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'Chornobyl Child' Causes International Stir By Refusing To Return To Belarus

  • Farangis Najibullah

Tanya Kazyra (right) is fighting to stay with her host family in California.

After spending the better part of nine summers with her Californian host family, Tanya Kazyra has decided against returning to her native Belarus.

The 16-year-old "child of Chornobyl" says she wants to stay permanently with Debra and Manuel Zapata and their three children, whom she calls "my real family."

But Tanya's decision is having a global impact -- infuriating officials in Minsk, leading to rifts in diplomatic circles, and threatening the efforts of international organizations intended to reach out to children living in the shadow of the Soviet-era nuclear disaster.

Belarusian officials responded to Tanya's refusal to return home by banning foreign exchanges of children affected by the 1986 explosion at Chornobyl. Minsk said it would not allow children to travel to Western countries without guarantees that all will return home.

The case has had particular resonance in Ireland, where the Chernobyl Children's Project International (CCPI) was founded in 1991 by Adi Roche. She says she was "shocked" by Minsk's decision.

"Over the 22 years since the Chornobyl disaster, hundreds of thousands of children had this lifeline, which has helped to keep the Belarusian generation clean and sustained and to make sure that they are able to have healthy children the next generation on," Roche says.

"But those who are most affected now are those who come to countries like Ireland, Germany, or America for medical assessment, for treatment and, of course, for rest and recuperation, which is the bulk of the children," she adds. "And we were shocked, because this a lifeline for the children."

Roche and Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin have been actively trying to resolve the crisis, which they say affects thousands of children suffering from Chornobyl explosion consequences.

Irish diplomats traveled to Minsk last week to meet with Belarusian officials to try to convince them to lift the ban. On September 11, a Belarusian delegation was in Dublin to continue the discussions with Irish officials.

Roche tells RFE/RL that Dublin, as a short-term solution, is asking Belarusian officials for an exemption that would allow children to travel to Ireland for a preplanned trip over the Christmas holiday.

In the long run, Roche says, Ireland hopes to sign an intergovernmental agreement with Belarus on child protection and child safety that could pave the way for a resumption of the "Chornobyl children's" trips to Ireland.

Risks To Program

According to Roche, some 50,000 children from areas in the Chornobyl zone travel annually to the United States and EU countries, including France, Spain, Portugal, and Britain. In the United States alone, where the CCPI has an affiliate office in New York, some 1,400 children make the trip every year to spend time with American host families.

The provision of vital medical treatment is a key component of the program, and recently the Irish government allocated $1 million to the CCPI to build medical centers in Belarus.

Roche says that if the crisis is not solved, there is a risk that "such funding would be withdrawn."

Tanya's nine summers in California with the Zapata family were organized by the Petaluma-based Chernobyl Children's Project. The organization is part of the Children of Chernobyl, United States Alliance, which groups a number of U.S. humanitarian organizations working with children affected by the disaster.

Prior to Minsk's decision to impose the controversial ban, a high-ranking Belarusian official reportedly met with Tanya and the Zapatas on three occasions in an attempt to persuade the girl to return home.

Tanya failed to change her mind, however, and the Zapatas instead hired a lawyer to secure a student visa that would enable Tanya to continue her education in the United States. According to the lawyer, Tanya's current tourist visa expires on December 5.

The girl herself has said she comes from a troubled background and that her legal guardian, her grandmother, has given her blessing for her stay in the United States.

Minsk, however, insists that Tanya is legally a minor, and cannot make such a decision on her own. Belarusian officials accuse Tanya's host family of depriving her of proper schooling -- in interviews with the U.S. media, the Zapatas have said they are homeschooling Tanya.

'Don't Be Selfish'

Tanya's case has brought mixed public reaction both in the United States and in her homeland.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service correspondent Jan Maksymiuk says that some in Belarus are expressing "understanding" for Tanya's decision, while others blame her for setting a precedent that could harm other Chornobyl victims.

"People believe that she is mature enough to decide about herself. Besides, her family situation in Belarus is such that there are actually no obstacles for her to stay in the U.S.," Maksymiuk says.

"Well, of course there were voices that Tanya should go back to Belarus because this is a bad precedent for other children, who come for such respite tours in the West. But most people sympathize with Tanya."

Commenting on an article about Tanya's case published on the website of the Santa Rosa, California, newspaper "The Press Democrat," a U.S. reader identified as "Kvandyck" writes that Tanya "should go home" and return to the U.S. legally when she is old enough.

"Being in America on a dishonorable basis, which is costing thousands of other needy children and anxious American host families untold disappointments is not the way to behave," Kvandyck says.

Many others writing on the website, however, sided with Tanya. "Even children try to run away from Belarusian regime," one says.

Another anonymous post notes: "Tanya is from a country with a dictator and a totalitarian government, so there really is no 'going back.'"

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