Karen's Story

October 2010


Our treasured memories from Diana’s first stay with de Snoo family!

It was a big decision for us to apply to be a host family for Friends of Chernobyl’s Children and not one taken lightly – we wanted to commit totally – and we did – (and some!) There are 3 of us – Ian, Karen and Mari (5) and we began preparing for Diana’s stay long before we actually knew for sure we would have a little visitor from Belarus. We wanted Mari to fully understand the implications of having another child at home – especially one who would no doubt be missing her mummy and all her familiar things around her, and of course not being able to talk to us or understand what we were saying.  We also talked a lot about why we were particularly interested in this charity and the effect the Chernobyl explosion has had on many, many peoples lives.

As soon as we heard that Diana had been chosen to come, Mari and I had 6 months of shopping for clothes and toys – it was a very exciting time but also one filled with an element of trepidation – the nearer we got to arrival day the more nervous Ian and I felt but the more excited Mari became! Obviously we wanted it to go well for all of us but of course especially for Diana.

On a murky Sunday in September 2010 Diana arrived. I had promised myself I wouldn’t cry but when I saw a pensive and uncertain little 7 year old waiting to meet us – I can only imagine the way she must have been feeling – as ever the tears streamed down my cheeks! Diana smiled her beautiful shy smile, took Mari’s hand and they both went off to explore the playground. It was going to be fine.

I have a very distinct memory of Ian suddenly shouting – ‘Where’s Diana?’ – my immediate thought was - Oh god we’ve lost her within minutes of arriving – but, all she had wanted to do was to find her plastic bag with the beautiful gifts her mother had sent over – unbelievable really. We had been told that it may happen but were taken aback by the beautiful linen tablecloth, beer mug and sweets. All Diana had was what she stood up in and a spare pair of pants and socks – old but beautifully clean.

I think it was at this point that it really struck me how Diana’s mother must be feeling. Diana is an only child to a single mother. I know they are very close. Sending her only child to the other side of the world to an unknown host family must have been incredibly difficult. I totally admire her belief that this is a very positive experience and will have a profound effect on Diana’s well being for the rest of her life. I truly hope to meet her eventually. Would I be able to send Mari to the other side of the world? I don’t know.

I can’t quite believe how nervous I was at our first meal – I’d decided to try to do something that I thought would be as familiar as possible, chicken drumsticks, sausages and chips. To be honest the thought of trying to get those important vegetables in her went completely out the window! Bless her – she was clearly too nervous to eat and all she wanted to do was to jump on the trampoline and phone mamma – which she would have done every day if the interpreters hadn’t stepped in! Having said that Diana always came off the phone smiling and back to normal. I think she needed to tell her mother about all the exciting things she had been doing but also reassurance that mama was still there – who can blame her? – she’s 7 years old, in a strange country, strange house, strange language!

That first night is still imprinted on my mind (and heart) – Diana hadn’t said a word apart from ‘mamma phone.’ However, a complete change when she got in to her very first bath,  – I can still hear the sound of total pleasure, which clearly came from deep within. After that and every night she would spend as long as she possibly could in the bath. The look of sheer bliss on her face was amazing – we take so much for granted. The funniest thing was when Mari and Diana played in the bath, – both playing with Barbies, clearly not understanding a word the other was saying but nevertheless playing the same game and having a whale of a time! At bedtime Diana loved getting in to her own bed for the very first time – she clearly enjoyed the softness and feel of feathers – together with lovely smells – she was forever putting her head into fresh laundry with a big smile on her face.

So – the first week at school went ok – Diana was very difficult to get up in the mornings and then tearful at the end of each day, which we found hard. Mari was amazing and would keep a watchful eye on her – running to me as soon tears started to brim in Diana’s eyes. She really wanted to phone her mama but sometimes we simply couldn’t get through, she would sit and stare at the phone as if willing the line to work next time we tried. The only way I could offer any comfort was with lots of cuddles and constantly phoning Sergei – who seemed to have a very special way of making Diana laugh.  Poor Sergei, Diana would phone him every night with some excuse – I think she had a very soft spot for him.

On our first Friday we had Sergei and Luda over for supper – it was fun and very interesting to find out about Diana’s life and their lives without dwelling on the obvious. I think they appreciated us not grilling them on Chernobyl but being genuinely interested in them. At supper Diana whispered something to Mari who nodded, laughed and whispered something back and they both smiled – clearly in cahoots about something. I find it amazing how well children can connect despite huge language and cultural barriers. Kindness and a smile go such a long way. 

Our first weekend at home worked well despite my mistaken belief that the BBQ laid on by the Woking round table would interrupt our family time. I was proved wrong - Diana had a fantastic time and came back with her face painted and all sorts of arts and crafts. It also gave us a little space to catch up with Mari – she had been amazingly mature and incredibly caring and kind to Diana, but she is only 5 and has never had to share us before. On the Sunday all 4 of us went to the Woking steam fair. The girls both loved it (well, we all did) – our sweet retiring Diana was a demon on the bumper cars, loved the wind in her hair on the merry go round, devoured candy floss and hooted with laughter in the hall of mirrors.

The second week proved a slightly easier – marginally better at getting up but not keen to go to bed, so she was constantly tired. Not only that – all the children had such a busy schedule and so many activities during the day. On top of that, most nights Diana had a lot of homework so the time we had in the evening was limited. It didn’t help that we live a good 30 mins away so by the time both girls had had a little play, we’d battled through supper, done homework, it was time for bed.  We gradually managed to settle in to a routine which meant that Mari was in bed first whilst Diana did her homework then Diana would ‘ablute’ for the next hour (at least!).  She’d often shyly creep on to our bed to join me for cuddles, watching tv or painting nails, or simply brushing her hair. On a couple of occasions she even fell asleep in my arms – what a satisfying feeling to see her so relaxed and at ease. We had a great time watching the start of X factor, both of us using thumbs up/down depending on the act. Diana learnt to shout ‘yes yes’ or ‘rubbish!’ It was fun, simple and no different to what we do with Mari.

That 2nd weekend we stayed down in Wittering. Both girls packed their own bags – the teddies figured highly! As soon as we got down there they donned wetsuits and charged in to the sea with their boogie boards. The funniest sight was watching Diana in the water – still with the silver (colored) hairgrips she had had from Vidal Sassoon the day before. I think that was the first time we had seen her totally carefree – she loved it. After an hour we literally had to drag them both out  - mainly because by then I was cold from standing in the water. Having said that the water was surprisingly warm, much more so than during the summer. After endless sandcastles and collecting shells, back to a hot bath and yet more splashing.

That weekend away proved to be a turning point I think. Diana had appeared relaxed and happy but we saw her blossom and grow before our eyes. She became a little mischievous, playing tricks, making Ian and I jump, running up and down the stairs like a headless chicken, helping herself to the contents of the fridge, VERY messy bedroom, clothes left all over the place – all the things you expect from your own children. We had started to settle down properly – it felt very good and the most natural thing in the world.

If I’m totally honest I don’t think we really cracked the food issue. Diana would eat carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes, beef burgers, chicken, shepherds pie and most favorite of all pizza. She loved Banana, hated cereal, loved croissant, salami, yogurt, ‘cheeps’ and of course, ice cream. Wasn’t keen on toast, loved pasta. I even broke the house rule of no coke so that she’d have something she enjoyed. But best of all she loved ketchup – on absolutely everything. I did draw the line at breakfast though. It wasn’t until we were at my parents for my fathers 80th birthday party did I see Diana devouring peas, peas and more peas despite trying to get her to taste them on several occasions. She even ate broccoli, which at home with us she considered the food of the devil! My biggest success was homemade chicken and vegetable soup, which she loved and ate 3 huge bowls in quick succession.  Ian’s triumph was taking the girls out for breakfast. Diana absolutely loved it, eating a truckers special. On a play date she apparently devoured fish pie – despite categorically telling me by pointing at pictures under no circumstances would she eat fish!

When we started to prepare to send Diana home I started to wonder if we had made a difference – I like to think so, she certainly made a huge impact on our lives. She brought love, laughter, friendship, vulnerability, frustration, pride and concern all at once. When I look at the photos of her first few days she looks lost and vulnerable, a month on she has bright shining eyes, more energy and far more confidence, greater gravitas if you can say that of a 7 year old. 3 weeks after she’s left and Mari is still saying night, night to the sky and asking the stars to send her love to Diana. I like to think of her with her mother and all her familiar things, but I truly miss her.

Is Diana any different to our daughter or your children? No, I don’t think so. Will we have her back? If she wants to make a return visit, with open arms (and more tears from me). Boy oh boy we are counting the days already. And yes - chicken and vegetable soup will be on the menu from the start – it's good for body and soul!



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