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Every year, more then 200 children from the area around Chernobyl receive treatment for radiation damage at the SOS Social Centre, with priority given to children from very poor or single-parent families … more about our charity work in Belarus

Chernobyl 25th anniversary: Lesha's story

Lesha is having treatment for leukaemia
Lesha is having treatment for leukaemia

Lesha, 23, was diagnosed with leukaemia in January 2011. Since February, he has been receiving treatment from the Centre of Child Oncology and Haematology in Borovljany. He is currently staying at the nearby Mother and Child Social Centre whilst he undergoes treatment which was established in 1996 to help families affected by the Chernobyl Disaster.

The Chernobyl disaster

Twenty-five years ago on April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Soviet nuclear power plant in Chernobyl (sited in modern-day Ukraine) exploded, after an electrical test went terribly wrong. The radioactive material released polluted 80,000 square miles of land across Europe. It is estimated that that 70% of the radioactive fallout fell on the Belarus, affecting more than 2.2 million people, including 500,000 children. One fifth of the country's agricultural land was contaminated. Because of its disastrous impact, the first SOS Children’s Village was built just outside the capital of Minsk in 1996.

The SOS Mother and Child Social Centre

There is still some debate surrounding the long-term affects of the disaster. Its still not known how many people have died as a result - estimates vary greatly; the World Health Organisation suggest it could be 4,000 while a Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. However, many people in Belarus still suffer from radioactive contamination which has caused illness as well as the psychological affects of the disaster.

Chernobyl disaster: SOS Helath Centre
Some of the children who are also staying at the SOS Health Centre in Borovljany

Due to high levels of radiation, SOS Children set up the SOS Mother and Child Social Centre in the small town of Borovjlany, just outside Minsk in 1996, which offers accommodation to children and their families who are undergoing cancer treatment at the nearby Centre of Child Oncology and Haematology. Each year, 250 children families stay at the Social Centre in self-catering accommodation free of charge.This vital service allows children to stay in comfort with a member of family whilst they undergo gruelling treatment.

It is not uncommon for the Social Centre to support different generations of the same family battling illnesses.  Patients cannot prove that their illness is caused by the disaster, but many are coming from regions highly affected by the radioactive fallout and they believe this is the cause.

Lesha's story

Lesha, 23, from the eastern region of Mogilev, one of the worst affected regions, says that being able to stay with his mother at the SOS Centre is an important part of his treatment: ‘After my therapy I feel really unwell so it’s important I have my mother’s emotional and physical support. It would be difficult if I was on my own.’

As well as free accommodation, families are offered psychological support, education support for children who are not able to attend school, financial help as well as a range of activities for the children such as trips to museums, theme-parks and theatres. Lesha says ‘It’s vital I stay well during my therapy, otherwise it will have to stop. Here, I can stay with my mother for free. We can use the facilities and my mother can cook for me in the evenings.’

Chernobyl anniversary: Social Centre
The SOS Health Centre where Lesha is staying

On average, children receive five to six months of treatment at the hospital but children will acute leukaemia can stay in the SOS Centre for up to a year. Doctors at the nearby Centre of Child Oncology and Haematology in Borovljany, who treat around 500 patients each year from all over Belarus, welcome the extra support SOS Children can offer patients. Dr. Petina, Head of Day-Care, says that ‘We would like to see more SOS homes where patients can stay with their families – it is beneficial for them and would enable us to see even more patients.' Dr, Petina says that the benefits of the SOS Social Centre homes are two-fold. Firstly, that patients can stay within a family environment which supports their recovery; and secondly, that they can avoid in-hospital diseases such as MRSA.

Support when patients return home

Preparing families for a healthy lifestyle when they return home is also an important part of the services offered. Lilya Shestakova, Leader of the SOS Mother and Child Social Centre says ‘Families are taught how to cook and prepare healthy meals so that when they return home, they can continue to maximise the effects of the treatment.’
In the evenings, Lesha, who works as a factory welder, tries to keep life as normal as possible. He plays games on his computer, makes telephone calls back homes and spends time with other children who have also come to stay in the house. He says that when he was diagnosed, it was a shock but he’s doing his best to be strong: ‘I didn’t really know what leukaemia even was. But I decided that the most important thing was not to cry but to do something about it.’ He has been signed off work for a year but hopes to return. He knows he faces a long battle with the disease but is grateful he can stay in the SOS Centre which, by relieving some of his stress, will hopefully quicken his recovery.

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