Tears your heart out,
dances gently all over it,
and puts it back in a better place!
dances gently all over it,
and puts it back in a better place!
Shannon Parish has long had a relationship with Gorodishche having “adopted” the Belarusian orphanage as part of its millennium projects in 2000. This has been seen in significant financial aid and volunteer support from the people of Shannon (and environs) through the Clare based Burren Chernobyl Project (BCP). I have had a personal relationship with the project and orphanage through family and close friends for many years. My decision to visit this year was not taken lightly, this is no holiday camp, the living conditions for volunteers are meagre, the work tough, and the emotions run high throughout (or so I was told). I survived and, more importantly, will be back! Gorodishche will break and mend your heart every minute of every day there.
Heading down Main Street Gorodishche
Church of the Uprising Of The Holy Cross
Gorodishche (or Haradzišča in Russian) is a small town with a population of just over 2,000 people, situated in the region of Brest in south west corner of Belarus. It has a long history, dating back to first records as a settlement in the 13th century. A two-hour trip from the capital Minsk by road, the town has a look and feel of a small Irish town from the 60’s (I was brought back to a time of shopping with my grandmother as I went to the local shop and ordered everything from the shopkeeper who served from behind a long counter). The town has a local hospital, town park, library, two churches (Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary – Catholic church from the XVIIIth century; and Church of the Uprising Of The Holy Cross – Russian Orthodox church from 1764). The other very notable feature is the graveyard which seems to go on for acre after acre (and includes a Jewish cemetery from WW II).
The Epic Journey!
I travelled on my own on Saturday July 15th and felt a little daunted by the 20+ hour journey (car, bus, planes, mini-bus; in that order). I arrived in Minsk, minus my big bag that got lost somewhere in transit, and travelled on to Gorodishche; arriving late on Sunday night. The road from Minsk was a mix of high-quality motorway to pothole strewn boreen (although I doubt that what they call them out there!). Tamara (I’m sure she was a racing driver in a previous life) was on hand to skilfully navigate the 2-hour trip to Gorodishche. I had been joined in Minsk by the team of volunteers that had been there for the previous week and had taken a trip to a baby orphanage on that Sunday. The group (Rosie and Joanne [my wife] from Shannon, Selina from Newmarket-on-Fergus, Julie from Corofin, and Rosie eile from Clonakilty) had already spent a week at the orphanage and were filling me in on all of the important stuff (thunder showers, called off soccer matches, day trips, etc.). We also met with Ruth (my goddaughter) who is spending a year volunteering in Minsk. I had heard stories of groups (the orphanage is broken into 8 groups based on needs/abilities), individuals (there are characters abound) and the system (another story for another day) and I was really excited (and a little terrified) about what was awaiting. The other thing I was not looking forward to was my stay at the “Penthouse Apartments” (the name given affectionately to the volunteer accommodation - which is actually the old orphanage). We arrived after 23:00 local time and my first impression was one of surprise – the Penthouse Apartments were nowhere near as basic as I expected (although this view would change as the days wore on).
The final leg of the long journey
The Daily Routine
Call it excitement or trepidation (or maybe all of the above), I awoke early on Monday morning, wondering what the day and week would have for me. I joined Julie (we became early morning buddies for the week) for a coffee on the steps and what I saw as marvellous! The orphanage is no rundown, dilapidated place, it looked modern and bright – off to a great start I thought (and yet it hadn’t even begun). Breakfast over (and more stories told), we began our daily routine by 9am (although to call it a routine is not strictly correct – no two days are the same here in Gorodishche). There is a sense of a working day which is split in to morning (9am to 1pm), afternoons (from 2pm to 5pm) and evenings (from 6pm to 10pm some evenings), breaks being a time to reflect, re-energise, and allow the Groups to have meals.
Group 1 - Welcome
My first visit was to Group 1 where I was initially awkward and unsure of “what I was doing here”. I had no idea of what to do (although I had rehearsed in my head how I might greet the groups – this was real!). No worries, I didn’t need to know what was required of me as immediately I was greeted by hugs, smiles, high fives, and a sense of deep loving care – my experienced fellow volunteers were leading the way and I had simply to follow and allow Gorodishche to come to me. Over the days I learned that it’s simple, these people are looking for a hug, a kiss, a hand held, a glance – recognition of their existence and the loving care that I believe we Irish are made for. Galia – a young lady who remains expressionless throughout – was first to steal a hug and she wasn’t letting go! Not a western full on hug, no she simply wanted me to put my arm around her as she leaned in to me. I was blown away by the simplicity of what was required (for now) and was overwhelmed emotionally (and this was just hour one on day one). I was conscious that some of the group were willing to come forward to the volunteers while others would stay on their own, sitting or standing apart. I made it my mission to reach out to every single person in every group, although some simply didn’t want this (I learned to leave them alone).
Selina - doing what comes naturally
First meeting with Tanya
Meeting Our Baby!
The biggest emotional “slap” was next to come, we moved to Group 4 to meet the young lady that dressed appropriately for the big occasion. Tanya has called me Papa for many years since first being “adopted” by Joanne (her Mama) on her first visit to the orphanage. The meeting was beautiful and Tanya had to apologise for rabbiting-on (she said she was so excited that she couldn’t shut herself up!) There was a chance for the first hug, the first kiss, the joy of being here. Tanya has learned some English phrases over the years and practices these at every opportunity with the Irish. Joanne and I got some time alone with Tanya but then it’s back to the job in hand – meeting all of the others in the group and dishing out hugs and kisses to everyone, adopted daughter or not. Just before leaving her I do what any parent might do; apply soothing oils to her calloused elbows – Tanya uses these to zealously drag herself around the rooms in Group 4. This group are physically challenged; many are wheelchair bound (although try tell this to Ruslana – with or without legs this girl can outrun me!). The first realisation that I had no Russian (and there is no English spoken in the Orphanage) was with this group. There were so many things I wanted to say (or hear) but it was best to leave communication to the universal language.
It's all mumbo jumbo
Language is a barrier and although there are many things that transcend the spoken word, there are times when words need to be passed. This is where the amazing Iryna plays some part. Iryna is the interface between the orphanage, BCP, and the volunteers, a typical Irish mother looking after everyone (at the expense of herself I suspect). Iryna lives in nearby large town (Baranavichy) and has been a regular visitor to Ireland in the past. Her English is perfect and her style notable, she is the perfect “mama” to all involved here and I hope that I can repay her kindness at some point when she visits Ireland again. Iryna was on hand to start all of our days with an agenda and also ensured that trips (more on these later) were co-ordinated with all those that needed to play a part. Iryna has been the face and voice of BCP in Gorodishche for many years, a tough job I’m sure; done with class and composure. A super organiser, a fabulous translator – but most importantly – a respected leader of all.
The wonderful Iryna
The lovely Nastia
Group 3 - Special Moments
Visiting any of the groups evokes every sort of emotion but there are some groups that really go deep, for me this is the group that spend their days in beds and cots (Group 3 as they are known). I was not prepared for the way this group made me feel and I had to take a “moment” (one of many) when I first visited. I felt a deep sadness as I observed children, teenagers, and adults with varying needs but all with one thing in common – they were bed-bound and would likely stay this way forever. But these are real people, with real personalities and needs. I went to each of them, cupping their faces or holding their hands – hugging is not really a comfortable option here. Some vie for affection, the cuter ones that know they will be lifted and cuddled by the loving volunteers. Others flinch to the touch – maybe a simple prayer will be best in this instance. I instantly make a connection with Nastya, she’s recently come over to the beds from Tanya’s group and they are best of friends. She laughs when I touch her cheek (except when Joanne is about – turns out that I’m clearly second best in Nastia’s eyes). Others here catch me emotionally off guard and my subsequent returns start at their bed/cot, simply being there is enough I hope.
Feeding those in Group 3 was painted as something that I might struggle with. Other volunteers have found this distressing as most of those in the Group are fed lying down (something that we would not think possible here in Ireland). I had decided before going over that I would attempt everything that was asked of me and only opt out if it was a significant issue. “Take Sergei first” was my instruction from Iryna as she handed me his dinner. Dinner comes in two varieties; dinner as we would know it with spuds, chicken, and veg and dinner that has a consistency of thickened soup. Sergei, proudly sporting his Celtic jersey, takes the thickened soup variety and he does his best to sit up as I arrive with his bowl. He enthusiastically finishes the food, followed by a drink of juice, and I am happy to say that feeding is a doddle! Vicha is next on my list and Iryna shows me how – this is a challenge and I manage to pour food in her ears, eyes, and nose. She laughs and feeds simultaneously, I do my best to keep to the task – I know that she appreciates my efforts!
I’m not one to give away secrets easily but . . . I wondered about the taste and quality of the food. The dinners smelled and looked good but what about the taste? Enter Selina. She arrived late to the volunteer kitchen on one of the days apologising that she had been delayed whilst tasting the dinner. Not one plate, no; three plates later and the food was declared as “gorgeous”, another mouth to feed in Group 3!
Sergei from Group 3
Another Common Language
Music was always going to be a big part of my visit. I’ve played and sang for years and I had brought a song (“the song”) that I wanted to teach the Groups while I was there. Thankfully there was a guitar that had been donated by a previous volunteer so restringing was all that was asked of me. The guitar was brought to a number of the Groups and we had a few sing-songs with the volunteers (all in the interest of learning the songs of course). Groups were calling me by a new name “Oh Ya Ya” as I came in to them, singing songs with sounds like this was so much easier than trying to teach elaborate English words. Anywhere I went the guitar was popular and there were many attempts to kidnap it from my grasp. The highlights from a musical perspective were many but the concert, the visit of the Director, and singing with Tanya and Lida (more about this one later) will live with me forever. Group 4 have long perfected “Sing A Song” with all of its la la la la la’s, as taught to them by Joanne on a previous visit, and it was so great to be asked to perform with them in the hall.
The Groups had their entertainers too. We were entertained in a big way by the artistic performance and dance that had been brought to many places in Belarus by the member from Groups 6 and 8, supported by their own Miss Sunshine – Anya the Art Teacher. The rendition of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” had made Alosha famous before we arrived but it was his singing in Russian and that dance break in the concert that will live on in my memory. And what a little vixen we had in Polina! Her song “Veter s Morja dul” forced us in to learning our own version so that we might singalong. We were “in an SUV”, “with another boy”, “passing out some tea”.
If there is a great news story to be told of Gorodishche then this is surely Group 8 (better known as The Independents). These are the brightest and ablest bodied of the residents of the orphanage. They live close to independently (with a mama to supervise) and have living quarters that suit their status. I visited enviously on many evenings to see their living room (with internet connection), their en-suite rooms, and the kitchen where they supplied copious amounts of tea and even provided us with some dinner on the last night. Card games were the order of the day on the late evenings and watching Sergei and Loyna cheating showed the level of creative thinking that was going on here. Sergei had recently passed his assessment and was leaving this Group and heading out on the equivalence of an apprenticeship – free at last! This was a Group that was comfortable in their own skin and drifted in and out of many different aspects of daily life in the Orphanage, acting as helpers and supplementing the staffing of various activities. Although called Independents, there were still clear needs in this group and some were still children-at-heart (yes that is Dima that I’m speaking about).
Sergei - free to go?
Early morning sun
Dawn In The Penthouse
The sounds of Gorodishche were best observed on the steps of the Penthouse early in the morning. Julie (“my friend”) and I would awaken before 7 and sit, coffee in hand, often in complete silence. Firstly there were the birds, fellow residents of the Penthouse, swirling around and making quite a clatter. Then from off in the distance there was the early morning sounds of the cockerels followed by the barking of the dogs. And then the true sound of Gorodishche – the team of strimmers that were employed to keep the lawns in immaculate condition. No fancy ride-on mowers or powered push mowers, this was a task for the good old strimmer. We calculated that they would be just about finished the bottom end of the compound and would then have to start again at the top. As the day wore on there were different sounds; Groups going about their daily existence. Oh but the sound to beat all was the echo of SALINA, JOANNA, ROSA, JULIA, from the admiring boys in the bigger Groups. Late evening (20:00 to be precise) brought the bugle player from the local church, something I had intended going to see “in the flesh” but never had the time for – next time I guess.
Group 5 - The Wild Ones!
Before I arrived at the orphanage, the volunteer group had been together for a full week. For Rosie eile and Selina it was a first but the others were experienced and knew all of the Groups and their unique traits. Surely as the newest volunteer they would not plot and plan against me! “You go first” was the instruction from the team as we visited Group 5. Oh dear! – I was not expecting that. This Group is mostly young kids with Downs Syndrome, these are the climbers and clingers, I think I had three of them on me before my rescuers arrived. Strong is an understatement with this group, once they lock on to you, you’re doomed. At one point, having lost my admiring followers, I bent down to tie my lace. Big mistake, before I knew it I had Sasha climbing on my head and was struggling to get to my feet. These are the best huggers and kissers to be found in the orphanage and a later meeting of the Group in the gym hall proved to be the perfect environment for them to burn their endless energies. I think there should be a sticker of “I Survived Group 5” given to all new volunteers after their first visit.
Sasha - a bundle of energy
Valantin the troubadour
Meeting The Director
I can’t claim to understand “the system” and I was certainly not under any illusion that my visit would change it. As I remarked early on my visit “it is what it is” and volunteers who have travelled for many years have seen dramatic changes – all for the better. The orphanage is run by The Director, a man in his early 50’s is what I guessed. He is very hands-on and I regularly observed him out and about with the bigger boys, fixing and doing (often supervised by Vanya – a perfect Irish Council worker leaning on his shovel). We had been told that The Director would visit one of the days, a chance to say thank you to the volunteers. It felt like it was always going to be tomorrow as each day passed without a meeting. After returning from a trip on the Thursday we were greeted with a hive of activity as tables were laid and a marvellous array of fresh food was brought in to our kitchen, Mikhail (I now knew his name) and his leadership team were our guests for dinner (actually, we were their guests in reality). Fine food, washed down in the traditional way, with many toasts – led of course by the boss. My turn to toast – “to the most important person in my life, the lady who had brought me to Gorodishche – my wife Joanne”. This was a very pleasant evening and we sang “the song” for them, isn’t that what Irish people do when we’re having fun – we sing! What a surprise lay in store, they had brought their own troubadour – Valantin was not just a fine singer but he also played a mean guitar. Then it was the turn of Mikhail and the two Valia’s, quality entertainment, quality food, quality time at its best. It is what it is but I have a sense that Mikhail and team are doing all that they can, supported in no small way by the Irish, to make this a better place.
Football - Or Murder!
The teams take to the pitch three nights a week for the Ireland versus Belarus soccer game. Not for the faint hearted, Vitalik and Vanya are the ones to watch out for, they will mow you down and come back to trample all over you (in the nicest possible way). There are rules, but these are not important. At any point in the game you can have any number of goalkeepers and that doesn’t matter anyway as the last man (or woman) back can block the ball with their hands. The ball can be carried or kicked, anything goes! That is until the Irish score, then the game really begins as Vitalik runs the length of the pitch as many times as it takes to score for Belarus. Who plays on what team, that’s a good question. The Irish are generally outnumbered and so are supplemented by some of the boys in Group 2, but be careful – there are times when they will simply pretend to be playing for the Irish and run the opposite way when they get the ball (that’s Maxim, proudly wearing his Irish jersey). Pitch invasions with the Irish flag are a must during every game and the most important part follows the final whistle – the biscuits, lemonade, sweets and ice cream.
Ireland versus Belarus
The Working Class
The boys in Group 2 are big strong lads and really enjoy their card games and music, it’s also where I was to be pinched, scrapped, and slapped – but was I really expecting it to be an easy week? and anyway, the boys in Group 2 know how to keep the peace with anyone that steps out of line. This is where the guitar saw its first outing and we had some discussion on whether I should play or we should listen to the various media players/usb drives that are so important to this group. Group 2 also makes up quite a number of those that play the soccer. This is a group that fills the evenings with the volunteers playing snap (and not cheating) or holding their disco.
There is also another very important sub-group here in 2, the farm boys. These are the lads who work hard on the farm all day, I would see them pass by at 7am each morning, slouching or running as they head to their chores on the nearby farm. A couple of really important memories are attached to this group. Firstly, a gift of fresh produce from the farm. Cabbage, marrows, and potatoes; fresh from the field – a feast fit for a king (we really enjoyed the spuds and fried cabbage thanks to Rosie). Another evening we had the pleasure of entertaining the farm boys and it was a joy to see how working in the fields can work up an appetite, nothing goes to waste when these boys are around.
Trips are an important event for residents and volunteers alike. It’s a chance to leave the confines of the orphanage and go further afield – even if this is just a short excursion. On my visit we had two such trips, the first to the local park in Gorodishche, the second on the luxury coach (I’m exaggerating a little) to the historic town of Navagrudak via Sviciaz lake. The trips require the residents to walk quite a bit so it’s the stronger ones that tend to go. In both cases it was a mix of Groups and the special team that work in the art room with Anya. The trip to the park was very simple, we walked, hand in hand with one or two residents, along the footpath to the town of Gorodishche and over to the park. Playing ball, twirling flags, and the most important part – eating ice cream. A small group of the volunteers were brought back to the orphanage via the local graveyard where Iryna spoke reverently of each of the residents who had been lost over the years. Headstones mark, with respect, those who are gone but not forgotten.
A bus trip to the lake and historic town was a longer trip and there was plenty to do and see for all. The green lake is a busy spot and was packed with people lying out in the glorious sunshine when we passed on the way home (we were lucky to be able to visit the covered veranda when we stopped on the way to Navagrudak). This was an educational trip as we visited a local museum, the home of a poet that wrote most of his works in French. I have never seen such a large group be so attentive and quiet as we moved from room to room, learning about the life and times of Adam Mickiewicz (see, I was listening too!). Out of the museum and on to the ruins of the castle at the top of the hill, quite a walk for the group but the rewards were worth the effort. We had a picnic in the local park and everyone enjoyed ice-cream and fizzy drinks (although it was interesting to note that many of the drinks were saved and brought back to the orphanage – I’m sure these were savoured for more than just one day).
All action in the sports hall
Cheaters (and Me)
Group 6 are an active bunch and I had the pleasure of being a team captain as the group spent a sports morning in the gym hall. A new bunch of volunteers had arrived and Julie and I brought them to the hall where my team took on Vanya and his team (I had no idea how competitive and sporty he was and that he was well able to cheat!). Iryna demonstrated all of the games before we took turns at playing ball, skittles, walking on paper, and running through many obstacle courses. Vanya should have been told that I don’t like losing, even beating my own children when playing any sort of game! The shouting and cheering could be heard far beyond the hall and everyone was actively motivating all members of each team. If they’d told me that there were medals at stake I might have cheated a bit more but true to all things fair in Gorodishche, everyone was presented with a medal at the end of the events. I was certainly physically challenged by this Group, they play hard and fast. One of this group is Andrei, he has a phenomenal photographic memory and was bouncing enthusiastically reminding me of my date of birth, something I had told him on the first day we met. This is apparently his party piece and he can tell volunteers who have shared information with him many years ago.
And Then There Were Two!
I’m not sure if I fell in love with Gorodishche or in Gorodishche, and I’m not sure that the differentiation is that important anyway. I’m living proof that Joanne has impeccable taste () and I knew that falling in love with Tanya would be easy (she was already calling me Papa long before I arrived). I had consciously decided before going that Tanya would be “my girl” as well as Joanne’s and there would be no need to connect too deeply with anyone else.
But then along came Lida, as it turns out she’s Tanya’s best friend and her helper. She stole my heart quickly and I looked forward to visits back to Group 4 to spend time with my three girls (Joanne, Tanya, and Lida). I’ve supported Joanne from a distance for many years, having some level of understanding what Gorodishche means to her and engaging with the relationship that she had developed with Tanya. But being with Joanne in the orphanage was something else, seeing her with all of the Groups and the love and respect that is evident flowing both ways made me fall in love with more than the place! The special time that the four of us had on the last day as we shared “the song” with our two girls was the most moving moment of the trip and something that will live long after the buzz is gone.
Can you guess who I found in Group 7? #findingbanni trended in Ireland when the documentary on Banni was shown on RTE and it caused a whole new level of interest in the work carried out by BCP. I hope that many of the new volunteers that have engaged with the charity in the future can understand that #findingbanni is not a destination but a journey. Banni is one of the many people that are part of the important work carried out by BCP. Group 7 have different challenges and the type of engagement that I experienced here was not like any other group. My favourite photograph of “connecting” came in this group, this was where I felt that I needed to connect at a more spiritual level (if that’s not too complicated!). This was also the first Group that we brought yoghurt to, a nutritional treat that is relished and appreciated across all of the groups (and I’m sure that the shopkeepers of Gorodishche have their own love affair with the Irish as they sell out when we’re in town).
Burren Chernobyl Project
To say that nothing can prepare you for your trip to Gorodishche is simply not true! There are many volunteers who can give you their experience of visiting and their views on the place, the people, the system, etc. However, it is fair to say that you cannot prepare for how you will react to all of what you experience when you’re actually on the ground. I knew of the Groups, the characters, the challenges, but I knew nothing of what it would do to me. I’ve learned a lot about myself during this trip and I’ve learned to appreciate the work done by BCP and the staff at Gorodishche. I don’t know if we are welcomed with open arms or endured by those that have to work in the orphanage all year round but it is clear that we are important to the residents (and I hope to the staff). Does it really matter? Will we all be back? Yes, until told otherwise, I will certainly be back. I’ve decided that I need to learn the language to be able to engage with the important people (children, staff, shopkeepers, etc.) in the orphanage/town and I’ve decided that I need to bring a formal music therapy programme with me next time; this was a maiden voyage!
Another excuse to party!
So what is “the song” that has been spoken so much of in this ramble? Why was this important? As mentioned earlier, music has always played a big part in my life (it’s how I met Joanne). I was lying in bed the week before I travelled and was listening to the radio. A new version of an old song came on and screamed out of the radio at me. This was a song that I thought I knew; I had heard it for many years but I heard it in a whole new context (was it the version or where my head was at – I don’t know). The song has just two verses, the first I envisage as what the residents in Gorodishche might sing to the volunteers; the second what we would sing to them.
When no-one else can understand me
When everything I do is wrong
You give me hope and consolation
You give me strength to carry on
And you're always there to lend a hand In everything I do
That's the wonder
The wonder of you
And when you smile the world is brighter
You touch my hand and I'm a king
Your kiss to me is worth a fortune
Your love for me is everything
I guess I'll never know the reason why you love me as you do
That's the wonder
The wonder of you
Now Time For Home
Leaving the orphanage was never going to be easy, saying goodbye to the people and the place that all of us had come to love (even those of us on our first visit). We asked that Tamara come as late as possible so that we could get some more Group activities in and that we might spend some quality time with those that had become special to us. But the real world beckons, final farewells said, we headed back on the road to Minsk with lighter bags and heavier hearts. The discomfort and inconvenience associated with living in the Penthouse Apartments is temporary and, in hindsight, very short. But the joys of a warm shower, a pizza, and a cold pint of beer were most welcomed. Head-fried with thoughts of the great times we had in Gorodishche, time to sleep and head home where “normal” awaits!
As I read back over my thoughts and memories I asked myself “why so positive, are there no challenges or issues in Gorodishche”? Of course there are challenges, for the volunteers and (most especially) for the residents and staff. It’s anything but perfect, it has come a long way and there is a very long way to go. But why would I want to concentrate on that, especially on my first visit. I expect that these things will become more prevalent on subsequent visits (see I did say I’d be back). I would love for it all to be perfect, I would love to bring our girls to Ireland, I would love for the place to be sufficiently staffed (but I know they wish that for themselves too). But while I return to make more small changes, I trust that everyone involved is working in the same way.
Rant over, now time to rest!
A BIG thanks to my fellow volunteers, the ones who showed me the ropes for my first trip. Also to Brother Liam, Rosie, and all of those that have been working in Belarus for more years that I’ve known of the charity. I’m thankful that Shannon was able to get involved in 2000 and that the chance meeting of Canon Brendan and Brother Liam has brought Gorodishche to where it is right now. I’m thankful too that the Parish and people of Shannon have invested so much over the years in this project and that it didn’t die after the massive efforts of 2000. To Rosie, Joanne, Julie, Rosie eile, Selina, and Ruth – Thank You (Большое спасибо)