25 years on - Chernobyl refugees remembered

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It’s 25 years since Bedfordshire Scouts in Leighton took part in a humanitarian aid programme for 160 children flown to the UK from Kiev for a three-week holiday.

They were all from Chernobyl and its surrounds, a town that had been devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident in April, 1986.

Scout leader Catherine Roots was behind a scheme to offer 10 of these youngsters hospitality with five Scout families in the town.

She recalled: “We’d organised everyting from a time-
table of outings to money, food, clothing and equipment.

“But information about our visitors was scant. We were told they were orphans and they were from one-parent families; that they were aged between 12 and 16 and were suffering from the fearful effects of over-exposure to radiation.

“Perhaps everyone was expecting the worst, but when they arrived, the boys looked fitter and healthier than anyone imagined, even if many of them were subdued and looked decidely lost.”

One member of the party was certainly happy to be there; interpreter and English teacher Vladimir who had been dreaming of coming to England for more than two decades. Their arrival was the start of a wonderful three-week holiday which laid the foundation for some lasting friendships.

The initial meeting between host families and guests took place at Trinity Methodist Church where a mountain of Tom and Jerry cartoons proved that laughter knows no barriers of race or language.

The programme got under way the next day with a visit to Boss Trucks, where the children were presented with gift packs, shown the skid track and gave the go-karts a good workout.

Catherine said: “That was the first of many outings. In fact by the end of their all-too-short stay, the boys – and Vladimir – had enjoyed everything from fire fighting to fish and chips, archery to abseiling, cycling to sight-seeing – not to mention gliding, bowling, climbing, canoeing, camping and a canal trip.”

The first weekend highlight was a birthday barbecue for Catherine which turned into a double celebration as a young boy called Vitaly 
confided it was his birthday too.

Catherine remembered the sun shining, the sausages sizzling and the youngsters beginning to mingle and play together as only children can, in spite of the language difference.

A full programme of events followed when the boys went to London, took to the saddle with 50 others for a bike ride round Milton Keynes, and enjoyed a demonstration, in the pouring rain, of Leighton Fire Brigade’s fire-fighting equipment.

They were then totally bemused and bewildered by Scout antics during a four-day stay at Buzzards Scout HQ in Grovebury Road.

They also spent six action-packed days at Bromham camp site, which culminated with a visit to Great Barford where boys and host families got stuck into climbing, abseiling, rafting and canoeing.

During the second week they toured the BBC TV Centre, Kempston Police HQ and RAF Chicksands.

Catherine said: “By this time the boys were certainly sleeping well, often in the coach on the way home.

“They smiled much more than when they arrived and formed close attachments as not all of them knew each other before the holiday.”

There were many more exciting outings, including a visit to Brighton, an invitation to the London Gliding Club and Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, as well as a civic reception at South Beds District Council in Dunstable.

Even on their last day, the presents kept coming, the final gifts fittingly presented to the the boys and Vladimir by Leighton Lions Club at the Market Cross.

That evening everyone got together for a final farewell party where Vladimir made a moving thank-you speech and concluded: “We hope that our friendship will continue, not only now but always.”

Catherine said: “At Heathrow it was easy to see how much the boys had enjoyed their stay in Bedfordshire, and the affection between grinning guests and the five host families who had welcomed them into their homes.

“There was no need for words – it was clear that strong links had been forged between English and Ukrainians of all ages.”

By the time ‘dasvedanya’ – departure – drew near, emotions were running high and tears were shed on both sides of the barrier as Vladimir and the boys disappeared into the departure lounge to clear customs and wait for their Aeroflot flight back to Kiev.

At the beginning of the project, Catherine had said: “The challenge is that they will go away with smiles on their faces and laughter in their eyes, knowing that 
however far away they are, there are people who care for them.”

She and everyone involved in the project can rest easy, knowing they met that challenge wholeheartedly.