To mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Burren Chernobyl Project is holding a fundraising walk in Ennistymon next Sunday (April 24, 2016). Nicola Corless spoke to Brother Liam O’Meara, director of the project, about the organisation’s work and his full-time involvement with it for the past 15 years.
Brother Liam is a Limerick man, reared on the border with Tipperary close to Galbally. He studied primary teaching at Mary Immaculate College and taught for four years in Limerick before becoming a Christian Brother in 1981 and working in schools in Cork. He moved to Ennistymon in 1986, the same year as the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
Liam taught happily in the three-teacher CBS primary school in the North Clare town until 1999, when he dedicated himself fully to working with the Burren Chernobyl Project.
The organisation was founded in 1993, with projects kicking off the following year. It was then Liam became involved. What made the BCP different to other programmes working in Belarus was that it was bringing children to Ireland for six months at a time.
“The group was formed by Brian Mooney and John Morgan and a few others. They wanted to bring in some children and they wanted to put them in a school. So they asked would we take one in our school, so we took one child and that was the start of it,” Liam recalled.
“Some time after that Brian Mooney arrived at my door and said we are going to Belarus, will you come. I said if I was able to get a week off school I would be able to do it. I wasn’t totally and utterly convinced this was something I should do but it was just a chance that arrived at the door so I thought why not go, let’s have a look at this place and see what it is about but if I hadn’t been asked I wouldn’t have decided to go,” he continued.
Liam secured five days off from the Department of Education and went on the trip where he visited what was called an orphanage but which he says was more akin to a boarding school for children aged four to 16.
“My first impressions was that it was like going back in time. Nobody had a whole lot. The countryside was very much countryside. Villages were very much old-style like you would see in photographs, old Russian villages. There wasn’t a whole lot of modernity in the place. It was very flat. There just wasn’t money and you wouldn’t know where to get petrol and you wouldn’t know where to stop on the way to eat. There were no restaurants. If you stopped for something to eat, you brought it with you in a bag and stopped and took it out. If locals offered you something to eat, it was mainly salo, so, fat bacon, maybe with some cucumbers or that kind of stuff,” he outlined.
The early days involved extensive fundraising and most people involved became the committee. “Children came over, some stayed with me in the monastery,” a fact Liam looks back on now with disbelief.
“We happened to have the space, so some of the kids came here and the monastery became a meeting place for committees and people coming and going. I was still teaching at school and minding children at the monastery and coping with the Brothers’ reaction to it. There were about three or four of them there at the time and not young. Nobody complained. They were very good and very welcoming and very open to it all. As things progressed, you could have 30 or 40 people coming to the monastery because, in later years, when we brought the special needs children, we would have all sorts of people coming and going, cooking for them, feeding them and so on,” he said.
The first groups stayed six months and after that, the children would stay two to four weeks at a time. Then, in 1996, Liam decided to take a year out from teaching in Ennistymon and spent it in a good school in Belarus. Because the people he had been in touch with regarding the position did not believe anyone was really coming, when Liam landed in -19c temperatures, there was no one there to meet him and he spoke no Russian.
“Bit by bit, because I was teaching English, I survived. You learn a bit as you go. It is very interesting to go to a place where you don’t speak any of the language. I was very cold and very hungry. They didn’t have heat on in the house but luckily someone had given me an electric blanket, so I survived. Food wasn’t so plentiful either and I remember visitors came from here and brought Mars bars and a mouse ate a bit of one so I threw it away but a few days later I went after it again and cut the mousey bit off it and had it. It was funny but it needn’t have been, with a bit of cop on I could have done better,” he laughed.
The nearest thing we would have seen to it would have been a concentration camp…the shaved heads, the hunger, the dirt, the smells. The smells, more than anything
Before he went, a family in Clare had asked Liam to visit a child they hosted as part of the project previously. It was this that led to a coincidence which has changed the course of Liam’s life and those of the children of Cherven.
“I was in Gomel in the south-east and somebody put me on a bus and told the driver to tell me when to get off and told the people on the bus to make sure I got off. A woman met me with a bunch of flowers and took me to her house. I still didn’t know any Russian but the phone rang in her house and it was a lady from Minsk looking for Liam and I thought, how does she know where I am? I didn’t even know where I was!”
“Maria Mitskavich was looking for Liam, another Liam, a lorry driver. She had got on to Gomel and people there knew that this Liam had gone off on a bus and where he had gone and got the phone number for me. She spoke English and I said, ‘look when I get back to Minsk we will meet and have a chat’,” he recalled.
Liam spent five months teaching and was on his way home on May 21, 1997 when he returned to Minsk to meet Maria, who had her own charity helping children after the Chernobyl disaster.
“I had planned on being there from September to May, the school year but there were problems getting visas and documents so it was January when I eventually got there. I met Maria and told her I had done my bit and was going home and back to normality. She said, ‘maybe you can come out to this orphanage with me, maybe you can do something to help them’. I said fine, it was my last day. They had a car and they brought me. They brought me to Cherven and that changed everything,” he said.
Since 1997, Burren Chernobyl Project has spent in the region of half a million euros on renovating and rebuilding the orphanage in Cherven.
“If the lorry driver had not been called Liam, it would all have been different. I would be playing golf in Lahinch, badly,” he joked.
Remembering his first visit, Liam is still struck by it. “It was so awful. It was just so awful.
“The nearest thing we would have seen to it would have been a concentration camp…the shaved heads, the hunger, the dirt, the smells. The smells, more than anything. I remember telling people that you would take a deep breath outside the door and hope you wouldn’t have to breathe again until you came back out. There were 13 different groups and we visited them all and I thought the only thing I can do is go back and tell people about it, so I did,” he explained.
“I could have missed it. A lot of people could go to Minsk and the ballet and the fine shops and they would never know what is 40 minutes out the road. Probably a lot of people in Minsk didn’t know what it was like; I had never been in Our Lady’s in Ennis or any of our own places,” he continued.
“It was a privilege and an honour in one sense and a great time to go because no matter what you did, it was a help. A bar of soap was going to help so it was easy have an effect, so it was a great time to be there in that sense. I came home and I didn’t sleep for a month with the images of that place and I began to tell people,” he added.
In 1998, Liam returned to Belarus and began bringing children from Cherven to Ireland for holidays and arranging for groups to volunteer at the orphanage. He got more involved, eventually becoming director. Thanks to fundraising, the Burren Chernobyl Project was able to drastically improve the facility at Cherven supplying mattresses, clothes, shoes, toys, arts and crafts materials and installing toilets and showers. They also improved the kitchen facilities and replaced flooring.
“You had to begin with hygiene. It is hard to think of how bad it was….you had to begin at a basic level. Later we got teachers and were able to bring in a doctor but you had to start at a very basic level,” he said.
Shannon Parish contacted Burren Chernobyl Project looking for an orphanage to support as their Millennium Project. It was then that work began in Gorodishche.
Liam described it as “just as bad, maybe worse” than Cherven. It was home to more than 200 children and young people living with the health-effects of radiation exposure.
“In Gorodishche, there were some horrible rooms…the dirt and the smells and the children’s bodies were so twisted and turned, you could not imagine it,” he recalled.
You had to begin with hygiene. It is hard to think of how bad it was….you had to begin at a basic level.
The Christian Brother found his first visit to the Gorodishche facility a challenge to his religious faith.
“I remember the first time I went in, I said to myself ‘if I had a tablet I would give them all a tablet, let them go, why would you want to live like that?’…I thought if that was me I wouldn’t want to live in that situation. I wouldn’t and I wouldn’t want anyone else to. That was kind of the reaction. When you find yourself thinking that, you begin to wonder ‘do I really feel that way? Is it true? Is it a fact? Or is it just a reaction to the smells and the conditions?’
“You say, ‘come on God if you are there what are you on about? What is this all about? What has this to do with anything?’,” he reflected, adding that the questions raised by the experience are not easily answered.
“The only thing is that when you see, over the next 15 or so years, the amount of goodness and kindness and love that those children have brought out of us, it is amazing,” he continued.
In 2000 alone, the people of Shannon raised more than €200,000 for Gorodishche. Each year since then, volunteers from the parish have travelled to the orphanage to spend time with the children and, through interaction and activities, help improve their quality of life.
“They bring us together. There is this broken child in a bed, there is you speaking only Russian, there is me only speaking English but because of this child. we are going to communicate. The child is bringing us together. It is a horrendous price for the child to pay but the only way you can look at it is by seeing the goodness,” Liam outlined.
“The goodness of the Irish volunteers going out, the people out there found it hard to understand because they initially presumed we were being paid to go and work with the children. When you explain no, they are paying their own way, this is their holidays, they could be in Ibiza or wherever and they are instead in the worst group in Gorodishche, having the time of their lives working with children that nobody wants.
“I don’t know how to describe it but it is amazing and you meet amazing people and amazing children. The children are so good together. If one of the children had a birthday and we had a cake for the child and some of their friends were around, the lovely things they would say to each other; ‘I hope that you will be better., ‘I hope the doctor finds a cure for you’, ‘I hope your mother will turn up or your father.’ They say lovely things to each other and there is no problem being broken, in some sense,” he said.
There are so many people that you say should be in families, could be in families, that shouldn’t be there at all.
The children range from having severe intellectual and physical disabilities, to epilepsy, to mild learning difficulties, to Down’s syndrome.
“There are so many people that you say should be in families, could be in families, that shouldn’t be there at all,” he said.
After a few years working in Cherven and Gorodishche, Burren Chernobyl Project began to extend its focus as the children they encountered grew older and were moved to adult facilities. The organisation started new projects renovating the institutions which house people from 16 years up to 90.
“The adult places are like collective farms in that the people have jobs. Some work on the farm, others would work in the store rooms but it depends on the director. In other places, you go in and people stand with their back to the walls and you know it is a stricter regime,” Liam explained.
“They are improving and we are trying to bring in activities and workshops but it is the long winter from October to April, how to keep people sane, that is a big challenge and there is nobody coming in to visit and it is all the same people,” he added.
Liam gave up teaching in Ireland at the turn of the century, a decision he is glad he made but one which remains tinged with sadness.
“I would be teaching in school and then, at 3pm, I’d start another day in a different world and do another day’s work until 11 or 12 at night, trying to get things done. I thought it wasn’t fair to the kids in school that I wasn’t giving them my best and that these kids out in Belarus needed me more. It was sad because I had a lovely class coming on and I really wanted to teach them but I never got the chance. I was looking forward to it,” he recalled.
I wasn’t qualified for it and when I look back on it, I wasn’t able for it but I just did it. I’m glad this is what I fell into.
Liam does not regret his choices to date but acknowledged that he has “sorrows”.
“There were children who died when nobody was with them. There was one lad Sasha who was a good friend of mine in Gorodishche. He was very broken, very twisted and he was in a small little bed. He was a nice fellow and, lying flat, I would feed him. When we went there first things were so bad, we washed the kids and there was quite a lot of grime on their skin and on their back and their nails were growing into their feet. He was one of Group 3 in Gorodishche and we cleaned him and washed him and, over the years, we became friends. I would go and visit him and one time I went back, I opened the door and walked in and he was dead in a box in front of me,” he revealed.
“I could have gone down a week earlier but I didn’t because I had a cold or a ’flu or something. Irena, the interpreter, told me that Sasha had asked where I was and she told him, ‘oh Liam is sick’ and he said ‘I’m never sick’ and he was the kid in the bed! That would be a huge regret that I didn’t get there before that. It is things like that, that I regret,” he added.
“I regret that we couldn’t do more, that we didn’t do more but at the same time I’m older and worn from it, it hasn’t been easy. I read back on my book and I cried my eyes out. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to do all that. I balled at how hard it was, how hard it was physically and I wasn’t qualified for it and when I look back on it, I wasn’t able for it but I just did it. I’m glad this is what I fell into,” he continued.
Liam splits his time between Belarus and Ennistymon and organises groups of volunteers from May to October.
“Being a Christian Brother gave me the mobility to go. I didn’t have a mortgage hanging off me. I didn’t have kids at home. I didn’t have a wife. It gave me the mobility that a few people said to me they would love to go like I can go but they just can’t get the time off or can’t because of other things. Being a Christian Brother enabled me to go but then I live out of a suitcase there for three months and then I come back,” he said.
Liam admitted the life he has chosen can be a lonely one.
“I come back here and I’m not really part of it because I’m gone so much. People have grown up. People have died and I didn’t know about it. People have moved on and when you are teaching in school, everybody knows you but three or four years later, nobody knows you because the kids have all grown up and gone. I go out there and I’m Liam who comes with the aid, that’s it. My life revolves around that and I do the work during the day and in the evenings I sit down and I count money and divide by 22,400 because that is what the ruble is to the euro. I do the documents and there isn’t a private life or a personal life or a social life because things are so busy. Then you end up kind of detached in the two places but you keep going because it is important and it needs to be done,” he said.
For them it is their first time going into a room of 30 broken bodied children and it is a bit of a shock.
According to Liam, there is little cultural understanding of his vocation in Belarus.
“They say ‘he’s a monk’ and people say ‘why?’. Then there are others who might come up to me and say someone is sick, ‘would you pray for them because you believe’. They have no sense of God and I think they don’t really believe I am a monk. I did an interview with a newspaper out there and what they wrote is, ‘Liam thinks he is a monk’, as though they didn’t believe it,” he said.
Liam’s role in Burren Chernobyl Project has changed immeasurably since he took it on and the work of the group has evolved in that time too. They no longer bring children from Belarus to Ireland but instead bring hundreds of volunteers, including students, men’s sheds, families and individuals, to them.
“Most volunteers would go to Gorodishche. They work with the children and play with them and take them for days out and on tours and organise games and play football with them and give them bread and jam afterwards. It is nothing terribly difficult. Some go to Cherven but not as many. When people go one year, they come back the next and bring friends or family and they like to go to the same place. We have builders going out too from different parts of the country to different projects in Belarus,” he outlined.
“It has grown much bigger than any of us ever imagined. It is amazing when you think of people going out for the first time and they think ‘look at the state of the place, it is awful’. Not too many of course, but for them it is their first time going into a room of 30 broken bodied children and it is a bit of a shock,” he explained.
Funds for Burren Chernobyl Project come from a variety of sources, including church gate collections, volunteer contributions, Pat Conway’s annual swim from Lahinch to Liscannor and now the sponsored walk.
“Nobody gets paid. The money comes in and is spent on the adults or the kids or on building the houses or whatever,” Liam outlined.
The Burren Chernobyl Project sponsored walk or run takes place on April 24, 2016.
Meet at 11am at the Monastery, Ennistymon.
Donations can be made by visiting the Burren Chernobyl Project website.