Frederick church members travel to Belarus

By Karen Gardner

Joe Ortiz was one of three members of the Frederick Church of the Brethren who spent nearly two weeks in Belarus visiting orphanages and the deaf community. Ortiz, Elaine Persons and Richard Parente were part of a contingent of 22 Americans who are part of the American Belarussian Relief Organization. The organization works to bring Belarussian children to America for six weeks in the summer to cleanse their bodies of nuclear radiation left over from the Chernobyl disaster fallout.

Belarus is not exactly the place many people would choose to travel to in winter, but three members of the Frederick Church of the Brethren spent 12 days there after Christmas to visit local orphanages and spread the word about a relief program for Belarussian children.

Joe Ortiz, Richard Parente and Elaine Persons left this area's relatively mild climate for the frigid region of Mogilev, in eastern Belarus, to visit two orphanages, including one for deaf children. Temperatures were usually in the teens during the day, and much colder at night. The local residents joined a team of Americans, 22 in all, who were visiting on behalf of the American Belarussian Relief Organization, or ABRO.

Belarus is east of Poland and west of Russia. Latvia and Lithuania border Belarus on the northwest, and Ukraine is to the south.

Ortiz, who is deaf, is a member of FCOB's deaf ministry. Persons, who is hearing, provides sign language interpretation for the church's deaf community. Parente and his wife, Leslie, became involved in ABRO seven years ago while living in North Carolina. They are members of FCOB, and wanted to get the church involved with ABRO when they moved to Frederick .

Children from Belarus have come to Frederick County through ABRO for several years, through FCOB and New Hope Presbyterian Church. But deaf children were not included in the program until last summer.

Ortiz and his wife hosted Krystina Kiberava last summer, when she was 10. Krystina, who lives in an orphanage in Mstislavi, spent six weeks with the Ortizes. Krystina learned American Sign Language and taught the Ortizes Russian Sign Language.

Krystina also liked to perform skits and play video games with Ortiz's two nephews. "We want to bring her back this summer," Ortiz said as Persons interpreted.

"She liked to listen to music and she was very helpful around the house." When Krystina arrived, she had an ear infection from wax buildup, but Ortiz was able to get her the medical care she needed.

The cost to bring each child to the United States for six weeks is $2,100. That pays for transportation to the airport, airfare, visas and health insurance.

Krystina was one of four deaf children who came to Frederick County last summer through the combined efforts of ABRO and FCOB.

During their trip to Belarus, the trio visited Krystina's orphanage, another orphanage in Mogilev, and the homes of several children from Mogilev who come to the U.S. each summer.

The American visitors also discussed faith with the Belarussians, who are largely Eastern Orthodox. Religion is strictly regulated. They spoke of Christ's love, and were present during the Orthodox Christmas, which was Jan. 7.

They took a bus to Mstislavi to visit the deaf orphanage. Conditions at the orphanage were crude, at best. The orphanage, home to about 100 children, is attached to a monastery that was condemned after it was bombed in World War II. One adult lives with 50 children on each floor. There is one bathroom per floor, and each bathroom contains a tiny tub and a couple of tiny sinks.

Fourteen-year-old Krystina Bialiauskaya, who lives with a foster mom in Mogilev, served as the interpreter for the Frederick visitors during much of the trip. The older Krystina has spent every summer since she was 7 with the Parentes, and her English skills are quite good.

Relief organizations have focused on giving Belarussian children summer vacations because Belarus received 70 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in 1986. ABRO cites official post-Soviet Russian data for that figure. Radiation is still in the ground and the atmosphere of Belarus, and reportedly affects all citizens.

According to ABRO, children who spend six weeks away from the radiation are able to cleanse their systems, reducing the possibility that the radiation will do long-term damage.

The FCOB trio traveled into areas of Belarus where Americans are rarely seen. "In many cases, we were the first Americans these people met," Parente said. "Joe was the first deaf American most had met." The fact that he was African-American only added to their curiosity.

Life for most Belarussians is hard. Those in the country live in small houses, usually with no more than two rooms, and indoor plumbing is rare. Heat is usually provided with a wood stove.

"It's like going back in time," Persons said. In Mogilev, the capital city of the Mogilev region, many people do have electricity and running water, but live in cramped apartments. Still, a mile from Lenin Square (yes, there's still a statue of Lenin in Mogilev), there are houses with no indoor plumbing.

The American trio toured what is called "deaf village," which is really a factory that employs deaf people, and an adjoining apartment building, where they live. Each family lives in a two-room apartment. Four families share a primitive kitchen with a tiny refrigerator, a small, three-burner stove, a bathroom and an area to wash clothes. Clothes are washed by hand, not machine.

The workers work in a factory with poor conditions. Most have few other opportunities.

The children in the deaf orphanage raised money for their orphanage by making artwork and selling it to the Americans.

Others took them into their homes, fed them and drove them around in old buses. "The people were so friendly," Parente said. "They had nothing and they shared it with us."

In their other lives, Ortiz works for the U.S. Postal Service in Frederick . Persons lives in Smithsburg and works as a tax manager at JLG Industries. Parente works at State Farm in Frederick .

"This is a mission that comes to us," Parente said. "It's open to anyone. You can participate in the mission without ever leaving your home."


Partners: Social Network