How Lucky I Am – Lessons from Chernobyl’s Child Part 2

by | 10 Aug 2015 | Happiness

If you’ve read last week’s blog post, you’ll already know how we came to become a host family for Friends of Chernobyl’s Children.

We’d asked to host a little girl and only received a little information about her before the visit. We knew her name is Valya. She’s 7 years old. She speaks no English (and of course being typically British, we don’t speak Belarusian!). Her brother, aged 8, is also part of the programme and would stay with a different local family. She has a big sister aged 13, whom it became very clear, does most of the childcare. Valya’s father is dead, and so is her brother’s father. Her sister’s father is in Russia and has no contact and provides no assistance to the family. Her mother works at a dairy farm. The four of them live in a 1 bedroom flat, but are ‘fortunate’ enough to have a toilet and cold running water.

The time of the visit arrived – 10 children and 2 interpreters flew into the country one Friday in June, and were transported by minibus to the home of our local co-ordinator. There we picked Valya up, scared and tired, and brought her back to our house.

She was obviously not used to cars – we showed her how to wear a seatbelt (and keep it on). We had to stop her from putting things out of the window, or trying to open the doors while the car was moving. We tried to reassure her as best we could without the language to do that – communicating purely through body language, facial expressions, tonality, presence.

She seemed so tiny, so fragile, but with a fierce resilience and determination not to show her fear or tears. There was a moment when we brought her into the house when she just looked totally overwhelmed and lost when I thought “what have I done, can we do this?” Without language, I felt powerless. I hadn’t realised just how much I count on having the right words to say.

Taking her by the hand we showed her where she would be sleeping, and where the bathroom was.

Next lesson – here you can flush the toilet paper down the toilet, not put it in the bin. And here we wash our hands afterwards – yes, every time. After the bathroom her eyes became wide as she realised the size of the house – 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms (3 toilets – she delighted in going to a different toilet every time), lounge, conservatory, kitchen, breakfast room, utility, office, dining room… garden!

Then she came to life and became like a whirlwind running from room to room with delight opening every door, every drawer, every cupboard. We quickly realised we’d need to lock the doors and hide keys as she escaped the house and was running through neighbours gardens – we worried we might lose her or have her hit by a car within an hour of her arrival!

She was like something feral with no boundaries, endless curiosity, defiance, resourcefulness and determination.

Mealtime came and it was clear she couldn’t use a knife and fork. She feigned confidence and was fiercely independent, but I could see her watching our youngest and trying to mimic everything she did.

To begin with she completely ignored and was highly suspicious of my husband. Other men she reacted to with fear. Later that weekend she saw other Dads playing in the park with their children, and my husband cooking food and doing other domestic chores – she just stood open mouthed and confused. She was wary of me too and made a point of rejecting any attempt on my part to comfort or care for her. With our youngest daughter, Valya behaved quite aggressively, or dismissed.

But with our two teenagers, Valya flung her arms out wide, and clung to their necks to be carried like a toddler. At bedtimes she would push me out of the room and only accept Hazel or Gemma to settle her to sleep. At first her rejection of me hurt, until I realised we had done this not because we needed love and appreciation, but because we had love to give someone for whom life has not been easy.

I know it was difficult for our youngest daughter, Jodie too. She had envisaged a meek little sister to care and look after, not a fierce survivor like Valya. Fortunately Valya soon stopped trying to fight or physically overcome Jodie, who is endlessly patient, peaceful and non-aggressive, whilst also a brown belt in Judo! Try as she might, Valya couldn’t bring Jodie to the ground or make her lose her temper, which earned Jodie Valya’s grudging respect.

It was like taking a masterclass in holding firm boundaries but with ‘unconditional positive regard’. It was heartbreaking to see her project the patterns of her home-life onto us. We had to work hard not to inadvertently collude. We saw her confusion when we responded to deliberate bad behaviour with sadness, patience and persistence rather than anger.

When she knew she’d crossed a boundary, Valya would run away and hide – and she was scarily good at hiding. When she couldn’t have her own way she’d scream and cry, crawl like a toddler and refuse to walk. It was like having a 7 year old toddler around and damn hard work. I kept reminding myself that yes it was like having a toddler – the tantrums from frustration of not being able to communicate, the conflict of the desire for independence whilst being totally dependent on others; the testing of boundaries, exploration of how things work, norms and expectations.

2 weeks in, Valya was still being very challenging. I was exhausted and wondering what we were putting ourselves through all this for. The tiredness meant it was getting much harder to manage my state and keep the awareness of the dynamics at play. All my good intentions of reinforcing the positive, and using appreciation to build her sense of being seen, heard and valuing herself were under threat from the continual cry of “Valya, nyet”. I was also full of self-doubt as I knew that not many of the other host families were finding it so hard. The interpreters were reassuring though – they had seen Valya’s home-life first hand; not all the families had circumstances as difficult or challenging as Valya’s.

Then, all of a sudden, something changed in her attitude towards us.

It was lovely, like she realised there was no reason to fight and just how happy it could feel without the constant challenge. She seemed to realise our boundaries were there not through unreasonable meanness, but to keep her safe in a world she was still unfamiliar with, and to respect and value everyone in the family. And the whole family had held those boundaries firmly, consistently, patiently. I suppose she came to trust us.

The change was huge – I would get spontaneous hugs and smiles. She would ask before taking something (mostly food), she would give little gifts to Jodie, and she would grab Paddy’s hand and drag him off to push her on the swing. Whole days would go by without tears or tantrums – just laughter and play and being together. She still loved Hazel and Gemma best, but it was ok if they weren’t around to help.

She found she really enjoyed taking herself off to play quietly by herself (we’d brought down our fabulous Playmobil dolls house and other sets, relegated to the loft by our own kids, for her to play with). Space, privacy and peace I imagine are hard to come by for a family of 4 in a tiny flat. We all enjoyed just being in each other’s company, relaxed with who were are, just as I imagined and hoped it would be. Now I felt relieved, and validated – perhaps if I’m honest, even a little smug!

So after the seemingly endless slog of the first two weeks, the second two just flew by; now we were packing her new suitcase with clothing and shoes, school supplies, her favourite snacks, gifts for her mother, sister and grandmother (which Valya was so proud and excited to be taking back), enough vitamins to last a year.

The last day saw a return to some of her earlier behaviour as she became unsettled once again. By turn she was excited and sad to be leaving. We too had mixed feelings – ready for her to go and for us to be just ‘us’ again, but hard to know what she was going back to. Fingers crossed nothing will prevent her return next year so we can continue to build on what we started.

To see our lives through her eyes was very humbling. I saw the wonders of our modern life afresh; Valya had a way of saying a soft “wow” at her new discoveries – the freezer, the hot water coming out of the tap, deep hot bubble baths, the size of our house, the cupboards full of a never-ending supply of food, sliding doors and escalators, the microwave, the sheer quantity of electronic equipment we had between us.

She could eat strawberries by the punnet load, her eye’s alight and tastebuds tingling. At the age of 7, she may not have been able to use a knife and fork, but she once made us a fabulous pancake, cooked over the barbecue, getting all the ingredients herself, cracking eggs, mixing and whisking and cooking to perfection. She was eager to help and contribute, especially when we had larger family gatherings.

The whole experience was both more challenging, and rewarding than I could have believed. I’m sure Valya would say the same – afterall, it’s almost unimaginable to me to be a 7 year old child alone with strangers in such unfamiliar circumstances, unable to speak the language and so far from home for an entire month.

I would be lying if I said there weren’t times when I felt angry, frustrated and resentful – taken for granted; after all we didn’t have to be doing this. But by holding on to our bigger reasons ‘why’, and just noticing my changing state, I could keep connected to me at my best and come back to being centred and what was really true.

I wasn’t doing this to be admired and appreciated. It’s not me that needs the strokes of reassurance that I’m a ‘good’ person. I have that security, self-esteem and belief already.

By letting go of any expectations of how Valya ‘should’ be with us and just wholeheartedly accepting and appreciating her for who she is (which is very different from accepting her behaviour), everything changed for the better. Now, with more space for reflection, I feel really proud, both of her and our whole family what we achieved in a relatively short space of time.

There was much I already intellectually ‘knew’, I learned to know with all my heart: how it’s not words that give communication meaning; the strength of ‘sharing’ the load together; how staying connected to a bigger sense of purpose can get you through the darkest times; how people thrive and grow in an environment of acceptance and appreciation, not criticism and judgement.

A treasured and wise coaching colleague of mine asks powerful question sometimes: “what are your minimum requirements to do good work?

I think I found mine – enough sleep, the support of my family, humour, a strong sense of self and light boundaries held firmly and consistently!

Valya with our family on our last night together L to R Paddy (with Scamper the Cat), Hazel, Valya, Gemma, Rachel and Jodie

Valya with our family on our last night together
L to R Paddy (with Scamper the Cat), Hazel, Valya, Gemma, Rachel and Jodie

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