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From Chernobyl, to 'Bama, and Back (Part 4)


"When Vanya came home"

Next Monday is the thirty fifth anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. All week long, Alabama Public Radio and the University of Alabama’s Center for Public Television have been looking at the ongoing impact of the so-called Children of Chernobyl. That’s when Alabama families hosted children in the shadow of the nuclear plant disaster. It may have been 20 years ago, but the family ties still appear strong.

“I had no idea then, what it would mean twenty years later,” said Susan Lee of Pelham, Alabama. "It’s changed me in the fact that it’s changed my family. It’s given my kids another sibling. It’s given them the opportunity to learn about other countries.”

“It was beginning of my today’s life. So, it was like a piece of puzzle,” Ivan Kovaliou said.

He was 9 years old when he spent over a month with Susan Lee’s family in Alabama. Twenty years later, he still remembers.

Credit UACPT
Susan Lee and Ivan Kouvalieu

“I like the kindness. It’s like everybody smiles. So, it was really cool,” he said.

Even when things didn’t work out as expected, like when Ivan and the children of Chernobyl got swimming lessons.

“The swimsuit…I went and bought him a swimsuit when he got here,” Lee said. “And when he came to the swim lessons with the other kids, all the boys took off the swimsuits we gave them and had their Speedos on underneath, because in Belarus they wear Speedos. So, just lots of funny things that we thought we had all figured out, and had no idea. It was a great education for us as well.”

All things end, and that included Ivan’s time with the Lee family. He and the other children flew home to Belarus. Susan tried to keep in touch, and it worked for a while.

Credit UACPT
Susan Lee of Pelham, Alabama

“At least through 2004, because Ivan remembers getting a Christmas picture of my two boys,” Lee said. “One of my boys was still a baby and he was born in 2004, so that was our last communication there. And then I sent a Christmas the next year and it came back.”

“That was my first time in America. That was my first time talking with American people,” said Vita Lutsko of her time in Alabama. “I was crying when I was translating for the American parents and the kids, because the situations were so touching, actually, they were do… I don’t know…they were so sweet...These trips showed that were are humans. We are persons with hearts.”

But, there was a question on her mind.

Credit UACPT
interpreter Vita Lutsko

“If it not so cruel to take these kids to America, to show them this life,” she said. “And then to take them back.”

Organizers of the Children of Chernobyl didn’t list political change as one of its direct goals. To hear Vita Lutsko talk about, it may have been an indirect one.

“They showed their parents, their friends, that life is different. It’s not only like in their town, in their village, it is absolutely different, and you can change it if you want,” Lutsko said.

Protests broke out in Belarus following last year’s Presidential election. It appears someone wanted change. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in exile in Lithuania after running for President of Belarus. She lost to the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya was a child of Chernobyl.

Credit U.S. State Department
Protests in the streets of Belarus

“I wasn’t surprised, I wasn’t surprised at all,” Patrick Friday said.

He believed that was reflected in her message.

“I can tell you that the future is better if we head in that direction, and of course she was speaking about her experience, being in Europe, I believe in Ireland, it was not theory to her,” Friday said.

The protests began after Lukashenko declared the election corrupt and claimed victory. His critics consider him the last dictator of a former Soviet nation.

Politics is one thing. Lee was just wondering what happened to Ivan? And it was that Christmas card she sent in 2004 that still bothered her.

“We don’t know why it came back. I thought ‘oh no, they’ve moved.’ And, I had no contacts in Belarus. I had no way of finding them,” Lee said. “I thought they moved. And, I thought they’ve moved and that would be the end.”

Ivan moved on with life. Early on, he said he was thinking of trade school. After living with the Lee family, things turned out differently. Ivan earned a full college scholarship and a degree in information technology, better known as IT.

“I work at the biggest IT company in Belarus,” Ivan said. “I find job myself after the college. So, now I’m working for six years there.”

Working at an IT company meant that after hours, he had the tools he needed to find the Lees.

Credit UACPT
Susan Lee and Ivan Kouvalieu in 2000

"First of all, I tried to find her husband, and I find it at Myspace, but it was already closed for that time, okay? I used Google,” he said.

Myspace might have been bust for Ivan, but Google Earth was better. Ivan zeroed in on Pelham, Alabama and found enough landmarks from the Lee family to confirm there were still there. Next, Lee said she got a note on Facebook messenger.

“It was an email that said ‘are you the family who kept a little boy from Belarus in 2000?’” Lee said. “And, I emailed back and said ‘yes, that’s us!’

And he said "It’s me, Vanya!”

Vanya was the boyhood nickname Ivan went by when visited Alabama 20 years ago.

“It was not just a three week project. It wasn’t just a little vacation for a kid who wanted to come and experience something new. It was a new family. Crossing those borders to see how other people live and how different cultures can come together. I don’t know. It was life changing for us,” Lee said.

And, that’s not where the story ends. Ivan has applied for a U.S. work visa so he can live on a more permanent basis in the United States. He’ll learn yes or no next month.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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