A vulnerable country
The end of the Soviet Union meant the collapse of a state whose welfare system had provided security for many. Furthermore, the Chernobyl Disaster of 1986 had an enormous impact on the country. It is estimated that that 70% of the radioactive fallout fell on the country, affecting more than 2.2 million people, including 500,000 children. One fifth of the country's agricultural land was contaminated, and in the three years following the disaster, 100,000 people, many farmers, were re-housed from the radiation hot spots, 55,000 of whom up now live in high rise purpose-built apartments.
In their latest report, The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, UNDP and UNICEF suggest that people feel they are victims of developments over which they have no influence. They have little confidence in their own ability to improve their situation.
It was for these reasons that the first SOS Children’s Village was built just outside the capital of Minsk in 1996. So far, more than 9,000 vulnerable children and families have been supported through SOS Family Strengthening Programmes, meaning that thousands of children have been able to grow up within their biological family, rather than being cared for in state institutions.
Keeping families together
SOS Children supports many families who were forced to move from rural contaminated areas to the Belarus capital of Minsk.
Although it was essential to move people away from the contaminated areas, the social implication of doing so has been devastating. According to Lilya Shestakova, Leader of the SOS Social Centre, many families now face unemployment and struggle with a range of social problems including alcoholism and mental health issues.
Together with Social Services and Police, the SOS Family Strengthening (FSP) team work to identify families, who Lilya describes, are ‘in crisis’. According to Lilya, these families face a high risk of having their children taken away and placed in state-run institutions. Not only are conditions poor in these children’s homes, but Lilya says these families are then forced to pay for the service, pushing them deeper into poverty, ‘Social problems means the state can easily take away the child from the family. A decision can be made within three hours of a visit from Social Services, in case there is instant danger to child life.’
It’s therefore a top priority for the FSP team to work with the families who have the potential to improve their situation and prevent the children from being taken away. The SOS FSP team work to identify families with very low-incomes, psychological problems, alcoholism, and where children may have been neglected or abused.
Holistic package of support
Families are enrolled onto the programme and given a holistic package of support. They are given monthly food packages (which include basic supplies of bread, milk and butter); access to a counsellor and legal advisor; the children receive extra school support and take part in extra-curricular activities; and parents attends weekly parenting classes. They are also allocated a ‘mentor’, a trained Psychologist, who gives them emotional support and keeps them up-to-date with various Social Centre activities. The FSP pay particular attention to unemployed single mothers – aiming to empower them to become better parents and find steady income. Classes include hairdressing and leisure activities such as belly-dancing to build self-esteem.
Not always a happy ending
‘We recently helped one family make a positive change’ Lilya explains, ‘The mother had been born to alcoholic parents and had been very neglected as a child. She now has three children and was living in poor conditions. The state wanted to take the family away, but we could see she had a good attitude and really wanted to improve her situation. We helped her find work and clean her house and helped gave her the necessary tools to care for the children. Today, the children are still with their mother and the family have been given a chance.’
However, not every story has a happy ending. ‘We came across an 11-year-old boy who had been living in extreme poverty. He had witnessed his father’s death and his grandmothers’ death and was not doing well. He was taken away from his mother by the state and placed in care. He then became depressed and tried to kill himself.’ The boy is now receiving help from SOS Children, but Lilya knows that his future remains uncertain. When asked what keeps Lilya going when faced with such difficult cases, she says: ‘My biggest joy is when I see a family who has been able to make a change for the better thanks to the help of SOS Children.’
The SOS Playbus
The FSP team are also able to help support communities outside of Minsk through the use of an SOS Play bus which is a mobile bus visiting vulnerable communities in surrounding towns and Villages.
A team of four educators prepare play activities for children and run child development programmes in schools and local community centres. Children from these families are often referred on to the FSP if there is a need.
A new home in the Village
When it simply isn’t possible for a child to stay with his or her natural family, then sometimes they may come and find a new home and mother in the SOS Children’s Village in Borovljany, just outside Minsk. Nearly ninety children are cared for in the thirteen family houses.
Many children, despite their difficult start, go to become happy independent adults. For example, Vlad* came to the Village as a seven year old boy. His mother had sold their flat so she could fund her alcohol addiction. He now works as an SOS Education Coordinator in SOS Playbus project.
Maxim (21) and his sister Ekaterina (23) came to the SOS Children’s Village when they were 5 and 3 years old, after their alcoholic mother could not longer look after them. Today, Maxim works for the Village as an Assistant to the Village Master and Ekaterina is studying linguistics at Minsk University.Single mother of three Olga, lives in a high rise block in Borovljany, just outside of Minsk. After her husband's death Olga became an alcoholic and struggled to care for her children. Read how, with support from SOS Children, she has changed her life around.
*Not his real name
April 26th 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. It is clear that millions of people in Belarus still suffer from radioactive contamination as well as the mental and emotional affects of the disaster. SOS Children, through its Health Centre and Family Strengthening Programmes is actively supporting those who continue to live in the shadow of Chernobyl.
You can help us continue this work by Sponsoring a child in Belarus