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Belarusian children attending Crete For Life first summer camp in Crete, Greece

Summer Camp – The Beginning

Almost 20 years have passed since our first Cretan summer camp for children affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe. Hosting Belarusian children in Greece, specifically in Crete, presents unique challenges given that Belarus is considered a closed dictatorship. Another obstacle was that, in the past, Greece did not have a strong non-profit sector, relying mostly on families and the church.  The sector has greatly evolved in the past 20 years, but hosting children from a country with limited freedom to Crete has had its own set of difficulties and obstacles.

What kept us going was knowing that there is strong medical evidence that children affected by consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe can significantly benefit from spending time by the Cretan Sea. The clean air, sunlight, and welcoming environment are believed to have a positive impact on their health and well-being. Essential support and friendship for this cause have come from Tatiana Kot, president of “Medicine and Chernobyl,” one of Belarus’s oldest and most reputable associations. “Medicine and Chernobyl’s” efforts have been instrumental in overcoming all the challenges and obstacles of hosting Belarusian children in Crete.

In Crete, the members of the organization “Inconews” have been constant supporters of this program. Here are some memories by Peter and Barbara Chapman of the beginning of this amazing experience we shared together.

Dear Oli,

Please play with this as you see fit, I hope some of it is useful.

When, in the early 2000’s, we moved to Elounda from Moscow, we missed the network of expats willing to give advice on any/all aspects of living in the country. So, we borrowed the concept and adapted it to Cretan realities, utilizing an existing Syllogos – INCO – a “not-for-profit” members organisation operating in Lasithi, mainly around Aghios Nikolaos.

We were soon afterwards contacted by Olimpia Theodoli, President of “Crete For Life” who was planning to bring to Crete for a month that summer a group of Belorussian children, damaged by the Chernobyl disaster along with their guardians.

On realising that the programme required “Crete for Life” to provide all accommodation, food, medical & dental care, and educational support – we thought she was mad!!. This was a massive undertaking with financial, linguistic, cultural & political challenges and risks at both ends. Brave was an understatement!!

At that time, as now, Belarus was the most “Soviet” of the former USSR countries. Barbara and I hoped that our knowledge of Russian language & Belarusian bureaucracy might be helpful.

We agreed with Olimpia that we would invite the INCO membership and local businesses to participate in this challenging but potentially worthwhile venture.

The outcome exceeded our wildest expectations. Olimpia was a magician, she chose the perfect beach cove hotel base for the children – Vassilis’s Hotel, straight out of Captain Corelli.

We were all amazed at the personal commitment of our local communities, with everyone involved taking the children to heart and giving freely of themselves. One of the most unforgettable experiences was the joy, amazement with which the children reacted to seeing the sea for the first time. Many of them couldn’t work out a relationship with it because they didn’t know what it was—Belarus is landlocked!

There are some things we are lucky enough to take for granted. Others are less fortunate!

From this experience of Olimpia’s networking skills and another organisational strength, we realised that there were synergies within the “Crete for Life” & INCO objectives which have evolved into shared activities, mutual support and lasting friendships.

The ultimate beneficiaries have undoubtedly been fragile and vulnerable children, but also the communities of Lasithi which have become increasingly integrated, charitable and accepting of outsiders.

Thank you, Olimpia, ❤️

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