Heralded by cries of delight, cheers and tears, and serenaded with seasonal songs , the latest group of children from Belarus and Ukraine were welcomed to Ireland on Wednesday by their host families and Chernobyl Children International.
Thirty-nine children with special needs from the area affected by the fallout of the 1986 nuclear disaster, together with six carers, were led by Santa Claus, and charity founder Adi Roche, into the Dublin Airport arrivals hall to a raucous reception.
To those waiting on loved ones arriving for Christmas, there is a sign on the sliding door that separates the baggage collection area from the arrivals hall. “The best Christmas present ever is about to walk through these doors,” it says.
And when the children arrived, it was not at all clear who was more excited, them or their host families.
"Christmas wouldn't be the same without Igor," said Marie Cox from Mayo, shortly before rushing forward to embrace the 16-year-old in a wheelchair, smothering him with the motherly love she has given him for the past eight years during his twice yearly visits to Ireland.
“He is part of our family now,” said Marie. “We just love him so much at this stage. He’s our fifth son.”
Abandoned as a baby
Igor Shadkov, who is from Belarus and has multiple physical and mental disabilities, was abandoned as a baby and left to the Vesnova Children's Mental Asylum, a Soviet-era institution at Gomel near the Belarus-Ukraine border long since modernised.
The limitations of his life beyond his various birth conditions were painfully obvious when he first came to the Coxes.
“He had never been out of the orphanage,” recalls Marie. “He’d never experienced wind, he’d never felt rain on his face. He hadn’t seen the stars and he’d never slept in his own room.”
Since then, he has had his own space in their Castlebar home, including his own box filled with toys and familiar gadgets that are there for him, every Christmas and summer.
His face lit up in the airport when he saw his Irish mother.
For Eileen Morrisey from Kilkenny, Vassili Lyskovets, aged 25, is her "superstar", always smiling and "another brother to Orla", her daughter.
Eileen's friend Carmel Everard, also from Kilkenny, plays host to 12-year-old Ivan who comes from Khoniki on the Ukraine-Belarus border. It was one of the areas worst affected by the fallout. Ivan has just one kidney and struggles on a poor diet back home.
Greeting and hugging
“He’s eating and drinking everything that’s bad out there,” said Carmel, “and so we try to feed him well. Within two days, there’s an improvement in his skin pallor.”
The families surged forward, greeting and hugging the delighted arrivals as the eight-strong choir of students from Bimm, the British and Irish Modern Music institute, Dublin, gave it their all.
And after the cameras had feasted on the scenes of greeting and reunification, the 39 children and their carers were whisked off to homes in Cork, Dublin, Louth, as well as Mayo and Kilkenny.
Ask any of the hosting families what the children, the recipients of their heartfelt seasonal hospitality, bring to the families, and almost all with say, very simply, “everything”. It seems that the children who have lost so much themselves, or were born with so little in the first place, are the making of Christmas for their hosts.