Sad farewell for Belarusian children


Iryna Hlushko, a 16-year-old from Belarus, threw her arms around her host-father in a tearful embrace Sunday at San Francisco International Airport before slowly passing through security, turning to wave several times and then finally boarding a plane home.

Hlushko and 23 other Belarusian children who have been coming to the North Bay every summer said goodbye - perhaps permanently - in the wake of an international incident created by a fellow student who opted to stay in the United States.

Tanya Kazyra, 16, has said she does not want to return to her Eastern European home, requesting instead to extend her stay with her longtime host family in Petaluma.

Kazyra's decision last week captured international headlines and brought words of condemnation from Belarusian officials, who suggested the case was tantamount to kidnapping.

Organizers of the Petaluma-based Chernobyl Children's Project fear the incident jeopardizes the future of the 17-year-old program and that children might not be allowed to return next year - or ever.

"It was heart-wrenching," said Rosey Erickson of Petaluma, as she stood just outside the airport's security checkpoint to get one last look at her host daughter.

Tears rolled down Erickson's face, and her four young daughters were in red-faced agony at the departure of 11-year-old Janya Kulakowskaya, whom they had come to love as a part of their own family.

"Many of us feel very distraught and helpless. We really hope the Belarus government will only see this as an isolated incident," Erickson said.

Dozens of North Bay residents, primarily from Petaluma and San Rafael, gathered at the airport to say goodbye to the exchange program's young participants.

Ruth Williams, crying, held her distraught daughters as her 7-year-old host daughter passed through security.

"I cry when I look into her face. We don't know when she'll be coming back," Williams said. "It's sad and difficult."

One of the biggest fears of organizers is that Kazyra's decision will not only affect the Petaluma program, but 40 similar programs across the nation that place 1,400 Belarusian children with American families each summer.

A Belarusian official at the airport declined to comment.

The North Bay group had been scheduled to fly home Tuesday, but when Kazyra didn't show up at the airport, none of the children was allowed to leave. Following a frenzied effort, program officials re-booked flights for Sunday afternoon, and United Airlines waved about $8,000 in fees after learning of the situation.

The Chernobyl Children's Project provides Belarusian children with an annual six-week reprieve from the lingering radiation that plagues their country following the 1986 nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine.

Belarus, which is slightly smaller than Kansas, is run by an increasingly authoritarian government, which affords its citizens few freedoms.

Kazyra told The Press Democrat last week that her dad is an alcoholic, her mother is not around and she lives with her ailing grandmother, who gave her permission to stay longer in Petaluma. Kazyra's host parents, Debra and Mauel Zapata, met her when she was 8 years old, and have taken care of her for nine summers.

A Belarusian Embassy official who flew in from Washington, D.C., said Friday the government was pressing for Kazyra's return and that by staying, she broke the agreement between the government and the exchange program.

An attorney for Kazyra said Belarus is overreacting, that her tourist visa is valid through Dec. 25 and she is seeking a six-month extension.

Before they boarded their plane Sunday, many of the children lamented the idea of not returning to the United States next summer.

"It is good air here, no radiation," said one teenage boy, who wished to remain nameless. "I eat more fruit here."

Many of the children receive medical and dental care during their annual visits to the United States.

Like many of the children, the boy struggled with conflicting emotions of anger and understanding toward Kazyra, and expressed his strong desire that the program continue.

"I'm very upset at her," he said, but later added, "I understand her. She only has a grandma back home she lives with. Her grandma might die soon, and then she'll have no relative."

Some host parents also seemed conflicted about the girl's decision and about her host family's choice to help her. But most agreed she should go home because her action jeopardizes the program.

"It seems like it ruins it for everyone else," said Edward Ruda, a host father for 17-year-old Mikhail Martsewich.

Ruda, from Petaluma, is working to get his host son a student visa so he can attend San Francisco State University next year.

"They should have done it the right way," Ruda said. "I want to give Mikhail a better education so he can take it back and help his own country."

Other parents admitted it is tough to say goodbye, but insisted it is the only way.

"You always want them to stay longer, but they can't," said April Conte, who has housed the same 15-year-old boy for six summers. "Those are the rules. You have to follow the rules."

Her host son, Vadim Yesman, said it was especially hard to say goodbye not knowing if he would see Conte again.

"I hope, but I don't know," he said.

Conte wanted the people of Belarus to know she is not OK with Kazyra's decision or with the host family helping her, she said.

Iryna Hlughko was in her last year of the program, but hopes it will not be cancelled.

"I hope some children will continue to come here," she said. "It's a really great program."



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