"The Inside Man" An APR 40th anniversary encore presentation
Alabama Public Radio is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. All through 2022, the APR news team will present encore broadcasts of the best of the best of our national award-winning stories. Our latest is from last year. Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is in sharp contrast to what parents in the former Soviet nation of Belarus did in 1999 and the year 2000. That’s when parents in that former communist country trusted strangers in Alabama to shelter their children after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986. Here's an encore presentation of part two of APR's series called "From Chernobyl, to Bama, and Back."
On APR, we met the Lee family of the city of Pelham. They took in a 9-year-old boy from the nation of Belarus in the year 2000. Belarus is just north of where the Chernobyl plant blew up in 1986. It’s also where a lot of the radioactive fallout drifted. Alabama Public Radio and the University of Alabama’s Center for Public Television collaborated on the story on how children from Belarus were brought to our state for visits beginning in the late 1990’s. Here's how it all got started.
“He was pretty shy around us, for quite a while,” said Susan Lee from Pelham, Alabama.
“He was always happy. He was a boy. He had a little mischievous side. But, was always fun loving and happy,” Lee said about Ivan.
He was just 10 years old when he visited Alabama in 2000, and at that time he spoke no English. Ivan Kovaliou and children like him flew to Alabama from the former Soviet nation of Belarus. After changing planes in Frankfurt, New York, and Atlanta, they boarded buses for a two hour ride to Birmingham.
They all look a little tired as they wave to the camera for this 20-year-old video. Each is wearing a red baseball cap. Organizers didn’t want them to get lost in the crowd that was waiting for them.
As each child steps off the bus, they’re greeted by families holding signs with slogans like welcome to Alabama written in Russian. At first, the youngsters in their red caps are clumped together in one group, and their host families in the other. Each seems a little unsure what’s next. Then, slowly, everyone is paired off. Instead of whisking the children away, the families spread blankets on the grass near the parking lot for a get to know you picnic. In her case, Lee knew Ivan came a long way for that all-American lunch, and why.
“It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the depth of the disaster, and the long term impact it had…and continues to have…and will continue to have…for years to come,” she said.
Ivan and these other youngsters are known as the Children of Chernobyl. Roughly 60 percent of Soviet nation of Belarus was left contaminated by the nuclear plant disaster. Cases of thyroid cancer jumped tenfold in areas hit by Chernobyl’s fallout. That includes young people Ivan’s age at that time.
The United Methodist Church created the Children of Chernobyl program in Alabama. It meant free medical care and a chance for these young people to be away from the threat of radiation. Still, Lee said it meant a big leap of faith for Ivan’s parents to let him come.
“I don’t know I could do that, for my kids,” Lee said. “I don’t know if I could send them somewhere without knowing anybody who was going to have…to take care of them. And yet his parents trusted us infinitely to be his second parents.”
Church leaders in Alabama knew it was a big ask as well. And, they needed someone who knew Russia firsthand to pave the way.
“Since I’d already lived over there, and been a part of different projects, I felt I could add something to that,” Patrick Friday said.
Friday was in seminary to become a Methodist pastor in Alabama. But that wasn’t not the only thing on his resume. Friday used to produce documentaries for Alabama Public Television, and he wrote stories for CNN. And, there was one more thing.
“I went over, right when I got out of college, with a group called Education for Democracy,” Friday said. “So, my job was to be available in the Baltics. To help. It was still the Soviet Union. And people were interested in ‘What is democracy?’ ‘What is freedom?’”
That was before the fall of communism in 1991. Now, Friday was back in a post- Soviet nation of Belarus on a more delicate mission. These children on a teeter totter could soon be heading to the United States. But, Friday would have to win their parents over first. Friday asked local leaders what he could do to build trust that might lead to the Children of Chernobyl program They said bring winter coats for the kids.
He shot video in 1996 as he carried big clear plastic bags to one home. They were full of coats donated by parishioners in Alabama. First, a little girl around 5 years old steps up. Friday reaches into his bag like a young thin Santa Claus. He pulls out a small blue coat with a plaid liner. The little customer tries it on, and responds with a smile.
An older girl, named Sasha, hangs back. She seems unsure. Friday pulls out a black coat and holds it up. It gets no reaction. More rummaging leads to a purple jacket with patches of green and black. Sasha seems to warm to this one. She tries it on and keeps it.
Many meetings and many coats later, the crowds around Friday started growing bigger. A local school even threw a reception. The children were dressed in white. Their costumes are embroidered in red and green, the national colors of Belarus. And there plenty of introductions. Parents told Friday about their children, where they went to school and what do they like to do. Some would drop gentle hints, like he’ll be no trouble.
“And that’s when we said we’re eager to have them come to us,” Friday said, “to fly all the way to Alabama and stay with us.”
But, despite the smiles, handshakes, and songs, Friday knew a tough moment was coming. That’s when these families gathered at the main airport in Belarus’ capitol city of Minsk to say goodbye.
“Think about your own children, let’s say they’re 7 or 8 years old, to a foreign country to people you don’t know. So, that was the look on their face,” Friday said.