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Chernobyl 25th anniversary: Olga's story

Olga and her three children
Olga and her three children

In a crowded room on the second floor of a state-owned high rise block in the small town of Borovljany, just outside Minsk, single mother Olga, begins to recount her story of her troublesome childhood and her struggle to provide for her three children.

The grey, neglected dormitory style building, which has been home to Olga, and her three children Lesha (15), Sergey (13) and Vika (6), since 2005, is one of many in the town provided to state employees for minimal rent. Every inch of available space in the small room is used. Toys hang from the walls; sofas double up as beds; and clothes are carefully stored away in the one available wardrobe. But outside, the sense of homeliness and order is absent.  The communal areas of the hallways, kitchen and bathroom are unkempt and dilapidated.

‘I’ve not had an easy life’ says Olga, ‘I have six brothers and sisters and my parents were alcoholics. They were nice people but depended heavily on drink.’

Chernobyl anniversary: Olga's story 2
Olga lives in a high-rise block on the outskirts of Minsk

Olga, 33, grew up in the southern Belarus region of Gomel. She was the daughter of poor farmers and says her upbringing was marred by her parents’ alcohol addiction. When she married, like many from rural areas struggling to find work following the break-up of the Soviet Union and those fleeing Chernobyl-affected areas, she moved to the capital of Minsk. But life didn’t improve. Her husband, who was also an alcoholic, died unexpectedly at the age of 25 doing one of his many spells in prison, ‘he was found dead’ she recalls sadly, ‘he was constantly in and out of work. I was disappointed he couldn’t provide more for the family, but I loved him and he did his best.’

Soon after her husband’s death, Olga’s father died of ill-health and a year later, her mother and brother were killed in a house fire. Distressed, and forced to care for three young children alone, Olga found it difficult to cope and found comfort in alcohol. Before long, she too was drinking heavily, and the toxic cycle of dependency and struggle were happening again.

Cherboyl 25th anniversary
Happy now: Olga and her daughter Vika

But today, Olga is no longer an alcoholic. She has a steady job as a cleaner, and although money is tight, her family is happy, ‘I’m much better now’ she says. Olga attributes the big change in her life to the support she has been receiving from the SOS Family Strengthening Programme (FSP) which has been helping her since 2007.

The support the family are given helps them with every aspect of family life. 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 Olga attends weekly parenting classes.

But Olga says that what has helped her most, is her relationship with her FSP ‘mentor’, Vanda Manjko. Vanda, a trained Psychologist is in regular contact with the Olga and has gotten to know the children well. She makes sure Olga knows about the latest classes and activities happening at the SOS Mother and Child Social Centre, and is on the end of the telephone whenever Olga wants to talk, ‘I can call Vanda anytime and I know she will help and support me’ says Olga. Vanda is clearly proud of Olga’s achievements: ‘so many families face problems like Olga’s. She is a positive example of what can be achieved with a bit of support.’

The children are also flourishing. They attend school and enjoy the extra curricular activities organised by the SOS Social Centre – trips to museums and themes parks. Fifteen-year-old Lesha enjoys playing football and always makes sure he gets to his soccer practice on time. ‘Lesher has nearly finished school and would like to be a mechanic’ Olga pronounces proudly.

Olga’s family is one of 54 that have received support from the Family Strengthening Programme since 2004, many of whom struggle with alcohol addictions and unemployment. Alcohol rates in Belarus are extremely high and according to official statistics, it is the main cause of early deaths in adults. Lilya Shestakova, Leader of the SOS Mother and Child Social Center says that practical support can help, but its only half of the battle: ‘we can help families’ she says, ‘but they must be determined to change their situation.’

This was no problem for Olga. Her steely resolve to not let history repeat itself combined with a holistic approach from SOS Children proved to be a winning formula: ‘SOS Children has made a huge difference to my life. I never want to lose their support. Some of my colleagues and friends go drinking now; but I prefer to go to the SOS Social Centre to learn’ she says.

Olga still has to work hard to make ends meet, but with help from SOS, she says can now look to the future, rather than looking back. She is saving up to move into somewhere bigger and says cautiously: ‘I won’t get too excited until it actually happens, but for now I have hope.’ And as we prepare to leave, Olga proudly hands us a certificate which names her ‘Super Mum’ by the Family Strengthening Team – an award she absolutely deserves.

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