A year later, teen is back home in Belarus, happy

By Ruth Hansen-Williams

The sky is already darkening as I search for Tanya's home among the various structures that serve as houses in the village of Borisov, Belarus.

Her home lies on the outskirts of town. The streets are largely unmarked, muddy, unpaved and filled with deep rain puddles. Grandmothers fill buckets of water at the street corners to get water for homes largely lacking indoor plumbing, although they do have electricity. The neighborhood is a sort of ancient-looking shantytown. It is hard to guess the age of the homes, but most of them are barely standing and resemble the cottages one might expect in an old fairytale.

The drive from Minsk is the end of a long, two-day journey for project vice president Linda McMahon and me. We plan to check on the well-being of our program's former host child, Tanya Kazyra.

A homesick Tanya, then 16, returned to Belarus last November after she had chosen to stay on with her host family in Rohnert Park after the end of our summer health-respite program. Her refusal to leave caused the government of Belarus to shut down the program. The United States and Belarus have yet to come to an agreement that will allow us to resume our program.

We have spoken to Tanya on the phone and she is eager to see us. Our driver has made many stops and starts in the town as we try to find her home. Suddenly, her head pops out from a front-yard gate.

Tanya looks wonderful; her skin is clear and her figure trim. She rushes out and gives both Linda and me a big hug. Her grandmother follows behind her and embraces us as well. They both look so happy to see us. They escort us inside and take our hats, coats and scarves. Following their tradition, we also remove our shoes near the entrance.

Inside, the home is warm and cozy, but the smell of mold and mildew assails my sinuses. An old brick woodstove heats the home. White lace curtains hang on the windows and the walls are covered with flocked floral wallpaper. They give us the best seats in the house and Tanya's grandmother hurriedly unfolds a table from the wall and opens it up in front of us. She has known of our coming and has prepared many things for us, and also sets out a bottle of sweet red wine and a bottle of vodka.

I ask Tanya if I might use the restroom and she suddenly looks at me with teenage embarrassment. The house has no indoor plumbing and she apologizes as she leads me to the toilet, stopping first to put back on our coats and boots. I try to assure her that it is no big deal. The outhouse is immediately off the back of the house. The light fixture in the outhouse does not work, so I try to find my way around in the dark.

Tanya waits for me outside and takes me to the back porch, a rickety structure full of dry rot, and leads me to a sink. Next to the sink is a red child's sand bucket that is full of water. Tanya gently dips a cup into the bucket and apologizes for the coldness of the water as she pours it over my hands so I might wash them.

Tanya's aunt arrives with two of her children. She lives across the street with her husband and three of her four children. There is no sign of Tanya's father and he is not mentioned. Tanya's cousins are very charming and it is easy to see how fond she is of them. The cousins and aunt join us for the meal of potato latkes, chicken, bread, cheeses and cold cuts. At the end of the meal, a beautiful cake purchased from a local bakery is brought out and served with tea.

After the meal, Tanya leads us back to her bedroom, which is decorated with stuffed animals and pictures of her friends and family. She is particularly proud of a picture of her with her college class. She beams as she tells us that she is finally getting good grades! She expresses some dismay that she is forgetting her English, although we assure her she is doing quite well.

We ask how it went upon her return to Belarus, if the teachers and students treated her well at school. She tells us that many of the students were angry with her for the cancellation of the program and a teacher was giving her a bad time, but the principal put a stop to the harassment. She expresses sadness that the children she was with in our program for so many years are probably angry with her now that they can no longer travel to the United States for health respites in the summertime.

As the evening grows late, Tanya plays with her kittens and her young cousins while her grandmother and aunt watch over her. Despite the meager surroundings and a home that would be destined for condemnation in most places in America, Tanya is happy and surrounded by love.

Ruth Hansen--Williams is visiting the Ukraine and Belarus to produce a documentary on the children of Chernobyl with the working title of "Little Chernobyl." The documentary is being filmed by Peripheral Productions. The corporate sponsor is Cotati Ambulance Company, Pro-Transport One.

She is accompanied by Linda McMahon of Petaluma, vice president of the Chernobyl Childrens Project of Sonoma and Marin counties. It is the group's first trip into the region in 20 years.

Until is was suspenced last year, the project had provided Belarusian children with an annual six-week reprieve from the lingering radiation effects that plagued their country following the 1986 nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine.

Her blog is at

Ruth Hansen-Williams, president of the Petaluma-based Chernobyl Children's Project, is visiting Belarus.


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