Archive for Tuesday, August 15, 2006

After Chernobyl, youths find help in Missouri

August 15, 2006

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— He's 9. Skinny. All arms and legs and a head of pale blonde hair.

He sits in the stands as classic rock in a foreign language fills the ball park air on a sweaty Sunday summer night.

Ihar Melnikau smiles and laughs with a little girl next to him, three rows up from the American family he's staying with.

It's easy, on this warm evening, not to notice the air filled with smells of hot dogs and sounds of chattering fans.

But his body does. It's why he's here.

Clean food and water, clear air and family are basics. Easy to overlook, but hard to live without.

Twenty years ago, a nuclear explosion took many of those away from people in Belarus, Ihar's country.

Now, a local program is trying to give them back.

It was an April Saturday in 1986. One hour and 23 minutes into the new day.

According to the United Nations, staff at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, shut off the reactor's emergency cooling facility and disaster protection system for tests. In 44 seconds, the U.N. reports, the reactor exploded with force 100 times greater than the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fewer than 50 people died immediately, according to the U.N., followed by some 600,000 involved in clean up.

But that wasn't the end.

Dr. F. Robert Burns, a dentist in Weston, Mo., gets ready to extract baby teeth from Ihar Melnikau, 9. Ihar is participating in a program that brings Belarusian children to the area for recuperative stays after the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

Dr. F. Robert Burns, a dentist in Weston, Mo., gets ready to extract baby teeth from Ihar Melnikau, 9. Ihar is participating in a program that brings Belarusian children to the area for recuperative stays after the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the nuclear fallout drifted over to nearby Belarusian territory, according to the U.S. Department of State.

About 2.2 million people still live in contaminated areas. That includes some 800,000 children in Belarus, according to the Missouri-Belarus Family Link.

They're too young to have lived through the nuclear disaster that contaminated their country, but not too young to suffer the effects of accumulating radioactive pollution.

They are at greater risk for serious health problems, UNICEF reports.

For Ihar, pronounced Igor, that means a cognitional heart disease called tetralogy of fallout. Two years ago, he underwent his first surgery.

Programs bringing Belarusian children to other countries for recuperative stays exist in states across the country and in countries around the world. Patsy Hartman, of DeKalb, Mo., first hosted a Belarusian boy in 1996.

"I went to Belarus that year by myself," she says. It changed the way she saw everything and made clear the abundance of basics and beyond in the United States.

In 2002, she and a few others started Missouri-Belarus Family Link. It's a nonprofit program in which most host families fund trips for about 15 kids in a range of ages to the Midwest for eight-week stays each summer. The average cost is around $1,200. But the results, Hartman says, are dramatic.

Yauhemiya Melnikava, 17, talks with Melnikau after his trip to the dentist. They are participating in the Missouri-Belarus Family Link program

Yauhemiya Melnikava, 17, talks with Melnikau after his trip to the dentist. They are participating in the Missouri-Belarus Family Link program

"Just being here six weeks jump starts their immune systems 25 percent," says Hartman, the group's president.

The Chernobyl Children's Project International agrees. One of their programs takes kids out of the area during intense heat, which they say spreads radioactive material. And, they've found, once the children return, their radiation levels drop between 30 percent and 50 percent.

With the Missouri-Belarus Family Link, they see doctors, dentists and eat a lot.

But maybe most important, Hartman says, is the family link.

The kids come in as strangers.

"... And they end up being a part of the family."

In Halls, Mo., a farmhouse sits at the end of a long gravel drive, past rows of tall corn.

In Belarus, Ihar lives with his mom and two sisters in a small house with a living room and two bedrooms.

But when Terri and Brent Matthews decided to become a host family this year, their farmhouse became Ihar's home, at least for the summer. They'd seen other members of their church participate in the program and thought it would be good for their son, 5, and daughter, 8.

The Matthewses felt excited, at first, but as the time neared, nerves took over. Brent, a nurse, knew that Ihar's heart condition was a serious one.

But in Belarus, Ihar felt excited.

It was his first time in a plane, he says through Yauhemiya "Jane" Melnikava, a 17-year-old staying with the Sampson family up the street. It's her fourth summer with the program, and she gains 20 pounds each time, says Gwen Sampson.

Ihar speaks no English, so Jane interprets for him.

But the language barrier hasn't been a problem, Terri Matthews says.

Still, Ihar says, America is very different from Belarus.

The houses here are different, he says.

They're really big.

"He was surprised to see so many cars," Jane says. "In our country, cars are pretty expensive."

He likes the fruits here, and spaghetti.

He likes video games, Legos, swimming.

Here, Ihar gets to be a 9-year-old, despite the heart problems that keep him home-schooled, despite missing his mom, sisters and the tart berries that grow in the forests this time of year in Belarus.

He's smiling, laughing. With eyebrows that raise excitedly when he talks.

Thick, green trees border the ball park the night of the Blacksnakes game.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your 2006 St. Joe Blacksnakes," a voice booms with the twang of a microphone.

Brent and Terri sit a few rows down from Ihar, who torments his little blonde friend.

Through his stay, the Matthewses have learned a lot about how other people live, and begun to appreciate their own healthy lives.

And, they hope, Ihar's getting stronger here, from the air, the water, the food and their family.

Ihar watches through his binoculars for the singing female voice during the national anthem.

He watches a little more when the game begins.

And then, he goes back to bothering his friend.

He is, after all, 9.

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