Incident could end Chernobyl respite project


As the international controversy swirls over a 16-year-old Belarusian girl's request to extend her visa for another six months and remain with her host family in Petaluma, a board member of the program that she is participating in is concerned that the incident could jeopardize its future.

"The actions of this child and host family have jeopardized us all," said Brandon Williams, a board member of the Chernobyl Children's Project. "Flip the situation around. We'd be freaking out in this country if our kid didn't come home. It would not be taken well at all.

"We'd be just as upset as they are. We'd be saying, 'You want us to send our kids back next year? What? Are you kidding?' We'd be hesitant to let anyone go again."

Tanya Kazyra has participated for the past nine years in the program, which was created by Cliff and Connie McClain in Petaluma in 1991, five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and was designed to provide Belarusian children living in areas affected by radioactive fallout from the disaster with an opportunity to spend six weeks with Marin and Sonoma families.

"The children who come here are able to eat fresh fruit and vegetables," Williams said. "Belarus is dealing with the fallout from Chernobyl and is working hard to solve its economic and social problems. The people there have a long road ahead of them, but they'll 'get there.'"

Each summer, Kazyra has stayed with Manuel and Debra Zapata and their three children. She has become a close friend of Ashley, the family's 18-year-old daughter.

When their six-week stay ended last week, the other 24 children in the program reported to San Francisco International Airport, but Kazyra did not. The two Belarusian chaperones with the children initially refused to allow them to fly back, but then rescheduled the flight for Sunday.

An attorney for Kazyra says that she is seeking a six-month extension of her visa, which expires on Dec. 25, but an official from the Belarusian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is insisting that she be returned to her home country, where she lives with her grandmother in Borisov, near Minsk.

Kazyra's grandmother reportedly gave her permission to stay longer in Petaluma if she is able to do so, but the embassy official contends that this would represent a violation in the agreement between the Belarusian government and the Chernobyl Children's Project.

"Our goal is to see this problem get resolved as quickly as possible," Williams said. "We have open lines of communication with officials from the Belarusian government, and they are very fair and want to see a resolution.

"Our program is not for immigration: It's a respite program for kids living in infected areas. They go through a screening process in Belarus, and they come and leave at scheduled times. That's why the actions of the child and host family (involved in the controversy) have jeopardized us all."



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