Ottawa unable to reach agreement with Belarus

Chernobyl kids program scuttled


The Observer

The cancellation of a program that provided relief for children suffering the effects of the Chernobyl meltdown has left a group of local families deeply disappointed.

"Everyone knew this might happen but it's still such a let down," says Leigh Classen of Sarnia. This would have been the third summer her family hosted a 12-year-old boy from Belarus.

"They're not considering the child's health," Classen said. "We put our all into raising money and promoting the program and now this happens."

For the past 14 years, 200 children living with the aftermath of the world's worst nuclear disaster have come to Canada for a six-week visit and a chance to boost their immune systems.

The Chatham-Kent, Essex and Lambton (CKEL) Chernobyl Children's Fund usually hosts 40 kids, making it the most active chapter in the country.

But Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko insisted on new travel restrictions this year. He reacted after a young Belarus girl staying with an American family decided to extend her six-week visit by an additional four months last year.

The girl returned home in December but the president cancelled the program worldwide, said David Morrison, chairman of the CKEL Chernobyl Children's Fund.

"I think it was an excuse really," he said. "President Lukashenko doesn't like these kids going out of the country. Every year, it becomes more difficult."

Morrison said Sarnia-Lambton MP Pat Davidson played a role in convincing the Canadian government to get involved.

"She urged the government to negotiate with Belarus and now they've made two proposals. Both have been rejected," he said.

When no agreement could be reached the program was cancelled in Canada on June 5.

Morrison said he understands that a handful of European countries have successfully reached a deal with Belarus to host children this year.

"But the Canadian government would not agree to administer the program and be responsible to return each and every child," he said.

Morrison said he understands the government's stance but hopes some kind of a deal can be reached for next year.

Belarus children, born long after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, benefit from time away from a radioactive climate. Every six weeks spent away has been shown to increase a child's life span by two years.

Morrison has sent a letter to the child his family would have hosted this summer and told him about the cancellation. There's been no reply.

"We will miss having Vadim with us and he misses out on giving his immune system an opportunity to recover," said Morrison.

Leigh Classen said she has been unable to communicate with her billet to assure him that the group is working to reverse this year's decision.

"It's such a big effort and we really want to make it work," she said. "I don't know why everyone is being punished because of one incident in the U.S. We're looking forward to a solution for next year."



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