we left the bus just before the Belarusian border. “Hi, I’m Tanya and I can help you with the translations and any issues you might have as we cross, I’m originally from Belarus but I’m living in Ireland now”. “Do you know Shannon”, she said. WTF! A girl called Tanya, from Shannon, had just stepped into the role of Guardian Angel for the trip. We tried to trace how we might know of each other; she knows Rosie and Ruth as her children are in Saint Conaire’s school.
If ever you need affirmation that “they’re out there”, this was surely it. We shadowed Tanya but the assurance of knowing that she was there was enough – just like a real-life Angel. Tanya departs the bus just after we cross the border, she is being met by family and heading in a different direction.
We agree to look her up the next time we’re all in Shannon!
The bus journey, including the border crossing, took a full 9 hours (Google Maps tells me that this is a 3 hour 47 mins trip of just 282km). But to be fair, there was the need to navigate the weather, stop to pick up the cases that had fallen out of the side of the bus, to reverse out of Lithuania (for crossing at an illegal point!) and deliver duty-free when we arrived in Vilnius – that’s a whole other story!
The Two Dasha's
There are so many new faces in the Orphanage, I guess that’s what happens if you don’t get to visit in three years! Almost every group has a couple of names and personalities to be learned, and I wonder what they make of “the Irish”? If nothing else, we are new people to dance with at the numerous discos that are held during our visit (sometimes 2 a day).
Introducing two of the newer arrivals; Dasha and Dasha (great new policy in the Orphanage to only bring in girls with the same names – makes my job easier!).
Dasha “the independent” is a very recent resident in The House (more on that . . . yep you guessed it . . . later). Dasha is 22 and arrived in Gorodishche just 3 weeks before Christmas. Her story is sad but will eventually (we pray) end in a good place. She is one of the many Social Orphans, that live here. Her mother has placed her in the care of the state, something that Dasha would surely not have chosen willingly!
We hear that Dasha had a job up to recently and was paying to keep her mother in relative comfort, ensuring that she (the mother) enjoyed her regular tipple (it’s a big problem here in Belarus).
Dasha keeps to herself, not unusual as she has joined a very settled group. But over the course of the week, we see her coming out of her shell, and even enjoying a cards and food evening in The Irish Kitchen with her peers from the Independent Team. She’s in a safe place, with people that will mind her until she can gain her full independence (even free of her mother) in the coming months. Her “wary of the Irish” attitude turns to “comfortable amongst us” in just a few days. I hope that we will get to meet her on our next visit, but I also hope that she can get back to some kind of normality sooner rather than later.
Enter Dasha “the dancer”, a very different character. From our first meeting, she is always front and centre in the groups. She is a front-line dancer and revels in teaching Joanne all of her steps, and as for the camera – Dasha is seldom on the wrong side of the lens (we had noticed that when we were in her company but it was even more marked when we arrived home and began looking through all of the photos that we had taken – was that really more than 700 shots!).
As well as being a dancer, Dasha is a smiler and a hugger. She lights up the room with her energy and personality.
While we did notice that she was close to us when we were with her and her group, we didn’t anticipate her reaction as we had our last dance and show in the hall on the day we left Gorodishche. Dasha was in floods of tears, she was clearly going to miss her new Irish friends. It’s so wonderful to experience making such a connection after such a short time in the Orphanage, I expect she will be a hit with all the travelling Irish.
No trip to Gorodishche would be complete without a walk to the graveyard, where there are plots for those that have passed in the Orphanage. There are a few new graves since our last visit and one very new one, with flowers still fresh. It’s particularly beautiful in the snow, although navigating to it took a little skill! Iryna knows all the graves, and who is laid to rest therein.
Iryna recounts the story of Sasha, a young man who passed away some years ago. Sasha and his brother had arrived at the Orphanage when they were very young, Sasha was mobile and could get around without assistance. Over time, he became less able to walk and ended up in Group 3 (the dreaded beds!). He remained there until he was in his early 20s. His condition disimproved to the point where he had to be transferred to a hospital in the nearby city of Baranovichi. He remained at the hospital for some time and was eventually released back to the Orphanage. “I will not die, I will not die” were the words that he uttered over and over as he was driven back to his bed in Group 3. A short while after his return, he told the Mamas in the group that he could see Jesus. “He is a man dressed all in white and he is telling me not to be afraid”, he told them. There were a number of people in the room that witnessed his words and the words of Jesus – “don’t be afraid”. Shortly after he said this, Sasha died. There was much talk of the boy who saw Jesus for quite some time after he had passed.
Group 3 is a special (and difficult) place, those that lie here are likely to remain in their beds until they are called to another world. But I wonder as I visit here in the days that follow, is Jesus here still – watching over those that are destined to exist here until their end!
We say a few prayers at the graveside of passed friends and hope that there won’t be more fresh flowers too soon.
I felt that we made a connection with the staff in Gorodishche, something much deeper than we had done on any previous visit. Maybe the fact that there were just two of us. It felt more like being part of the team (in hindsight, other times I feel that we are more like outsiders coming in to help).
The Staff Party
Being invited to the staff Christmas party probably helped us to feel at home. A fantastic night that coincided with Iryna’s actual birthday – a big celebration for all.
And what a party, more than six hours of eating, drinking, dancing, party games, and a visit from Father Frost (and his Snow Maiden). There was one up/downside – I was 1 of 2 men amongst the 31 guests on the night (he left after an hour or so leaving me as “blessed amongst women”). And a new tradition that I discover; if there is a man at the table then he must pour the drink for all the ladies – a full-time job over a six-hour period!
In Belarus (unlike here in Ireland), you will never drink without eating. There’s no “rush to finish the dinner to go on the lash”, copious amounts of food ensure that drinking is the secondary priority – in reality, it might be third after dancing.
A Very Fine Spread
In The Kitchen At Parties!
Friends - Old & New
There are many other lovely moments with the staff, not least of which is our last birthday party for Iryna (I think I lost count of the number we celebrated during our time there). On our final evening, once all were retired and relaxed for the night (as if that ever happened), we met with some friends – new and old – to enjoy some local cuisine (pancakes with home-made jam, pancakes with cabbage and mushrooms [especially for the vegetarian], pickles and sweet home-grown apples.
A fantastic spread, with fantastic friends, washed down with a toast (or three) to “life”, “health”, and “friends”.
5 Star It Ain't!
Living conditions for volunteers in Gorodishche are relatively comfortable, always warm, and spotlessly clean – what more can a man ask for? Well, I might start with toilets and showers, but it’s not a holiday camp, there’s work to be done – sleep and home comforts can come for the other 50 weeks of the year.
The Irish Kitchen is certainly big enough for two people (although we manage to get nine around the table on one of the evenings!). All of the usual items allow us to cook and relax (it doubles as the Irish Living Room after we have eaten).
And then there’s the bedroom, it’s essentially a small private hospital room, with two single adults’ “cots” and a private toilet. I can’t say anything other than “comfortable”, as shown when Joanne decided to get a shot of her dead husband one of the nights (I’m a sleeper – and maybe a snorer – I can’t deny that [apparently]).
A shower from Ireland of the 70s (a hose connected to the bath taps) is the final comfort that constitutes the living and sleeping world of the volunteering Irish. What more can a man ask for . . . .
The New House
The new house (I’ve mentioned this in at least one of my previous diaries) is finally built and in everyday use – the new home of the Independent Group. The building, partly funded through the BCP Charity, is spectacular – bright, clean, cosy, and “home”. It is similar to a Brothers Of Charity supervised house here in Ireland, the house has a 24/7 mama, but the independent group looks after all aspects of managing their lives (cleaning, cooking, and working at different jobs) and their shiny home.
We are invited to the big party – New Year’s Eve – where we enjoy food and fun till the early hours (including having dinner served by Lisa after we had rung in 2023).
Our experience of buildings in Belarus is limited but we are used to odd-sized steps on stairs, cold materials, and generally poor lighting. But not here, it feels very high-end with beautiful wooden floors, bright and airy rooms, and a well-equipped kitchen (perfect for the baking that is done twice a week by Lonya and the rest of the team). We had been offered a room in the house when we were heading to Gorodishche but pushing some of this team out of their beautiful home would have been somewhat unfair.
It would be odd to write of my visit without talking about “our girl” Tanya. Our visit coincided with her 22nd birthday – that was no accident! We see Tanya regularly during our visit (almost every day), making a big deal of her on the day of her birthday.
Tanya is as pretty as ever, and her form is very good. But her movement is not quite as good as it had been, and her bones seem to be more rigid and deformed (it has been three years!). She struggles to move about, remember she’s a crawler when she’s not in a wheelchair, and we know that she is in pain as she pulls herself around the Group 4 rooms.
But on a positive note, it is her birthday!
We decided that the best place to hold the party will be with all of her friends in her Group (we had her 18th party in the hall with lots of other groups). We brought as many as could be managed into the dining area and filled them all with – no apologies here – pure rubbish (sweets, cake, biscuits, and fizzy drinks). The guitar is taken out and we have a good old singsong, songs old and new are sung (and sometimes roared – there are some that enjoy that kind of “singing” in this group).
Towards the end of our stay, we get to invite Tanya to the Irish Kitchen for a cup of coffee and a biscuit (a real grown-up visit). Some new wheelchairs (buggies) have been delivered and Tanya gets to test drive one – it’s perfect for her as she sits comfortably without slipping down as she does in a regular wheelchair. She sits proudly in the kitchen, delighted to be on her own with her Irish mammy and daddy.
She tells us of her real parents, Svéta and Sergey, this is the first time that we’ve heard their names. Her mother – she has never met her – is living relatively close to the Orphanage. We can only wonder why such a beautiful young girl might have been abandoned at birth – but Svéta’s loss is our gain!
Tanya remembers “being a child” and says that she never dreamt that she might end up being an invalid! She tells us of her fear that she might end up in Group 3 (the beds) for the rest of her life.
Leaving the orphanage has always been emotional for all, tears are expected as we go to Tanya and the girls on our last day in Gorodishche. But there are not as many tears, our mantra of “see you soon” rings out as final hugs and kisses are dished out and we promise to return later in the year. With all that’s happened in the world since our last visit, this is a dear wish but . . . . who knows what challenges (or not) there might be in 9 months’ time.
People In The Community
There were some very special opportunities to meet (and help) some people in the local community. I won’t go into the specific stories, it’s sufficient to say – we were blessed to be able to help people that are not in a good place. And some of the memories (photos) will live long in our memories.
Farewell & Thanks
An eye operation for a Mama will now be possible as a result of the people who support us and BCP.
Mama At The Window
Cancer treatment for an elderly (retired) Mama will now be possible as a result of the people who support us and BCP.
To Joanne (the one who, thankfully, convinced me to travel some years ago)
Thank You (Большое спасибо)