SPECIAL ARRIVAL ?Igor Shatikov arriving at Dublin Airport to spend Christmas with Marie Cox and her family in Castlebar.?Pic: Brian McEvoy
From Belarus with love
Fourteen-year-old Igor Shatikov is a confident, talkative, loving and playful boy. Like everyone, he looks forward eagerly to Christmas. But perhaps with more reason than most.
Igor, who has intellectual and physical disabilities, lives in the state-run Children’s Mental Asylum in Belarus, along with 174 other children. Life there is pretty bleak. However, for the last seven years, Igor has spent every Christmas and a month in the summer with his Irish family, Marie and Dermot Cox and their four sons in Snugboro, Castlebar. These priceless tastes of family life come thanks to Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International (CCI),
Since the charity’s foundation, over 24,700 children from Belarus – the country most affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster – have come to Ireland with CCI for life-prolonging holidays.
Marie and Dermot first began hosting children in 2000, but when Igor came along, his case was extra special. “He came out originally because he had a pressure sore on his ankle, and so it was kind of a medical emergency,” explains Marie.
Marie, who is a nurse, had been on a visit to Belarus with CCI when she realised that Igor’s situation was critical. “I knew I had to get him out or he was going to lose his leg,” she said. Luckily, they managed to bring him to Castlebar, where his foot and leg were saved, thanks to paediatrician Gay Fox and orthopaedic surgeon Paul O’Grady.
Igor has been returning to the Cox family ever since. “Igor just settled in so well with us that we started bringing him back to us every year,” Marie recalls. “He’s part of the family now.”
Back in Belarus, Igor’s physical and intellectual development receives scant attention. “I don’t think he has ever been assessed properly,” says Marie. “He’s definitely microcephalic, where the head is small for the body. His language skills they say [in Belarus] are very, very poor – but yet, here, he understands everything we say, and he can let us know what he wants as well.”
Marie explains that he has picked up a lot of English, from her own family and from the Irish volunteers who regularly visit the orphanage. “If I say it’s time for bed, he’ll say ‘No, no, no Mama, I’m fine!’ or ‘Five minutes!’. Other times it’s ‘I’ll have num num now’, ‘We’ll go in the car’ or ‘I want to go for a bath’ – he’d have all those words,” Marie says, her voice filled with pride. “He really can communicate very well with us. But to what level his skills are developed, it’s hard to know. The Belarusians would say they’re not great, but to me he’s really come on.”
Marie and her family look forward to Igor’s visits as much as he does. “Just to see his face when he arrives at the airport … seeing him talking to one of my sons with such a big smile on his face – I mean, that’s worth its weight in gold.”
And from the moment he lands, the hijinks start. Igor is no shrinking violet – he’s a real chatterbox with boundless energy, and he loves ‘having the craic’. “It’s just fun all the time with him! It’s constant, from the time he gets up in the morning ’til he goes to bed at night, he never stops talking!” Marie laughs.
Is it very difficult when the time comes to send him back to Belarus? “It can be,” she says. “Over the last few years he’s started to realise more what’s here and what he’s going back to. That has made it very difficult. Over the last few days now he’s realised he’s going home soon, and he’s saying ‘No Mama, I stay’. The hardest part is letting them go back.”
To try to make the goodbyes easier, Marie reminds Igor that she’ll see him soon again, as she works part-time for CCI and visits Belarus a few times a year. “But Igor’s very attached to my husband and the boys,” Marie sighs. “It’s just the freedom he has here too – he’s not in an institution, he has his music, his machines and bits he can play with, he has the run of the house – it’s not institutionalised. In an institution you get up at a certain time, you have to eat your breakfast whether you want to or not. Everything is regimented.
“It’s also the fact that he’s part of a family here… because he’s not part of a family over there. Now some of the staff would be very good to the kids, but it’s still an institution no matter what way you try and dress it up.
“Once I went out to Belarus that was it. I just couldn’t walk away from the children there. They just take a part of your heart. You leave it there with them every time.”
Happily, more and more of the children at Igor’s institution and others like it are getting to visit Ireland. “Volunteers go over every year, and somebody always falls in love with some child,” Marie explains.
Igor was one of 30 children from Belarus who spent Christmas with an Irish family this year. He flew back yesterday, with new memories of family life and fun to sustain him, and Marie’s reassuring words, ‘I’ll see you very soon’, to keep him warm.
For more information on Chernobyl Children Interntational, or to make a donation, visit www.chernobyl-international.com or call 021 4558774.