“It’s a decision of the heart.”
Director Patty Knable sat at our kitchen table interviewing my family as potential hosts for the Children of Chernobyl Project. It had taken almost two years to get the Ohio branch of this non-profit to consider us (based in Youngstown, they preferred families nearby). I hoped we passed muster.
The Children of Chernobyl Project brought kids each year from contaminated areas in Belarus to stay for the summer with host families. Vast amounts of radiation were released in the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Radionuclides spread from the Ukraine across Europe, leaving 23 percent of the territory in Belarus highly contaminated. Food, water, even the dust exposed people to radiation. (It will continue to do so for countless generations.) The result? Much higher risks of cancers, genetic mutations, and other health problems. Getting kids out of that area for a few months each year to live with host families helped to boost their immune systems. We were told it had to do with eating uncontaminated food and getting medical care. Patty said extra happiness helped too.
I asked how she matched a child with a host family. She said it was hard to explain. She looked at the names of the children on her list, thought about the families who had applied, and let something past intuition guide her. “It’s amazing how it works out,” she said. “It’s a decision of the heart.”
A few weeks later we were told the little girl who would stay with us that summer was Tatiana, seven years old. We learned very little about her in advance other than she was an only child.
I knew she had to be a very brave little girl to travel thousands of miles away from home to stay with strangers, people who didn’t even speak her language. I knew her parents must be even braver. I wondered if I’d be able to muster the courage to send my children away if I were in the same situation. (Our home is closer to two nuclear power plants, along the shores of Lake Erie, than Tatiana’s family was to the ruined Chernobyl plant, so the consideration is important.) I’d long been driven to act in opposition to the splitting of the atom, but preparing to host this little girl felt entirely different than petitions and rallies and lobbying. It felt like simply extending a hand of friendship from our family to hers.
Finally the day arrived. We’d set up a bedroom for her with art supplies and puzzles, some new clothes, and simple wrapped gifts. I’d ordered all sorts of Russian language kid’s books and audiotapes from the library. We’d hung a banner over the front porch with WELCOME in Cyrillic letters as well as English. And we’d prepared by learning Russian words and phrases. I even taped cheat sheets in the inside of cupboard doors so I could ask her questions like what she wanted for breakfast.
It was a long drive to the Youngstown airport, although nothing like the trip this little girl had been enduring. She’d been traveling with a group of other children and volunteers. The last leg of their trip would be in small aircraft flown by volunteer pilots. The tiny airport was aswirl with families welcoming kids returning for repeat visits. As each plane landed we stood at high fences watching their young passengers disembark. When seasoned host families, carrying balloons and gifts, spotted a returning child they waved and screamed their names. Many planes landed before I saw a little girl with a honey-colored ponytail and a red baseball cap get off the plane. My heart leaped. I’d never seen a picture of her but I was sure this was our child.
When our names were finally called to the room where the children were waiting we were introduced to a different girl. Okay, I thought, my intuition was wrong. I knelt down to say privet to her. Just then she was pulled back by the volunteers, who apologized for the mix-up. Another girl was brought forward. The girl with the honey-colored hair and the red cap. Yes, my heart said, yes.
From the very first day this darling little girl’s personality shone brightly. She made it clear she preferred to be called “Tanya.” She told us, almost entirely through gestures, about her first plane ride by showing us that her seatmate Yulia cried for her Mama, that Yulia retched, that the stewardessa droned on in “angleesh.”
We thought we’d learned enough Russian to speak to her. We were wrong. But our pronunciation gave her something to laugh about, which helped. We spent a lot of time flipping through our illustrated Russian/English dictionary pointing and giggling at each other’s languages. My kids adored the Russian words she taught us (the belly button is called “poop”) and the Russian drinking songs she sang for us. That first night, thanks to library materials, we danced to the Hokey Pokey in Russian.
Tanya was horrified by my vegetarian meals, refused to participate in the activities my outdoor-loving children preferred, and let us know that she hadn’t traveled so far to live like a peasant. She wanted to be entertained!
Amusing my new daughter from Belarus.
My scruples fell by the wayside. Like anthropologists to our own culture we explored shopping malls and tourist sites, went to amusement parks rather than wilderness areas, even bought some fast food meals. Tanya picked up English quickly. She displayed her brilliance in many other ways too, typically beating any of us at board games we’d played for years and she’d just learned.
She made friends in the neighborhood and particularly adored spending time with my daughter, her American sister. Her time here changed all of us, especially my four kids. She became a member of our family, a family that now joyfully extends to Belarus.
She stayed with us every summer until she turned thirteen.
That last summer she’d been hosted as many times as the program could allow. We did our best to stay in touch by sending letters as well as holiday and birthday gifts. We got a few letters back from her, each one ending with how much she loved and missed us and hoped we remembered her. Then those letters didn’t come any more. Finally she got computer access and got in touch. We learned she’d received none of our gifts the last few years and thought we’d forgotten her.
This year we managed to help her get a travel visa, not easy in a country like hers, and flew her here to stay with us. She’s a new university graduate now, a gracious and lovely young woman. She just left to return home few days ago. We can’t wait to visit her some day, to meet her parents and immerse ourselves in her culture. She’s a forever member of our family, a daughter of our hearts.
Our beloved Tanya, all grown up, enjoying one of our favorite restaurants.
Become a Host!
I think we all need to love specific individuals in different places in the world instead of staying on our own little street corners. One way to do this is by hosting people in your home. You can do this informally, inviting far-off online friends or people you’ve met through other long-distance connections to stay if they come your way. There are also plenty of programs that bring people to your door, people who may very well become family to you in a short time. Here are a few ways.
Host a child:
There are many organizations with the name Children of Chernobyl operating in the UK, Canada, and the US, most with similar guidelines for hosting families.
Urban kids in the US are matched up with families living outside the city, where the kids stay for a week or two, via the Fresh Air Fund. This link is for the NYC program, but you may find one in your area. We hosted an engaging little boy through a similar Cleveland program, called Friendly Town, which no longer seems to be in operation. He came one summer, then a few weekends, but moved out of state before we could host him the next summer.
Exchange students are a lively way to connect. Some programs are short stay, others are a full school year. Check out well-established programs with support personnel in your area like American Field Service, Youth for Understanding, Rotary Youth Exchange, or World Exchange. Friends of ours have hosted a high school student every year for the last 11 years. They stay in touch with these young people and their families, and have visited nearly every student in his or her home country.
Host an adult:
Check out groups you are affiliated with such as religious institution, charity, or club. Oftentimes these groups will need short term lodging for a speaker or visitor.
Welcome a visiting professional through the Fulbright Scholar Program. We know a retired couple who have opened their home for years to educators and researchers from dozens of countries around the world through this program.
Register with the AFS Intercultural Program to host young people performing community service or teachers doing foreign exchange service at a nearby school.
Sign up with the National Council for International Visitors. This organization connects visiting leaders from other countries to people in the community. You might welcome them for a meal, show them the highlights in your area, or host them for a few days.
Join Servas, the oldest of international exchange programs. You can serve as a day host or offer a homestay.