Our little Belarusian girl Valya arrived on Saturday. She’s staying with us for a month as part of the local Friends of Chernobyl’s Children group. She’s only 7 and speaks no English, and we speak no Belarusian (or Russian for that matter). It’s hard to even begin to imagine what this must feel like for her.
We’re beginning to understand a little more of the very difficult circumstances she lives in at home which gives context to her reactions and behaviour.
She’s very wary of adults and more than wary of men. However she bonded immediately with our teenage daughters. Our youngest daughter (age 9) is seen as competition though. The only adult to have been greeted with open arms and a big smile was my mother-in-law, so Babooshka (granny) is obviously an important person to her. The first afternoon she was with us she just kept running room to room, flinging open cupboards, trying every toilet, exploring and holding everything.
She’s drawn picture after picture of a big house ever since as it must seem a fairy tale palace in contrast to the one bedroom apartment Valya lives in with her mother, brother and sister. A hot bubble bath was the next source of wonderment.
She’s become firm friends with our cat – he scratched her early on, and she just laughed and hit him over the head! He now will tolerate her hugging, squeezing and playing with him in a way he won’t do with us.
We’ve had to lock the doors and hide the keys as she’s obviously used to just coming and going as she wishes – as keen to explore the neighbours houses and gardens but with very little road/traffic awareness.
Valya also likes to hide if she knows she’s done wrong. Now we’re a few days in she’s testing boundaries to the full, not from any malicious ‘badness’, but just because she’s confused that we’re staying firm and consistent but still with love and without anger.
She’s been open mouthed to see the number of fathers playing with their children in the park and shyly beginning to trust Paddy with his kindness, humour and ability to cook!
For me, so far it’s been exhausting but rewarding and I’m learning so much – getting things right and wrong all the time.
Mostly I’m getting it wrong with our youngest – she likes everyone to be happy and thinks I’m ‘mean’ when I stick with firm boundaries with Valya. She doesn’t get that it’s no different than how I’ve been with her and her sisters, it’s just those boundaries were set and held from the start. I’ve realised I’ve not made it a high enough priority to give more time to and support Jodie too – Valya’s visit has a huge impact on her too (especially as they are sharing a room).
After the initial hurt of Valya’s ‘rejection’ and wariness of me, I realised of course it’s not about her loving me; I don’t need more love, but I certainly have plenty of love and compassion I can give to her as we gently, firmly, consistently show her another way – a way where she’s fully accepted for the person that she is, even if we don’t accept some of her behaviour.
Mostly, when I find a moment to reflect, this experience so far has made me see afresh all the things I take for granted.
In seeing our life through Valya’s eyes I have a very different mirror, highlighting not just the material wealth we have, but the emotional, social and environmental wealth too.
All our security, happiness, love, sharing, compassion, tolerance, understanding, respect, freedom and health.
How lucky we are.