Belarus impasse: Sorry, Tanya, you need to go home

Yakima Herald-Republic

Tanya Kazyra wants to be an American. For nine summers, she's lived with a family in Petaluma, Calif., and doesn't want to return to Belarus, where she lives with a loved but ailing grandmother, despite her government's promise of a free house and college education in exchange for her return. Officials from the Eastern European nation aren't happy with this teenager's rebellion.

Neither are many volunteers with the Children of Chernobyl U.S. Alliance program, which brings about 1,400 children annually to build up their compromised immune systems, receive medical care and generally have a reprieve from the environmental concerns of living with the fallout from the world's largest nuclear disaster.

Some of those children spend time in Ellensburg and Yakima, thanks to chapters started in 1995 and 1996, respectively, a decade after the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in neighboring Ukraine. In Ellensburg, there's also an educational focus, with older teens visiting to gain leadership skills and learn about American customs and government. Alliance volunteers say 16-year-old Kazyra's refusal to return will prevent thousands of other young Belarussians from getting the help they need each summer.

As Ellensburg host Barbara Newman says, "It's a situation where everyone is harmed and no one in particular is at fault."

They sympathize, but they also say Kazyra and her American host family knew the rules and are being selfish.

We also sympathize. What kid from a poor country with an unstable family life (she was taken from the custody of alcoholic parents) wouldn't want a better life with more opportunities? But we think she and her American host family should follow the rules established by the program. Kazyra should go home and apply for a visa when she turns 18.

However, we also think the Belarussian government shouldn't hold a valuable program hostage to try to force one teenager to toe the line. They've suspended all programs affiliated with the Chernobyl Children's Project, including the two in the Yakima Valley. Rather than squashing a goodwill program that fosters international relations and improves health, we think Belarus should allow the summer visits to continue. The benefits for Belarus -- healthier children who might grow up to be compassionate, educated leaders in their own communities -- far outweigh the negative fallout of ending the program because one teenager thought of herself before others.

* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Michael Shepard, Sarah Jenkins, Bill Lee and Karen Troianello.



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