Her name is Vivienne Long. She is a 32-year old Irishwoman who has spent last 10 years in a small Belarusian town of Cherven’ taking care of local children with mental disabilities. Here, in the backwoods of Europe, she found her love – a local girl Natallia – and experienced a real life. Sounds like a new TV series for teenagers? Just the ways of God 60 km from Minsk.
Riding through a grey Belarusian weekday, the driver sets the address of Cherven’s main post office as the final destination on the GPS navigator. Vivienne, the Irishwoman we are going to visit, is giving us directions on the phone. We’re talking in English, as Russian is still too difficult for her. I can hardly understand Vivienne at once because of her Guinness-like dense Irish accent.
Cherven’ is a typical Belarusian provincial town: an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, a Lenin on the main square. In addition one can find a district authority office, one restaurant, and youth who go to dance parties in Maryina Horka, which is 25 km away. “For the first time I came here in January 2001 to see the country and have a look around. After returning home I felt that it had been the longest week in my life”, – says Vivienne, who is meeting us in her kitchen with a cup of strong tea with milk. But precisely this middle of nowhere (as an average European would say) was the place where Vivienne met her love – Natallia. Today they are bringing up Natallia’s 15-year old son, help disabled children and fight the public opinion.
Location – a large and comfortable kitchen on the last floor of a brick house. The window looks out on a line of depressing grey buildings. The fridge door is covered with images of Virgin Mary, pride calendar depicting kissing lesbians, and a picture of rosy-cheeked teenager Mikita, Natallia’s son. We are sitting at a durable wooden table, chewing cookies and trying to understand what could have brought Vivienne here.
In the beginning, Vivienne was impressed by the car-free streets, old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages, people manually picking up the fallen leaves and burning them. In general, Belarus looked like Ireland 40 years ago. Another scary fact was the absence of diapers in the orphanage. “You enter a ward with 25 bedridden children and immediately get struck with the smell”, – recollects Vivienne. “Diaper campaign” was the first one Vivienne participated in: fundraising in Ireland, purchase of diapers and their transportation by trucks through the whole continent. Recently, almost all the necessary stuff has become available in Cherven’.
“You enter a ward with 25 bedridden children and immediately get struck with the smell”
The Irish have been actively working in Cherven’ since the late 1990s. Not only here and not only them. But it’s exactly here, where groups of volunteers come for a couple of weeks once or twice a month. They are always here at Easter and Halloween. These volunteers are ordinary men and women who get satisfaction from spending their vacations kneading concrete and laying brick walls for orphanages in Belarus. They are not paid for this. For instance, Vivienne makes a living by leasing her house in Ireland. “The locals don’t get the concept of volunteering and always ask: do you get some tax abatement for this?” – smiles Vivienne. Another set of things difficult to understand – a foreigner has to get a new visa every year and cross the boarder every three months.
Probably, Vivienne would remain one of hundreds one-week volunteers if not for one dramatic story. “Once I took a girl called Krystsina from the orphanage to my family for 9 months, – recollects Vivienne. – But the Belarusian government, for some reason, ordered to send her and 7 more kids back home before the appointed time. I realized I couldn’t leave this 7-year old girl alone”. She returns to Belarus and helps an Irish family to adopt the girl. Today Krystsina and two more disabled kids live in Dublin. By the way, Vivienne does not use the word “disabilities”: “special needs” only.
And then the story starts to look like a screenplay for an independent pride-movie. Scene 1: Vivienne meets Natallia, an orphanage teacher. Natallia lives in Cherven’ and brings up her son by herself. They speak different languages and don’t understand each other. Scene 2: walking home on a chilly evening Natallia slips her coat on Vivienne’s shoulders – the first physical contact. Everyone feels something strange is happening. Scene 3: before dinner with friends Vivienne cannot endure the suspense and, before going for a dinner with friends, calls on Natallia. Searching for Russian expressions in the phrasebook, Vivienne blurts out: “I don’t know what’s going on. Tell me what you feel: is it friendship or something different?” – “Yes, it’s something different”, – answers Natallia.
This year they have got “married” in Ireland. There was a big party with the whole family, dogs, children, flowers and a huge wedding pride-cake. For both it was their first same-sex relationship.
“In the beginning there were many rumors and talks. You go to the marketplace and can feel people staring”
Vivienne tells this story as if it were an ordinary one, from time to time asking if we want some more tea. In order to avoid misunderstanding, during our first meeting she instantly made a voluntary coming out and gave us carte-blanche to ask any question that we have. Although the couple don’t parade their relationship, they are not hiding it either: in a town like Cherven’ it would be useless. “In the beginning there were many rumors and talks. You go to the marketplace and can feel people staring. But after a while everyone got tired of it, for there was nothing else to discuss – we do not conceal anything. Honesty is the best policy”, – smiles Vivienne. The telephone rings and we get a chance to hear a pretty good Russian. The Irishwoman has learnt it by ear.
Here comes Natallia – smiling and wearing a checkered outfit. It’s drizzling, and we are going to the only local restaurant “Constellation”. Cherven’ seems like a city of women, where the man is a riddle with obvious solutions. Another question is “Where are children?”. Mikita, Natallia’s son, is at work, helping his friends in building. “It’s very important to understand if you want to be a manual worker or you’d rather go study”, – explains Vivienne bypassing a huge black dog. The guy turns out to think patriotic – he wants to get education here, in spite of the opportunity to study in Ireland where he has spent all his summers since he was five.
We are passing by the most recent Irish project – a day centre for the disabled. It used to be a room in the kindergarten that nobody knew about. Now it is a one-floor building suitable for developmental classes, with pictures on the walls and new equipment. It has been renovated but the whole community during last three years. The only thing completely finished is the playground. State authorities assist by not interfering. In general, Cherven’ seems to be one of the most friendly city for people with special needs.
The restaurant impresses us with a disco ball under the ceiling and a nice choice of top-shelf liquor. At the very end of the menu the cigarettes are followed by condoms. Generally, looking out of the window onto empty streets one can easily imagine that the town has just gone through a light attack of zombies or pyrite gas assault. “Leisure time is unbelievably boring, – tells Vivien. – Therefore, I am always working, project by project”. The food is pretty good, by the way. However, earlier volunteers brought food with them from Ireland – there was a direct flight and aversion for the local cuisine. Once, for the sake of diversity, the volunteers talked the chef into cooking the “imported” lamb limb.
After dinner we continue our tour of the town. We see the new square, small pink houses, a monument to Lenin, which, to our pleasure, was pulled down and put somewhere on the side. All the time Natallia greets someone and finally leaves us for some urgent reason. Somewhere on our way from the Lenin to the district authority office we hear a tale about Irish fairies and Belarusian alcoholics.
Children in the asylum mostly come from problem families. Often the parents are deprived of the custody rights, or there’s a mother alone. That’s why the volunteers spend their free time on visiting families and offering assistance. “We don’t give money unconditionally, because who knows what they will spend it on? If they need a fridge, we get them a fridge, if they need a new table – we buy a table, sunflower oil or food – we go to the grocery. Once we visited one such mother and I realized that she needed help as much as her daughter did. She lived in a terrible bathhouse, with dangerous wiring and her body was covered with bruises – she had been beaten by the cohabiter”. They were both sent to Minsk to be treated for alcoholism. And it worked out: the quit drinking, found jobs and reclaimed the custody rights, which is extremely difficult in our welfare state. But the scheme is not always successful: another couple didn’t stop drinking and Irish philanthropists’ money has gone directly to the account of “Kryshtal” liquor company.
“She lived in a terrible bathhouse, with dangerous wiring and her body was covered with bruises”
Talking about the special features of their daily life and the way everything changes to the better, we approach the car that we left at the post office. Our last question is: “Why don’t you help Irish children?” – “They don’t have such problems, the adoption system works pretty well. Here I’m much more needed. If I go back home, I will probably work with the homeless”, – answers Vivienne. But still nobody knows when she’s going back – the local project is almost over and now it’s time to decide where to move. Most likely it’s going to be Africa. Of course, they will go together with Natallia.
On our way back I start feeling sick. Maybe because of impressions, or fresh air, or, most likely, because of the hake that I had for lunch. I treat myself with a Coke and thank the globalization for making such a story true.
She is 32, she was born in Limerick, got a degree in TV-production from a college in Dublin. According to Vivienne, she always had a desire for helping people; however, a radio programme about Belarus saved Vivienne from African excessive tan and malaria. In order to help children who suffered from the Chernobyl catastrophe she came to Cherven’ – firstly for a week, then – for three months and finally stayed here for ten more years.
Photo by palasatka
The article was previously published on 34mag.