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How Will We Explain It To The Chornobyl Children?

On July 31, our family bade a tearful goodbye at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., to 12-year-old Sasha and his sister, 14-year-old Angelina. For the sixth summer, these two delightful, bright children have blessed our family with their kindness and cheerful natures. They come as a part of a grassroots humanitarian project that started a few years after the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident. Thousands of children leave their homes in Belarus for summer respite visits as guests of other countries with clean air, good food, and solid health care.

These children don't live in institutions in Belarus -- most have loving families who live in difficult conditions due to the economic, physical, and psychological devastation of the Chornobyl accident. One-third of Belarus was contaminated by radiation that continues to take its toll on today's children in the form of high rates of birth defects, thyroid cancer, and leukemia. Belarus has one of the highest suicide rates in Eastern Europe and very high alcoholism rates. Those who suffer the most are the children. The six-week visits to other countries enable them to "decontaminate" -- eat healthy food, breathe clean air, and have fun in a safe, loving environment. Their families trust us with their beloved children -- to keep them safe, to give them dental and medical care that's unavailable at home, and to return them to their families as promised.

Tanya Kazyra (right) with Zapata family members in August
On August 5, another longtime host family, in Petaluma, California, made the decision to not return their visiting child, Tanya Kazyra. Their local Chornobyl program had been bringing Tanya to the Zapatas' home for the last eight years -- this was her ninth summer visit. For reasons known only to them, rather than pursuing other avenues of helping Tanya, they opted to hire an immigration lawyer and -- without telling the chaperones or the leaders of the program ahead of time -- simply didn't take Tanya to the airport to depart as scheduled with her group of 24 children and two adult chaperones. That decision has resulted in exactly what all host parents have feared: the cancellation of the entire program, not just in the United States but internationally.

We have hosted for seven years and saying goodbye is difficult every summer. My husband, daughter, son, and I can certainly sympathize with the Zapatas' feelings for this girl and hers for them. Angelina and Sasha call us their "American family." Since their mother is an orphan, born to a mother she never met who was also an orphan, they have no extended family. We are their extended family. They call my parents "Grandmother" and "Grandfather." My Jenna and Angelina call themselves twins. Sasha calls my Ben his brother from another country! Yes, we can all sympathize with the Zapatas, but that does not make their actions right or ethical.

I have been to Belarus twice. I visited homes there and met many of the loving parents and grandparents who entrust us with their precious children for them to get away from what one mother calls "this Chornobyl air." Research shows that even such a short period cleanses the children's systems of some contaminants and boosts their immune systems. Doctors in Belarus suggest that children who have respite trips have fewer of the respiratory infections that put many other children in the hospital during the frigid winters.

Regardless of the politics of our countries, these respite visits give children hope. They help our own children, blessed with material abundance, to learn to think of others, share their rooms, share their toys, and bear witness to the pride and intelligence these challenged children show.

Any violation of the agreement with the nonprofit organization in Belarus that arranges the visits results in that nonprofit losing its license, chaperones being legally punished, and all the programs being closed. The Zapatas knew the consequences. Debra Zapata served on her local Chornobyl program's board and helped inform other hosts of their obligation to return the children on time. The Zapatas and Tanya's grandmother agreed on the designated return date, which was indicated by their signatures on the contracts. That date for Tanya and the Zapatas was August 5, 2008.

In my opinion, the Zapatas have betrayed the trust of all of the families, both Belarusian and American, in the program. Their lawyer keeps pointing out that Tanya's visa is good until December 5, implying that she is free to stay until then. As a general practice, the visa date for the children extends beyond their return date as a precaution to allow for any unexpected medical treatments. Only the legal chaperones from Belarus have the right to make a change in departure dates, and only if medically needed and approved by the child's family.

The Zapatas' lawyer also says Tanya and the Zapatas are not to blame for the closure of the summer-visit program, the government of Belarus is. But clearly, if an American child in an exchange program abroad were being similarly detained, the U.S. government would react quickly and vigorously. We can hardly blame the Belarusian government for doing exactly what we would demand of our own.

Tanya Kazyra's aunt (center) and grandmother (right) in Barysau, Belarus
The Zapatas are the only U.S. hosts in 17 years to take such a step. They have no legal right to make decisions for this minor. Yes, Tanya comes from a poor family and tough conditions, possibly including an environment contaminated by radiation. But all the Chornobyl children come from similar conditions, rife with poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, illness, missing parents, poor food, and other obstacles to a happy life. That is exactly why eight countries host thousands of children from this area each summer. Now, that good work may end because of this one family's actions.

If the Zapatas and Tanya really feel they have made "a valid decision," as their lawyer suggests, then I wish they would go to Belarus and explain that decision to Angelina and Sasha. The Zapatas could go to their one-room flat -- with no refrigerator, no phone, no reliable hot water, and a door battered in by their violent alcoholic father -- and break the news to them. They could explain that Tanya is more important than the medicine their mother gets through the Chornobyl program. More important than clothes for their baby sister. And more important than their six weeks of relief each summer.

Multiply that image several thousand times over, and you will understand what the Zapatas have done.

Kate Van Dyck is a special-education teacher who has been hosting children in the Chornobyl program since 2001 and has been a host coordinator for her local program since 2002. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL