It’s a cool, overcast July afternoon and my three children and I are in the parking lot of the local mall, waiting for an eight-year-old boy from Belarus to arrive from the airport. His name is Yauheni (pronounced Ugenny) and he is coming from a little village called Svaryn that sits just north of the Ukranian border. Yauheni, who speaks no English, will live for seven weeks in our home in Oakville , Ont., as part of a respite-care program called Belarus Children of Chernobyl (BCC). I’m worried about the language barrier—we speak no Russian—but I’ve been assured that Yauheni will be able to pick up English quickly.
As soon as I read an article about BCC, I wanted to host a child and help him or her get the health care that isn’t available at home. My husband, Steve, and I also wanted our kids—Amanda, 10, Bethany , 8, and Ian, 4– to see that all children don’t have the same opportunities they have, and to reach out and help others. Luckily, our kids were enthusiastic about the idea, so we volunteered and underwent the required criminal check by the RCMP. Steve’s Rotary Club provided the $2,000 for Yauheni’s travel costs.
After a home visit by BCC board members, we were matched with Yauheni. Only needy children are chosen, and Yauheni certainly qualifies. His father chops wood for a living; his mother does factory work when she can find it. They live with Yauheni and his two sisters in a one-room wooden house with no central heating and keep horses, pigs and chickens. Life is tough in their rural village, where most houses still don’t have electricity. And the lingering fallout from the Chernobyl disaster still damages the health of the Belarus people and its economy.
Shepherded by a translator, Yuliya Lobach, a group of kids finally arrives. Yauheni is small. His dark blond hair is cut severely and he’s wearing an old green sweater, black dress pants and black shoes. His mother dressed him with care. He has no luggage, just two plastic bags. I watch him glance nervously up at Yuliya and feel sad that such a small child has to travel so far without his family. On the drive home, he looks, wide-eyed, out the window.
Once we’re home, Yauheni smiles, pats our two dogs, then walks slowly around our kitchen/family room, examining everything. Ian shows him some toys, but Yauheni is fascinated with the dogs. As I make dinner, Amanda turns on the TV. Instantly, Yauheni is mesmorized by Scooby Doo. He hardly touches his burger, but eats one potato chip after another, his eyes locked on the screen. When Steve arrives home, Yauheni shakes his hand, awed and smiling shyly. We had been told that Belarus children revere their host fathers, and it’s true.
Yauheni sits down happily on the extra bed in Ian’s room, where he will sleep. He proudly hands me the bags he brought. One holds two bottles of pop; the other holds a gift for me—chocolate and a small white tablecloth. This gift asks me to keep him safe.
Ian, who is too young for modesty, demonstrates how to use the toilet. I bathe Ian while Yauheni watches. Then, Yauheni, in a bathing suit donated by one of my friends, sits down in the warm water, looks up at me and smiles.
I’m sitting in the backyard reading, while Yauheni and the girls play badminton. I look up when I hear peals of laughter. Yauheni is strumming the racquet like a guitar and dancing around the yard. The girls are laughing hysterically. “Mom, Yauheni’s a riot,” says Ian. I’m thankful the kids are getting along so well.
“Mom, tell Yauheni to get out of my room,” yells Amanda. I head upstairs. Amanda is sitting on her bed and Yauheni is playing on the floor. “He just barged in without knocking,” she says.
I shut the door and knock. “Knock on door,” I say to Yauheni, who smiles and nods. Mission accomplished, think, and head back downstairs.
“Mom, I need you,” Bethany yells five minutes later. I head back up.
Yauheni is knocking on Bethany ’s door, opening it, saying “Hello,” then closing it and knocking, again and again. Clearly something was lost in translation.
“Mommy, look!” Yauheni pulls at my arm and points up to a balloon (he started calling us Daddy and Mommy about a week after he arrived). We’re at an outdoor street festival and Yauheni, who has never seen a balloon, is entranced by the strays floating silently up into the sky. Steve buys Yauheni his first Canadian toy–a Lego robot. “Thank you, daddy,” says Yauheni, his eyes shining. Back home, he carefully places it under his pillow.
I’m sitting in our dentist’s office holding Yauheni’s hand while four of his 12 decaying teeth are removed. Most aren’t baby teeth, so he’ll have to live with holes in his mouth. This is our third appointment. Yuliya came with us the first time to explain things to Yauheni, but, coming from a place where dental care is infrequent, antiquated and done without anaesthesia, he is frightened. His eyes water, but he holds back his tears. As the drill hums, his body starts trembling. “It’s going to be OK. This is going to help you,” I say. I don’t know if he understands and I feel helpless. He is so small and vulnerable.
The dentist—who, along with our doctor, optometrist and hearing specialist, donated his services– shakes his head in discouragement. “The roots are so long in one tooth, I’m having trouble getting them out,” he says. His assistant hands him a large silver tool that looks like something from my husband’s workshop. Shaking and grabbing my hand Yauheni fights off tears but whimpers softly. He’s ashamed to cry, but I feel my tears pushing through. No child should have to be so strong.
We go home, Yauheni’s mouth is so swollen it looks like a tennis ball. “What happened to Yauheni?” asks Bethany . I explain about no fluoride, no dental care and his rotten teeth. “I feel bad for him. I won’t complain about brushing my teeth anymore,” she says.
“Come on, Yauheni, it’s time to go to dinner,” I say. With our children in French immersion, we love going to Quebec and thought a trip to Quebec City would be fun for Yauheni. But he’s angry and sullen. At first he even refused to come into the hotel room and walked away down the hall, ignoring us.
“Ahhhh, me no eat,” he says, reluctantly turning off the TV. It’s amazing how quickly he has been gripped by television and computer games. I had been considering buying video games for our kids, but Yauheni’s obsession is discouraging.
As we look for a restaurant, Yauheni lags behind, head down and sullen.
Bethany likes to be in charge. “You’re going to lose us,” she says, but he pretends he doesn’t hear. “He’s so ungrateful,” she mutters.
“I’ve decided not to be so stubborn anymore,” says Amanda. “I see how it looks and I don’t like it.”
I wish I could get inside Yauheni’s head and understand why he’s so angry. Maybe he’s homesick. Quebec City must look as different as life on Mars.
“Mommy, I hurt my finger!” cries Ian as the kids play in the park near our hotel.
I see a splinter in Ian’s finger, but he won’t let me touch it. Yauheni comes over to see what’s wrong, then reaches down to his own foot, pulls off a Band-Aid and puts it over the splinter. Ian calms down immediately. “Ian my brother,” says Yauheni.
My heart melts and Amanda and Bethany look on, open-mouthed. “I can’t believe Yauheni did that,” says Bethany . “That was really nice,” agrees Amanda.
In the fort at Quebec City , Yauheni points to a rifle and pretends to shoot. “Me, Yauheni, phoom, phoom. Me big, me papa,” he says, pointing at a military outfit on display.
“When Yauheni is 18, he’ll go into the army like his father,” Steve explains to our kids.
“Will he get hurt?” asks Amanda. She’s softening, more tolerant now.
“I don’t want him to go into the army,” pipes up Bethany . “Can’t he live with us?”
Yuliya visits us in Oakville the second week of August. We’ve asked her to help us find out why Yauheni is so sulky. I worry that he may feel like an outsider. I wonder if he is angry with one of my kids. He understands quite a bit of English now but still gets mad suddenly, then ignores us. In her midtwenties, Yuliya is a professor of English literature at Minsk University. With no kids of her own and a decent salary, she is able to volunteer with BCC for the summer.
Together we watch Yauheni and Bethany on the swings in a nearby park. Yauheni jumps and lands on both feet.
“Mom, a girl broke her arm jumping off this swing,” says Bethany .
“Yauheni, don’t jump off the swing,” I say. He gets back on, swings high and then jumps again.
“Don’t jump, Yauheni. You could hurt yourself,” says Bethany . Yauheni walks off with a scowl on his face.
Yuliya spends a few minutes with Yauheni, but he won’t really talk to her. She decides to call his parents and ask why he acts this way. Fortunately they are among the few people in the village with a phone. After a few minutes of rapid-fire Russian, Yuliya hands the phone to Yauheni.
“His father told me to hit him if he doesn’t do what you want,” she turns and says to me.
This reminds me of one night at dinner when Ian was misbehaving and Yauheni said: “My papa…,” then grabbed his own ears and yanked hard. “Me bad.”
He hangs up, then comes to me in tears and hugs me tightly. This is the first time he has cried. I feel like we’ve broken down a huge barrier. “Yauheni tells me he’s upset that he makes you unhappy,” says Yuliya. “He is going to behave better.”
“Mom, I want to play with Yauheni’s Spiderman toy,” cries Ian. I’ve bought each of them a toy, but Ian wants whatever Yauheni has. By the time I reach Ian’s room, he is playing with Yauheni’s Spiderman.
“Yauheni gave Ian his toy,” says Amanda. “He hardly has any toys but he gives away what he has.”
As I gather used warm clothes to send back to Yauheni’s family, I think about how carelessly we buy and discard things. I suggest to the girls that we forgo back-to-school shopping for clothes this year, and just buy supplies. They agree, and tell me they don’t want much for their birthdays or Christmas, either.
“Do you wish you could stay in Canada ?” asks Bethany . She now thinks of Yauheni as an equal, a brother. “Yes, yes, me love Canada ,” Yauheni says looking like a true Canadian with his Toronto Maple Leafs baseball cap and hockey jersey.
“Me come back next year,” says Yauheni before he boards the bus to the airport. He has more hair on his head and colour in his face than when he arrived, but he seems sad and lethargic. He has missed his parents, he tells Yuliya, but loves being here. I hand him his new backpack filled with toys, a photo album of the summer, and a letter for his parents, translated by Yuliya.
“We’ll try to have you next summer,” I say, afraid to promise. Chernobyl children can come every year until they’re 18. Then, if they can pass an English literacy exam, they can go to university in Minsk for free. This is my dream for Yauheni.
I’ve been trying to stay strong, not to get too attached. But seeing the way Yauheni has changed our family is weakening me. Tears run down Ian’s chubby cheeks. “I don’t want Yauheni to go,” he says. (When my son found out there are no toy stores in Svaryn, he tucked some of his own toys into Yauhen’s backpack.)
“Neither do I,” says Amanda. She has matured this summer and is able to put someone else’s needs before her own. At first, Yauheni drove her crazy, begging her to show him how to use the computer.
I reminded her that it would soon be a memory for him, while she can use it every day. After that, she helped him with it as much as she could and is more generous now about helping her brother and sister.
Steve had worried that he wouldn’t be able to care for another family’s child, but when Yauheni greeted him with open arms and a big smile every day, Steve returned the hugs, and they spent hours kicking the soccer ball.
My kids can’t bear to see Yauheni’s bus drive away, so we leave. All three are crying softly. I will miss Yauheni wrapping his arms around me for a hug when I tucked him into bed. I want to cherish my children forever.
I can’t believe how spoiled I am, how much I take for granted, and I realize that all of us want to give more to each other and to the world around us, now.
Yauheni showed our family how to share what we have and open our hearts. This stranger became our summer son and brother.
Shelly Sanders Greer used her fee for this article to defray the costs of Yauheni’s visit this summer.