International project launches in Gomel to help young cancer sufferers
The impetus for this unusual international project, aimed at helping children suffering from cancer, was given by 4-year-old Andrey Semilit — a Ukrainian boy from Cherkassy who came to Belarus with a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Along with his mother, Andrey began making snowmen to sell to earn money for medical treatment. He received support from dozens of countries — including Belarus and Saudi Arabia. Social networks posting ‘Everyone needs a snowman!” produced a wave of kind responses.
Andrey’s mother, 28-year-old Alena, is waiting for me in a long corridor in the Children’s Haematology Department of the Republican Clinic of Radiation Therapy. She looks young and slim, with short hair. Her bright eyes show a determined character. She has not given up in spite of the hardships. Alena seem to read my thoughts, “Initially, when we received the diagnosis, I thought the world had ended. I cried day and night, but then I pulled myself together. Who would save my child if not me? The fight for my son is in full swing and we must win it.”
Andryusha is asleep after a chemical therapy session. He looks small and tired. We find a place in the playroom so as not to disturb him and Alena eagerly recalls her previous life. She had a strong family: a husband and a son, worked as a chocolatier at a major company selling Belgian chocolate. Andrey attended a kindergarten which he loved as he had many friends there. He used to spend his weekends with his father, fishing or walking in the forest. “He even had his own dinghy and a fishing rod,” her eyes are bright but her lips tremble while she speaks, but there are no tears. The Semilit family came to Belarus last autumn. Several months before their arrival, Cherkassy’s doctors diagnosed blood cancer in Andryusha. According to Alena, the initial course of treatment failed and his health worsened. On the advice of the specialists, the family investigated German clinics but were unable to afford the treatment. “We needed a huge sum to begin; German doctors then advised us to try a Belarusian clinic. It took us just a few days to get in touch with the Republican Centre of Radiation Therapy, in Gomel. We were invited over and, more importantly, we were allowed to pay in instalments. The first part of the fee was collected thanks to the help of our friends and relatives.”
Alena speaks of the advantages of the clinic: a separate ward, a clear plan of action, no need to search for medical preparations. Most importantly, their son’s health is improving. In November, the family had to pay another instalment but had only $500 available, instead of the several thousand Dollars required. Alena remembers those days and it can’t believe the miracle that has happened. “We decided to sell our flat in Cherkassy. We had an agreement prepared and I was about to go home to sign it. To entertain my son during my absence, I found a class on making snowmen on the Internet. Andrey loved the idea. I bought basmati rice and a couple of socks. We began our work and it proved to be easy. Patience, imagination and artistry were needed to make amusing creatures. I photographed the results of our work and placed the pictures on my Internet page to please relatives and friends. Unexpectedly, I received a message from a lady I knew: ‘The snowman is great. I need one the same and I’m ready to pay’. When I opened my page next day, I could hardly believe my eyes: there were several dozen orders of the same kind. A couple of days later, there were hundreds of orders. People who I did not know wished to help.”
Photos featuring Andrey making snowmen were covered by dozens of Internet sites, printed media and TV channels. Thousands of orders were placed from all over the globe — including Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Canada, Poland, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Israel, Italy and Cyprus. Alena spent days and nights sewing snowmen but eventually realized that she could not cope alone. “We did not want to disappoint people who’d responded to our tragedy so warm-heartedly. Honestly, we had no idea what to do. We received help once again from Gomel’s secondary school #15, situated not far from the clinic, who suggested we open a workshop to make snowmen. The idea quickly spread through Belarus and master classes were soon organised in Gomel, Minsk and Cherkassy. The process is still going on as we want to fulfil all orders we’ve received.”
Alena speaks of other unexpected events following this. Many people transferred money asking for nothing in return. The family also received many encouraging messages and parcels with toys and books. With tears in her eyes, she recalls, “We got the impression that the whole world was uniting its efforts to protect Andrey. When so many people share a single goal, a miracle is inevitable. We collected the required $35,000 in an extremely short period of time, to allow for treatment and rehabilitation at the clinic. We continue receiving money as our campaign is still active; the funds will be allocated to Ukrainian oncology children who need medical treatment at foreign clinics.” The first candidate for this help is 4-year-old Taisia Shilova, from Donetsk. She’s recently come to Gomel for treatment, along with her mother. The girl has the same diagnosis as Andrey and both the boy and the whole city are assisting Taisia to collect the amount needed. The charity marathon, organized to help her, has united ordinary Gomel residents, companies and public organisations. No doubt, the required sum will be collected as Andrey’s snowman is a magician who inspires and brings out the best in people.
Andrey is now awake and feeling mischievous, he stretches out his hand to the bedside table where his first snowman stands. He then looks at me curiously, showing me the toy. We make friends and I tickle the snowman’s round belly. The boy smiles, commenting, “He is not afraid of tickles! He is not afraid of anything at all!”
“He is truly a hero,” I say. “I think he is like you. When he grows up, he’ll probably become a doctor.” Andrey amusingly wrinkles his forehead and replies, “It’s me who’ll become a doctor. He’ll help me.”
By Violetta Dralyuk