"When Vanya Came Home"-- A podcast by Alabama Public Radio
Lee’s story, and that of a nine year boy from the former Soviet nation of Belarus, are at the heart of Alabama Public Radio’s podcast, titled “When Vanya Came Home.” The program focuses on the still unfolding story of the “Children of Chernobyl” program in Alabama.
The three member Alabama Public Radio news team collaborated with the University of Alabama’s Center for Public Television on this two year project, which was produced with no budget. The story was brought to life with original audio that "sat in a box" unheard for two decades. APR and CPT unearthed and digitized this material for use in our podcast. The audio ranged from negotiations with wary parents in Belarus to send their children to live with strangers in Alabama, to baseball games in
the U.S., to the anguish of trips to American dentists where neither side spoke the same language. The programming aired around the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident.
In 1999 and 2000, families in Alabama hosted youngsters impacted by radiation from the reactor accident in the Soviet nation of Ukraine.
The results are being felt to this day.
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Our podcast pairs contemporary interviews, conducted in the U.S. and in the former Soviet nation of Belarus with the twenty year old, never-before-heard, audio which gave our listeners the opportunity to experience this piece of history from an insiders’ perspective.
The Lee family took in nine year old Ivan Kovaliou in the year 2000. At that time, he went by the childhood nickname of “Vanya.” After a forty day stay, he returned to Belarus, and the Lee’s lost contact in 2004. That changed eight years later with a note on Facebook messenger from a Belarusian college student.
“It’s me, Vanya,” it said.
APR and CPT were at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International airport as Ivan was reunited with the Lee family, almost twenty years after his time in Alabama.
We balanced the views of the Belarusian people along with the “children of Chernobyl” organizers by seeking out the mother/daughter translation team of Vita Lutsko and Larisa Shapavalenko. Not only did they work with the host parents, but Shapavelenko raised Vita in the shadow of Chernobyl. Both currently live in Belarus, so we arranged for a video producer in Minsk to conduct the interviews.