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Children return to Chernobyl via Federal Way

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

Sixteen years ago, a nuclear reactor exploded in the northern Ukrainian Chernobyl Power Plant, blowing a fog of nuclear waste over the neighboring country of Belarus and infecting the water and soil with radiation.

Today, more than a decade after the explosion, Belarussian children suffer from what’s known as Chernobyl AIDS — a degradation of the immune system caused by constant bombardment of low-level radiation still seeping from the cement-encased reactor, ominously referred to as “the sarcophagus.”

Tom Watson and his wife, Lineta, who live near Enchanted Village, began hosting Belarussian children in 1994, after Lineta read a newspaper article about a woman who was trying to adopt a child affected by the devastating impacts of Chernobyl.

Lineta showed Tom the article and asked what he thought, but there wasn’t a tremendous amount of discussion. “My wife had already decided,” he said.

The Watsons spent two years hosting children in their Federal Way home through a local organization until 1996, when they broke away (Tom Watson cites differences in management style) and formed For the Children, a local non-profit agency that matches Belarussian children with host families.

There are many causes to work for, but the Watsons picked kids from Chernobyl because they seemed to need so much help and they felt they could make a difference.

Children living near the dead zone stay with host families for a six-week medical respite. By the six-week mark, they have gained weight and color. Some even have grown a couple inches.

“They seemed like true victims to me,” Watson said.“What you’ve got to do if you decide to help is be realistic.”

Larissa Khvoshchevskaya lives in Belarus and works with the organization that selects the children, based on proximity to the dead zone and social disadvantage, and then submits a list to For the Children.

The children who are chosen to come to the United States live close — within 50 miles — to the reactor.

This year, 51 kids from Belarus came to the Puget Sound area for the six-week respite. They left on an Aerflot flight back to Belarus Monday night, loaded with food and supplies for their real families to last until next year’s visit.

Host parents make a laundry list of doctor and dental appointments for the kids before they even leave Belarus.

When they arrive, For the Children pays to have them tested for thyroid cancer, a common condition of many kids living in the affected area.

Doctors also examine the children for any other medical problems. One girl this year was found to have an extra rib as a result of genetic mutation from exposure to radiation.

Doctors draw three vials of blood per child for testing.

The children get to sit in the dentist’s chair while they’re here, too, though their dental problems are associated with poor hygiene and sugar rather than exposure to radiation. One boy had 22 cavities, Lineta Watson recalled, but generally after the first visit — and some oral hygiene education — the children return with few or no dental problems.

This year, For the Children hosted deaf Belarussian children for the first time.

Host families were faced with shuttling the children to doctors and dentists with an entourage of interpreters who could speak Russian, American Sign Language and Russian Sign Language.

“We were filled with trepidation,” Tom Watson said.

As it happened, the deaf children found ways to communicate with their families more quickly even than the hearing children. “It was an incredible experience,” he said.

The children aren’t necessarily deaf from exposure. One boy who visited Washington this year caught rheumatic fever when he was 4 and lost his hearing. Another boy appears to have been improperly delivered by forceps, which possibly damaged his eardrums.

Artur Kazhamiakin, who attends the deaf school in Gomel, Belarus, was one of the deaf children visiting Federal Way. Doctors never gave his mother a definite explanation why he was deaf, Khvoshchevskaya said.

Among the myriad medical visits, host families for the deaf children took them to get hearing aids while they were here. The boys, hearing for the first time, began making strange noises at the audiologist’s office.

“I don’t think they’d ever heard their own voices,” Tom Watson said.

Maryna Prykhodzka, 11, from a town called Khoiniki, is visiting the United States for the first time.

Polite and sweet, she clips her shoulder-length hair back from her forehead and wears new wire-rimmed glasses she got following an eye appointment with her host family.

She went through “about every pair of glasses” in the shop, host mother Bonnie Steinkamp said.

Dzianis Zinavenka, 14, has dirty-blond hair and an impish smile that he uses to humorous effect. He doesn’t elaborate much, answering questions with a grin and a shrug of his shoulders.

He lives with his parents and brothers in a green-colored wood-frame house in Khoiniki, though he and Maryna go to different schools and didn’t know each other prior to visiting Washington.

Maryna lives in a small, white brick house with her granny. Most of the other houses in her neighborhood also are brick and there are children her age there with whom she plays.

About 10,000 people live in Khoiniki, which is located about 35 miles from Chernobyl. There’s a town square downtown, along with offices and city buildings.

Many people remained in Khoiniki after reactor 4 exploded because the government couldn’t afford to relocate them, Tom Watson said.

Others tried to leave on their own, Khvoshchevskaya said, but returned when they couldn’t find housing or jobs.

Most people, about 46 percent, work in the industrial sector. Others, about 41 percent, work in the service sector and about 13 percent work in agriculture. Pay is poor and inflation is estimated to be about 200 percent, according to 2000 figures collected by the CIA.

A 1995 estimate put 22 percent of the population below poverty level. About 2 percent were officially registered as unemployed, according to 2000 figures, and a large number of people were reportedly underemployed.

Many people wanted to move and some tried, Khvoshchevskaya said, but they came back because of jobs. Adults realize the area is dangerous and contaminated, but they don’t know what else to do, she said.

The children living in Belarus near Chernobyl are typical. With the exception of health conditions brought on by exposure to radiation, they’re just like kids living anywhere else in the world.

They know there was an explosion and they know a lot of people died at the time of the explosion and of radiation poisoning later, Khvoshchevskaya said. Maryna knows there are villages where people can’t live at all and where houses stand empty, but she understands her own town to be safe.

And it is, compared to towns located closer to the nuclear disaster site. Still, it’s less safe than towns located farther away.

But the kids’ major concern isn’t returning to a contaminated area. They just don’t want to go back to school this fall.

“They’re just like normal kids and maybe not aware of their condition,” Khvoshchevskaya said. “Happiness depends on many factors.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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