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Christmas in Ireland for Chernobyl Children

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The Irish government has established an agreement with Belarus to end the ban on travel for children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The agreement means approximately 200 children will be able to visit Ireland this Christmas.

Ireland is the first country to secure a direct inter-governmental agreement since Belarus banned travel for Chernobyl children in August after one participant, Tanya Kazyra, refused to return home at the end of her visit with the Zapata family in Petaluma, California.

The agreement allows for unrestricted continuation of visits by all children under the age of 18. A memo of understanding will be signed by both governments on December 21.

Hopefully other countries will be able to secure similar agreements in the near future.

Chernobyl Charity Teen Kazyra Returns to Belarus

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Tanya KazyraTanya Kazyra, a 16-year participant in a summer program for children from Belarus’ Chernobyl-affected areas, finally returned to her home in Belarus last weekend. Kazyra made worldwide headlines in August when she remained with her host family in Petaluma, California after refusing to return to Belarus at the end of her summer holiday. Apparently, Kazyra changed her mind after speaking with a Russian Orthodox priest.

Tanya’s host family the Zapata’s, opposed her return to Belarus. In an interesting twist, the girl’s grandmother, Nadzeya Novik, expressed concern that the Zapata’s were preventing Tanya from going back to Belarus and from communicating with Belorussian authorities.

Reports of Tanya’s possible reasons for returning home include Lito Zapata’s departure for military service in Iraq and complaints that Ashley Zapata spent too much time with her boyfriend. The real reason may be that Tanya’s tourist visa expires on December 25, even though she did apply for a 6 month extension.

The furor over Tanya’s refusal to return home resulted in the Belorussian government placing a ban on travel outside the country for all “Chernobyl Children.” Since August, several charity organizations and governments have attempted to get the program reinstated. Hopefully with Tanya’s return to Belarus, these programs will get back to normal in the near future. Don’t be surprised, however, if additional safeguards and limitations are put in place by the Belorussian government.

Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl Director Dies

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I am sad to report that Rabbi Yossie Raichik, director of the charity organization Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl, died today due to complications from a lung infection. Raichik was 55 years old.

After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Raichik moved to Israel to help facilitate the airlifting of children hardest hit by the Chernobyl accident. Since the organization’s founding in 1989, Children of Chernobyl has brought more than 2,500 children and 1,700 parents from the Chernobyl area to live in Israel.

Photo: Chabad.org

In case you haven’t heard, 16 year old Tanya Kazyra, a participant in a summer program for children from Belarus’ Chernobyl-affected areas, refused to return home to Belarus at the end of her summer holiday with the Zapata family in Petaluma, California. She has not requested asylum - only refusing to return home. The Zapatas have willingly allowed Tanya to remain in their home. In response, the Belorussian government has temporarily placed a ban for all children on future travel abroad organized by charities.

These programs are designed to provide rest and recuperation for Belorussian children affected in some way by the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. The programs allow these children to spend 6 to 8 weeks with a host family in another country.

Some charitable organizations believe these programs allow the children’s immune systems to recover, making it easier for them to fight the effects of lingering radiation at home in Belarus.

When considering the Belorussian government’s decision, don’t immediately assume they are doing something horribly wrong. All participants, including the sponsoring families, sign an agreement indicating the children will return to Belarus at the end of their stay. These children visit other countries on temporary visas. The programs are not exchange or adoption programs. The Belorussian government is merely trying to insure these agreements are honored by seeking bilateral agreements with the governments of participating families’ countries to ensure this type of situation does not happen again.

You may think Belarus is using a heavy-handed tactic, but these children (approximately 1,400 participate in such programs each year) can be looked at as ambassadors for Belarus. The entire country receives aid, due in part to the presence of these children in other countries. If a child does not return home, the country loses a powerful face in their attempt to obtain aid and improve conditions at home.

 In Tanya’s case, not only is the young lady violating the terms of the agreement, but the Zapatas have violated their agreement as well. I am sure Tanya’s life in Belarus is nowhere near as good as she has it with her sponsoring family in California, but her decision is jeopardizing many children’s opportunity to enjoy the same holiday abroad that she has had for the last nine years.

Tanya’s visa expires December 25, and her attorney has proposed that Tanya would seek a student visa to study in the United States, publicly apologize to the Belorussian government, help raise awareness in the US about Belorussian culture, history and traditions and help raise money for the Chernobyl Children’s Project charity in the area.

I don’t agree with all policies of the Belorussian government, but I can’t blame them for trying to enforce these agreements and not losing valuable ambassadors for their country. Hopefully this issue can be quickly resolved so these Belorussian children can again get a much needed holiday abroad.

The information presented here comes from a myriad of news stories and my own feelings. In the near future, I hope to contact people involved in the current situation (including Belorussian officials) to get a more complete picture of what is really happening. I will post an update when I have additional information.
man in Soltanovkaphoto by Kathy Ryan

My friend Kathy Ryan, who works with Chernobyl Children's Project International (CCPI) just returned home from a quick trip to Belarus. In the past, Kathy has visited the Vesnova Children's Mental Asylum (orphanage), where care is provided for children who have been abandoned or diagnosed with mental conditions.

During this particular trip, Kathy had a chance to visit the Soltanovka adult mental asylum, a facility similar to Vesnova that provides care for adults. When children at Vesnova reach the age of 18 (if they survive to that age), they are automatically taken in to the Soltanovka facility.

Kathy has started a series of blog posts on the CCPI-US website describing her experiences on this trip. If her first post is any indication of what will follow, you will definitely want to bookmark the site or subscribe to the blog so you can keep up with Kathy’s upcoming articles.

Be forewarned - if you are looking for an uplifting story, you will probably be disappointed. Kathy has painted a stark picture of the dilapidated conditions at the Soltanovka facility. The staff is overwhelmed, so while the patients are clothed, washed, and fed, there no treatment plans, therapists, or activities for them. The residents typically spend their days in bed, wandering the halls, rocking back and forth in place and watching a blurry television.

Soltanovka may sound like an appalling place, but I’m sure the workers do the best they can. It’s not much, but at least the residents get regular meals and a roof over their heads. Regarding the situation at Soltanovka, Kathy remarks, "... it is the place where mentally disabled people go to die."

The worst part of this is that Kathy's story is not new. It is nothing more than the tragic continuation of what is now a 22 year saga of how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has affected the lives of so many people in southern Belarus.

I can’t imagine seeing a situation first-hand, such as that which Kathy describes.  It has to be difficult to hide your true feelings from the residents, and must be beyond depressing.

In today’s economic climate, financial limitations can be extremely hard on charities like CCPI. I am sure after visiting Soltanovka, Kathy and CCPI will do everything they can to help, somehow fitting this need in with their many other projects. CCPI already plans to help at Soltanovka with some sanitary and cosmetic repairs - hopefully they can find the resources to provide some additonal aid.

What Kathy describes in her report is certainly not a happy story, but one that should definitely get more attention than it currently receives. Perhaps in the near future, with the help of CCPI and other charitable organizations, this story can be transformed into nothing more than the sad prelude to a happier ending.  At least I would like to think so.

In spring 2008, Chernobyl Children's Project International (CCPI) is sponsoring four trips to Ukraine for American medical teams to operate on children with very serious heart conditions. Since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, medical personnel have seen a dramatic increase in genetic defects, such as these heart conditions, in children living in the “Chernobyl affected areas.” Without an operation, each of these children will die.

CCPI has a long-standing history of providing aid to children in Belarus. In the past, American surgical teams have traveled to Belarus, performing similar operations and training local physicians. CCPI's new fund raising campaign seeks support to assist in the expansion of this medical program into Ukraine.

By raising $1,500, I can help cover the costs of one of these life saving operations. To help with this effort, I have added a Charity Badge to this site, located on the right just below the feed subscription area. Please consider donating to this important program.

You can learn more at Chernobyl Children’s Project International’s Website/Blog

Public Misunderstanding of UN Chernobyl Aid Resolution

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Over the past several days, I have seen many bloggers writing about the recent UN resolution regarding Chernobyl aid. Many people are apparently confused by the announcement that the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) emphasis on Chernobyl assistance efforts will shift from emergency and disaster relief to rehabilitation and sustainable development.

People are taking this to mean that radiation levels have returned to near normal levels and the area is again safe for habitation. This is a huge and grossly incorrect assumption. What these people do not understand is that the UN concentrates its Chernobyl aid efforts on several oblasts (provinces) and districts surrounding the Chernobyl area, but does not include the Chernobyl District itself.

UN Resolution Shifts Chernobyl Aid Focus

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The United Nations General Assembly has promoted a new resolution shifting the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) emphasis on Chernobyl assistance efforts from emergency and disaster relief to rehabilitation and sustainable development.

Cihan Sultanoglu, UNDP's Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director of the Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, said, “UNDP is trying to change the legacy of Chernobyl from one of despair and hopelessness to one of hope and prosperity and health.... 20 years of treating the residents of those regions as victims has created a culture of apathy.”