One girl, one decision, one big mess

Belarus teenager's decision to stay in the US jeopardizes two local programs

by Erin Snelgrove

Yakima Herald-Republic

When a Belarus teenager decided to remain in America last month, the future of humanitarian programs in Yakima and Ellensburg became jeopardized.

Tanya Kazyra, 16, has been allowed to visit a family in Petaluma, Calif., for the past nine summers through a project that aids victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This summer, Tanya chose to stay.

Her decision has caused an international uproar, with the Belarus government suspending all programs affiliated with the Chernobyl Children's Project -- including two in the Yakima Valley.

Locally, reaction to the fallout is mixed. Some host families said they sympathize with the girl, who comes from an unstable and impoverished home life. Others believe Tanya's decision is shortsighted. Because of her, they said, thousands of children won't be allowed to travel abroad to receive needed medical care.

"We keep thinking of the thousands of children who will not get out, just because this girl wants to stay here," said Cecelia Calhoun, Belarus liaison for the Children of Chernobyl U.S. Alliance and director of the Ellensburg program. "I cannot be sympathetic to her when I think of the bigger picture."

Each year, about 1,400 children from the Chernobyl region affected by the 1986 nuclear accident travel to America, Calhoun said. During their six-week respite with host families, many are treated for dental, vision and other health problems.

Locally, the Ellensburg program has had an educational focus. With the help from Central Washington University, 15- to 17-year-olds visit Ellensburg for one summer only to gain leadership skills and learn about America's customs and government.

The Yakima chapter was established in 1996 and has served about 50 children for one or more visits. It enables boys and girls to stay with local host families to obtain clean water, fresh produce and medical care.

Director Laura Robertson has hosted the same girl, Liliya, for the past four summers. When news broke of Tanya's actions last month, Robertson knew Liliya wouldn't be coming back.

"Usually, we say goodbye and know we'll see her next summer. This time, it was really hard," Robertson said. "She cried and cried."

Having visited Belarus, a landlocked country bordered by Ukraine and Poland, Robertson knows the conditions there are primitive. In the villages, she said, there's no indoor plumbing. People rely on public transportation, and yards are crowded with chickens, pigs and other barnyard animals.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to better one's life, she said. In this case, Tanya chose the wrong way.

"I believe this family and this girl acted to their own benefit and didn't take other things into consideration," Robertson said. "I think they did it with their eyes wide open."

According to reports from the Los Angeles Times and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Tanya's home life in Belarus has been rife with alcohol abuse. A court removed her from her parents' custody long ago, and the grandmother with whom she lives is ill.

Tanya, who ages out of the program this year, insists her grandmother wants her to remain in the U.S. She has reportedly turned down offers from her own government, who promised her a free house and college education in exchange for her return.

Tanya and her host family have retained an immigration attorney, who is attempting to get her a student visa. Her tourist visa expires in December.

Barbara Newman, who's hosted seven students through the Ellensburg program, said she feels for Tanya's plight. Here's a girl who comes from a poor country. She has no money, and she has few prospects. Newman said she can understand why Tanya wants to remain with her host family.

"Why should she put the welfare of other kids in front of her own?" Newman said. "You're asking her to go home to a dead-end life. It's a tragedy. It's a situation where everyone is harmed and no one in particular is at fault."

Newman believes Tanya's host family is giving her false hope, that ultimately the teenager will have to return home. She fears for the future of the international program, and she hopes additional rules can be agreed upon to prevent the situation from repeating itself.

"It's a crisis for this family and this girl, and it's seriously endangering the program as a whole," Newman said, adding that the Belarus government's reaction was severe. "There's no silver lining in this particular set of clouds. It's just a mess."

Three years ago, Newman was a host mother to Tania Khainovskaya of Minsk. The 19-year-old Khainovskaya received a student visa to study at Central Washington University this fall. Through an e-mail to the Yakima Herald-Republic, she said she can understand the girl's reasons for staying but would never have resorted to such extreme measures herself.

"She has betrayed ... the whole program," she said. "Here, in Belarus, the government tries to do everything possible for such children. Of course it is not enough, but we can't blame only the government."

The Belarus government's strong reaction is understandable, Calhoun said. Because of Tanya's decision to remain in America, she believes additional program restrictions will be enforced. At the minimum, boys and girls could be limited to three visits or the age limit could be reduced to 13. At worst, the programs could cease, Calhoun said.

Should that happen, she said children's birth defects wouldn't get fixed. Life-saving heart surgeries wouldn't be scheduled, and cancer screenings would go by the wayside.

"It's hard to think that one person like this can totally eliminate thousands of children from getting the medical care they deserve," Calhoun said. "Nobody is saying Tanya can't come back. ... My understanding is everybody would help her get back the right way."

Although Tanya has experienced numerous hardships in her young life, Robertson said they're far from unique. Many young people come from unstable families, and many have alcoholic parents, she said. But for her, the greater tragedy is hurting thousands of children to save one.

Even the idea of ending the exchange program is heartbreaking, Robertson said. She became involved in the Yakima chapter because of her own father, a Hanford employee who died from stomach cancer at 52. His death was caused from exposure to radioactive waste, and the government compensated her family for that, Robertson said.

She's since devoted part of that money to the Yakima Children from Chernobyl program, in memory of her dad.

"You get the love of the kids, that's the icing on the cake," she said. "But to be able to help them better their lives through better health is the main point of the program. I think this family and this girl have forgotten that."



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