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Ukraine/Belarus: U.S. Groups Working to Aid Chornobyl Victims, Especially Children

Ukraine's Chornobyl nuclear accident occurred more than 16 years ago, but its effects are still being felt in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus. RFE/RL reports on efforts by private U.S. groups to help ease the pain of children suffering from ailments related to the disaster.

Washington, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 26 April 1986, an explosion tore through Reactor 4 at the Chornobyl nuclear-power plant in Ukraine. More than 16 years later, the tragedy continues to have a devastating effect on the health of many people in the region, especially children.

More than 2 million people still live in the areas contaminated by nuclear fallout from the disaster. Much research has been conducted on the health consequences of the accident. According to the Republican Congress of Pediatrics in Minsk, there has been a considerable increase in morbidity among children under the age of 14 during the past decade, particularly in the Homel and Mahileu regions of Belarus.

Among the most common health problems reported are diseases of the upper respiratory tract; persistent inflammation of the external ear canal; severe itching, redness, peeling, and scaling of the skin; iron-deficiency anemia; and eye tumors, especially in children under the age of 5. Dramatic increases in thyroid cancer and inflammation of the thyroid glands also have been reported.

In the mid-1990s, the Scientific Research Institute of Radiological Medicine in Minsk reported that the breast milk of women living in the Homel and Mahileu regions contained startlingly high amounts of deadly isotopes. Concurrently, some 18,000 residents of the Hoiniki District in the Homel region were examined by doctors from the Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences. Doctors reported that 93 percent suffered from illnesses related to Chornobyl.

While the effects of the Chornobyl accident no longer generate sensational headlines, many organizations in the United States are devoted to helping the people most affected by the tragedy, particularly children.

One such group, the Children of Chornobyl Foundation, was founded in San Diego in 1993 under the auspices of a local church. Today, the group has dozens of volunteers who invite Belarusian children to live with them in the United States for a five-week respite from their contaminated environment.

Svetlana Krasynska is the president of the organization. She is from Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, and came to the United States in 1997. Krasynska spoke with RFE/RL about how her organization came to be created. "It was founded to bring children from radiation-contaminated regions -- primarily from the [Homel] region in Belarus that got most of the radiation as a result of the Chornobyl explosion -- to bring the kids over here to San Diego to give them medical, dental, and optometric support and get them out of the radiation so that their systems get cleaned up," Krasynska said.

Krasynska said the children are provided with medical examinations and medicine donated by local doctors and hospitals.

According to Krasynska, the children who visit typically show remarkable changes within a short period of time. She said their skin color improves, bruises and sores disappear, and that the children eat better and have higher levels of energy.

Krasynska said the effects of Chornobyl are long-lasting. Even though we're trying to address the problems of the children who are 8, 10 years old right now -- and obviously they were born after the nuclear accident -- you see that it still affects children who were born after the accident," Krasynska said.

Krasynska said local churches and civic groups raise the money to bring the children to the United States. She said her organization's efforts are sometimes criticized by those who believe the money would be better spent on the ground in Belarus or Ukraine. "In this way, even though some people dispute, 'Why do you people spend so much money bringing these children over to the United States while this money could be spent on so many more things over there?' -- the thing is that, in this way, we can ensure that all those funds go to treat the children," Krasynska said.

Joe Knable is a self-employed machinist and owner of a towing company in the state of Ohio. He is also the president of the Children of Chornobyl Charitable Fund. Knable told RFE/RL that his organization also brings children ages 8 to 12 -- most of whom live in poverty -- from Belarus to the United States to live briefly with American families and to receive medical treatment.

When asked why he spends all of his free time trying to raise money for children half a world away, Knable said it's simple: He wants the children to know he cares, and he wants the families in the region to understand that the world, and especially Americans, have not abandoned them. "Do I feel like I'll be doing this forever? I feel like God has called this upon my heart to do this forever," Knable said.

Norma Berkowitz is a retired social worker who heads the Friends of Chornobyl Centers. Berkowitz told RFE/RL that her group's mission is to support community centers in 13 areas on the edge of contaminated zones in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Berkowitz said she is spending her retirement working to help those affected by Chornobyl because she knows that her efforts are making a difference in people's lives. "One of the things that we use as a slogan, if you will, is: 'To be remembered is to be blessed; to be forgotten is to despair.' So what we do, in the last analysis, is to bring hope to people after they've had such devastating times," Berkowitz said.

Cecelia Calhoun is the president and founder of the nongovernmental group called the Children of Chornobyl United States Alliance. Calhoun said her main goal is to foster a network of committed individuals to aid those in the Chornobyl region. She said her organization continues to operate because the problems of Chornobyl have not gone away. She said that some cancers are only now manifesting themselves in young people who were toddlers at the time of the accident. Many other children are being born with birth defects and neurological damage.

The costs are considerable, Calhoun said. She said various U.S. groups sponsored about 1,500 children from Belarus and Ukraine last summer. She said the average transportation cost to bring a child to the United States is about $1,000, including airfare, visas, and health insurance, for a total of $1.5 million.

If you add the donated services provided by doctors and hospitals, Calhoun said, the costs soar to an additional $4.8 million. And this cost does not include medical services such as surgery, medicine, eyeglasses, or prosthetic devices that are given to those children who are severely ill. In addition, Calhoun said, each child returns home with a medical-care package of basic medicines costing $125.