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Children of Chernobyl

 

Children, translators and physicians walked through the World Trade Center near Boston Harbor to meet their local host families.

Photos by Everett Hayward

 

 

My name is Tatiana.

My friends call me Tanya. I like to play games and do my lessons with my friends. Very often I go to the forest with my grannie. There are many birds, sometimes some animals. I enjoy the beauty of the forest. My dearest dream is to go to school and have my mother close to me, at home. I'd like to find new friends.

—from the introductory letter of Tatiana Lepejeva, age 11, 1997 guest of Jan and Mike McTeague

 

 

 

 

 

My name is Eugenia.

My friends call me Zhenya. I like to draw, listen to music and play with my pet cat, Fyodor. The thing I like best about school is math. The quality I like best in people is honesty. My friends are frank, careful and kind. My hobbies are dolls and sewing dresses for them. I have no special fears about your country. I would like to find good friends for our organization, "Children in Danger."

—from the introductory letter of Eugenia Sivko, age 11, 1997 guest of Jan and Mike McTeague

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Chernobyl 13 years ago, the world experienced its worst radiation accident ever. A Boston program reaches out to its youngest victims with medical care and loving friendship.

By Linda Ellen Wilson

 

 
The Kids Face an Uncertain Future

 An Expanding Network

 Holding Their Hands

 A Safe Arrival

 'We Can Break Open Love'

 

Ten-year-old Justin Hayward (right) pals around outside with his returning guest from Belarus, Artyom Khodos, also 10.


ON A HOT DAY IN JUNE 1998, a crowd bearing balloon and flower bouquets and welcome signs in Russian gathered at the World Trade Center in Boston, Massachusetts. They were there to welcome 131 children and their translators and physicians from the Chernobyl region. The travelers—155 in all—were on their final leg of a 24-hour-plus journey from Kiev, Ukraine, to the United States.

Surging into the center's ballroom overlooking the picturesque Boston Harbor, they looked exhausted but happy. A few were ill, many were dehydrated. Moments before, upon arriving at Boston's Logan International Airport from New York's La Guardia Airport—via a Delta shuttle arranged by airline employees—they had been taken by water taxi to meet their host families from neighboring Boston communities.

The children, ages nine through 17, were participating in a monthlong local outreach program offered by a growing network from the United States, Ireland and Europe. They came for a break from exposure to radioactive contamination, the deadly legacy of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion on April 26, 1986.

Arriving with only a small satchel and the clothes on their backs, these children would soon forget the dangers that had come to define their lives. Nestled in the loving embrace of a family, supportive community and new friends, they could relax, have fun and give their immune systems a rest. Just four weeks of fresh air, clean water and wholesome food have been known to decrease radioactive particles in their systems, perhaps adding years to their lives.

Among the greeters were Father Robert J. Bowers, a parish priest in Milton, Massachusetts, and members of a core group of volunteers who founded the Chernobyl Children Project USA, Inc., when they learned of the incalculable toll in death, illness, unemployment and divorce that followed the nuclear blast. Some nine million people, three to four million of them children, were affected in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Over 70 percent of the radiation fell on the Republic of Belarus, exposing the population to radioactivity 90 times greater than that released by the Hiroshima bomb.

Even now, more than a decade later, problems persist. Tragically, the most vulnerable are the region's children, the older ones who were infants and toddlers at the time and those born since the explosion. Even the unborn face uncertain futures.

"I don't think people have any idea how bad it is there," host mother Grace Zmiejko said. "We've heard that everything within a 70-mile radius of Chernobyl—everything—is contaminated."

Pervasive throughout the area was the feeling that the world had forgotten the people of Chernobyl, especially the children. But that is changing. On a recent trip to Russia and Belarus, Father Bowers was stopped by a sobbing father who begged him not to forget the children.

"Personally, I found the experience to be profoundly moving," Father Bowers said, "as the fear and near-desperation of the parents once more refocused who we are and what we are all about: [to give] hope to God's forgotten children of the Chernobyl region."

The Kids Face an Uncertain Future

Though they looked normal, just a little thinner than our own kids, many of the children suffer from thyroid cancer resulting from the blast; a small neck scar from thyroid removal serves as a subtle reminder. Others arrived with ailments of less-defined origin such as cancer, leukemia, arthritis and heart disease.

Health care at home is minimal. Indeed, the situation is so grim that the effect of the nuclear accident on the young people, according to one Russian doctor, "has threatened the very future of our race with extinction."

In response to the ongoing effects of the disaster and true to its reputation as one of the best in the world, the Boston medical community has rallied to help. Since the outreach program's inception in 1995, each child has received free medical, dental and eye care.

Last summer, according to cardiologist Bart Heller, the program's medical director, Norwood Hospital supported two plastic surgeries and several other hospitals offered free emergency care. During the past two visits, the foreign doctors were invited to observe American medical techniques and procedures. Equally important, ongoing telecommunications enable doctors to confer on the visiting children's progress after returning home and help children too ill to travel.

One medical facility that has extended extraordinary care, especially for 13-year-old Alexei Saponchikov, is The Floating Hospital for Children at New England Medical Center. Alexei, affectionately known to his American friends as Alosha, has benefited in ways he could not have imagined.

An orphan from Belarus suffering from severe arthritis, Alosha measured just 38 inches and weighed only 30 pounds upon his 1997 arrival in the United States. Steroid treatment at home had drastically slowed his teeth and bone growth. One foot appeared clubbed, and he had other severe joint deformities. His arms and legs hurt most of the time.

Like the other children, Alosha originally intended to stay only one month, but his physician, pediatrician-in-charge Dr. Jane Schaller, thought he needed at least eight more months for corrective surgery and rehabilitation. Two days after he turned 13 and enjoyed his first-ever birthday party, he received the welcome news: The Belarus government gave consent for him to stay.

"We couldn't be happier," said Dan Joyce, Alosha's host father. He added that, despite his medical problems, Alosha "sings and smiles all the time." Alosha flashed what Dan calls his "killer smile" when he heard he could stay.

By the time Alosha had foot surgery, teeth restructuring and extensive physical therapy to work his joints, his visa expired. He returned home in September 1998 to be evaluated by Russian doctors. During that time, he renewed his visa—set to expire in August 1999—which allowed him to return to the States. He resides now with the Joyces, with whom he lived during his 1998 visit. He remains friends with their sons, teenagers Dan, Jr., and Doug, and eight-year-old Ryan. The Joyces enrolled Alosha in school and, since adoption is possible, are working to find him a suitable home.

An Expanding Network

The idea for a Chernobyl outreach program was first presented by teenagers to a U.S. group exploring youth-ministry projects following an Irish student-exchange program. The original Chernobyl outreach program began in Ireland in 1990.

"Could we reach across the planet and give these kids respite, four weeks of rest, quiet and hospitality?" Father Bowers had asked. "As we talked about it, five [local] parishes said, 'We can do this!'"

Beginning with 10 visitors in 1995, the organization expanded to greater Boston the following year to include 100 children from a Belarus orphanage and about 100 children and doctors in 1997. As word of the program spread, new possibilities opened up, thanks in part to local media coverage.

The 1998 summer visit was the best yet, especially with additional sponsors: a synagogue and a Protestant church, a Catholic high school and several individuals who raised up to $4,000, generally to cover the cost to invite back past visitors. Through the expanding network, frequent visits by key organizers to the Chernobyl region and open discussions among participants for feedback, the goal to reach as many of the three million affected children as possible is quickly becoming a reality. The effort will again be repeated this summer.

Holding Their Hands

In the spring, about five months before the children arrive, informational meetings are held with participating organizations to discuss the program with families interested in hosting children. Families able to meet the requirements for time, energy and the added expense receive an information packet.

Volunteers help raise funds and organize a network of coordinators by geographical regions throughout metropolitan Boston. Bottle drives, car washes, raffles and special collections help raise a minimum of $1,000 per child for airfare and expenses. Coordinators arrange for everything from easing the language barrier by providing translators, dictionaries, phrase books and flash cards to ordering prepared meals, providing transportation and being in charge of donations. Giving Trees set up in church lobbies offer gift certificates to area eateries and stores; donations offset the cost of food, clothing and extras such as in-line skates, cameras and watches. Father Bowers has been particularly touched by the personal sacrifices coordinators make to ensure the children have successful visits.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, children well enough to travel are selected by Children in Trouble and Children in Danger, two foundations composed of parents, teachers and physicians. Placements are made once each child receives a Russian physician's consent, and stateside, as soon as the funding and host families are established. Prior to the visit, host families receive personal histories, medical records and photos; introductions are made by mail.

On orientation night, when host families gather to obtain the names of their incoming children, the atmosphere is tense as families wait for their names to be called. Jim Moonan, host-family services coordinator, puts everyone at ease, explaining that becoming a host family requires nothing more than a sincere willingness to make the children part of the family. He assures parents that they do not have to do anything special; the most important thing is to offer a normal home life.

"You're holding their hand spiritually, physically and in so many ways," he says. "It requires nothing more than love in your heart, patience and trust that things will work out."

A Safe Arrival

Typical of most visits, the first few days were the most difficult for 13-year-old Katya Malova and eight-year-old Olya Knoovalova. In July 1997, they were guests of Kelly and Tom Curran and their five children, ranging in age from 12 to two. Unable to understand English, the girls stared with blank faces the first night as the Currans attempted to communicate. A visit from a translator and occasional telephone assistance helped overcome initial awkwardness.

Our family is hosting two boys, Sergei Byeloschitsky, 15, and Sergei Lebedev, 14, "the Sergeis." Our mom says now she knows why they say "oh boy" instead of "oh girl," because the boys can get a little wild. This project brings hope to the children of Belarus. It shows them that if they work up to it, they can come to a better place than what they're used to. Coming to America is a dream come true to them. They think America has cures for everything and that it is a kind of fantasy land. They were very helpful around the house. They washed the car, carried things and vacuumed. They were amazed at the choices of food. When they went to the grocery store, they couldn't believe that you could buy a whole watermelon or that there was an entire aisle of cereal.

—told by Laura Malone, age 12, to the congregation of St. Mary Church in Chelmsford

 

Though they did not know each other before arriving in the United States, Katya and Olya live with their parents in Klintsy, Russia. Katya's mother is a supervisor in a supermarket, and her father works in a factory. Olya's mother teaches math, and her father works in a garage. The girls' parents saved up the small fee to send them here and were proud their daughters could come.

Olya fit right in and was happy to be here. On the other hand, Katya felt homesick, a common problem among the visiting children. She wanted to call her mother, but Kelly encouraged her to write a letter and send photographs instead. Quiet and shy, Katya folded everything, even the tissue paper from gifts. While they kept up with the Curran children most of the time, Olya occasionally withdrew with stomach pains, cramps and a high fever. Though there was plenty to do—see the sights, watch a Red Sox game, join the entire group on a harbor cruise—the girls most appreciated the simple pleasures: riding bikes, visiting and shopping. Their favorite place to go was the grocery store.

"Whenever they wanted to do something fun, it would be to go to the grocery store," said Kelly. "They couldn't get their seat belts off fast enough." In Klintsy, the food is rationed and there is hardly anything on store shelves.

 

The first night our child was exhausted. We thought he would hop right in bed. Instead we saw him washing his socks in the sink. This is what he does in Belarus every night. He only has one pair of socks. That was when we showed him the washing machine, which he thought was great. What we take for granted is amazing to them. They got a kick out of the garage door, elevator, escalator, keyboard, automatic doors, vacuums, microwave and microwavable popcorn. When my mother took us strawberry-picking, we were thrilled. We love to pick strawberries. They had serious faces and were quite careful about which strawberry to pick. You should have seen their faces receiving the gifts from you. They just love the clothes, bags, hats, shoes, towels, bathing suits and all the small gadgets. Sergei B. loved the watch. His shoes were way too small. His toes were scrunched up. He loves the sneakers. He was jumping in them because they felt so good.

—told by Susan Malone, age 11, to the congregation of St. Mary Church in Chelmsford

 

The visit fit in with the Currans' philosophy of offering children diverse opportunities in sports and other activities. Though they viewed hosting as a big commitment, Kelly reflected that it meant much more: "It is our way of giving something back for children less fortunate than ours." Paramount, she said, was the opportunity for "our children to see through others' eyes, to experience another culture," a learning experience never more poignant than on the days her children helped carry presents, stacked high on two tables, home from church. The Curran children learned firsthand what it meant to give.

Many surprises were in store for Jan and Mike McTeague and their 13-year-old son, Josh, of St. Mary Church in Chelmsford. Their guests in 1997, Tanya Lepejeva and Zhenya Sivko, were both 11 and going into the seventh grade; each of them had taken two years of English in school. The first two surprises were kittens, Boris and Natasha, waiting for the girls when they first arrived at the McTeague home.

No one expected a third one. But soon, on an errand at the cobbler's shop, the children heard a faint cry coming from a bench. They followed the little sound, and there sat another fluffy kitten, its eyes still closed. How could Jan resist? The kittens were a blessing since caring for them gave Tanya and Zhenya a welcome diversion from a world so different from their own.

These two girls from Klintsy, Russia, got along well together and independently. In no time, they knew the neighborhood children, rode bikes with them and swam in the neighborhood pool. Josh showed them around and kept them entertained.

Zhenya, who lives with her mother and sister, appeared in good health. The prognosis on her medical form was good and her scar from thyroid removal well hidden. By contrast, Tanya's guardian grandmother had written on her medical form, "Please! Help this girl about medicine, or if it's possible, a wheelchair—very short of money and can't provide Tanya with proper medicines." Though Tanya's prognosis was only fair because of a metal prosthesis in her right knee that had permanently straightened her leg, she walked without help and never mentioned a wheelchair.

Most unexpected was Jan and Mike's decision to invite Tanya and her grandmother back. Though arrangements can be made for returning children through the program, plane fare and travel expenses normally covered by the program and sponsoring organization are not included. This policy allows visitation for the optimal number of needy children. Despite the expense, numerous families invite children back and, in some cases, families adopt the children.

During the winter, Jan and Mike extended their invitation by telephone to Tanya and her grandmother, Evgeniya Trushkina, better known as Babushka Zhenya, who had recently retired from the textile industry.

During the visit, Babushka Zhenya regaled the McTeagues with her sewing skill and excellent borscht and plunged into sightseeing, shopping and gardening with zeal. At amusement parks Tanya rode anything that moved, while 70-year-old Babushka Zhenya sailed on roller coasters and giant swings and zinged down the water slide as fast as any child. Indeed, for the McTeagues and others who enjoyed a second visit, their guests had already become "one of the family," forming a bond stronger than anyone imagined.

'We Can Break Open Love'

A kaleidoscope of the month's events whirled in everyone's heads as the group assembled one last time for a farewell dinner. The most difficult time had come, the time to say good-bye.

St. Mary Church parishioner Jan McTeague says good-bye to her guest, Tatiana Lepejeva from Klintsy, Russia.

Photo by Linda Wilson


Silence fell as Father Bowers, with help from a Russian interpreter, addressed the crowd. "We have had the privilege of extending our hands and hearts to our good friends from Belarus and Russia. Thank you for filling our lives with a unique and powerful insight—that if we make sacrifices, give of ourselves, share the gifts God has given us and look beyond our boundaries, ideologies and fears, we can break open love, unconditional love."

Across the hushed room no one had a dry eye. The organizers, coordinators, families and children—all who contributed so much to make the visit a success—were sad to part company. The void would be difficult to fill.

"There aren't too many opportunities to make a difference in someone's life," reflects host mother Susan Hayward. "You can do it for groups with contributions to this or that fund. But this is different—this is changing someone's heart."

Translator Anna Bobova sums it up best: "American society is a society of winners. What our culture has lost is to be a people who strive for something better. I guess that was the fundamental key to our whole program: to give hope to these people. We may have succeeded very well."

For more information about the Chernobyl outreach programs, please contact: Chernobyl Children Project USA, Inc., 175 Derby Street, Suite 22, Hingham, MA 02043. Phone (781) 251-0137.

 


Linda Ellen Wilson is a free-lance writer from Westford, Massachusetts. Married and the mother of two teenagers, she writes human-interest and educational articles for newspapers and magazines.

 

 

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