HALIFAX, N.S. -The plane is landing now. Vika is touching down in Canada. Again.
Years earlier, she was simply a child of Chernobyl. She is now a woman of a smaller, but more hopeful world.
As I drove to the airport on a July afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of the dozens of times I’d been to airport to pick someone up from Belarus.
It had been about eight years since my family said goodbye to our last visitor from Belarus, Vova. So, I didn’t know quite what to expect when Vika arrived that summer day.
Those two, along with four others that included Vika’s sister Natasha, spent dozens of summers during our childhoods in Barrington.
They were the Children of Chernobyl.
Not children anymore, of course, but still just as innocent. They had played no part in a disaster that laid waste to nearly a quarter of their country, but still had to live with it. Radiation is an invisible enemy in the water, the air and the earth.
It had been 13 years since Vika’s last tearful goodbye, when she headed back to Chauvsy, Belarus after spending the summer in with my family. For all we knew, that last summer in 2000 could have been the last time we’d see her.
So when her plane finally touched down in 2015, it was a bit surreal.
“I still can’t believe I’m actually here,” she said after a grueling 17-hour flight.
Chuck Ruud, a professor at Western University in London, Ont., fondly remembers a visit in 1990 from some Belarusian children and their supervisors.
“They put me at the table with the guy that couldn't speak English, because I speak Russian,” he recalled.
The man told Chuck about the seemingly hopeless situation for children in areas contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
“He urged us to try and put together something to help the children,” the professor, an expert in Russian history, said. “So one thing led to another and I took that message to some people at the university, including the assistant dean of social science, and we decided to organize a local committee and see what we could do about that.”
The next summer, Chuck sought the advice of the internationally renowned Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich in Moscow. He suggested getting in touch with a charitable fund for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster started by Belarusian activist Gennady Grushevoy.
"And that's what we did," said Chuck.
After some discussion, the London group would set the number of children to arrive in Canada and Grushevoy's fund would select the children in Belarus. In 1991, the first group of children arrived. Interest in the initiative soon spread to neighboring towns and cities, including the nation’s capital.
"Ottawa got into it big time with the guidance of Joanna," said Chuck, referring to Ivonka Joanna Survilla, a longtime Belarusian activist based in Canada and president of the Belarus's government-in-exile. She also served as president of the Canadian Relief Fund for Chernobyl Victims in Belarus (CRFCVB).
It soon became a Canada-wide initiative, with participation from coast to coast.
"Several parents have told me it’s the most significant thing that has happened their family life," said Chuck. "It's changed the lives of these kids too, because they've been drawn out of the villages into the wider world."
It was 1994, I was 6-years-old and my parents had just watched a program on the Chernobyl disaster. They reeled at the images of workers dressed in otherworldly suits trying desperately to contain fires and radioactive materials. Many of these ‘liquidators’ died in the days and weeks after the disaster.
It left them wanting to do something. As fate would have it, an article in our local newspaper, The Coast Guard, told the story of families in the area taking in children affected by the disaster through the CRFCVB.
Though the disaster took place in the Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union, over half the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus.
They were able to get involved in the program and eventually, Vika, then age 10, spent six weeks with us. The next summer her sister, 16-year-old Natasha, came as well, joining my three siblings and me. We didn’t speak Russian and they barely spoke English, but we made it work.
The summers were filled with trips to Sand Hills Beach, Upper Clements Park and Happy Meals from McDonald’s whenever we got a chance. Natasha even spent a year in Barrington, graduating from high school in Canada.
We hosted other children too: Dennis, Vova, Marta and Vlad, as well.
They learned English, made new friends and learned about this different but contented place called Canada. They became part of our family.
The initial work laid and success of the respites to Canada in the 1990s was tested in the early 2000s by factors beyond the organizers’ control. In a very limited number of cases, there were children who wished to stay with their host families indefinitely and the families allowed it.
"It was a big mistake," said Chuck. "You can be very sympathetic to that sort of thing of course, but the [Belarusian government] isn’t going to sponsor a program where their kids are fleeing the country."
The government of Belarus required the safe return of children and that Belarusian children not be placed with gay couples in Canada. In practice, this didn't generally happen, but the Belarusian government wanted a clear and written statement from Canada on this contentious issue.
"Well, that was a real problem because as far as government of Canada was concerned, that was a treaty," said Chuck.
Attempts to reach an agreement went on for a few years between the foreign ministries in each country to no avail. The lack of clear conditions for the visits negatively affected groups facilitating them.
"We could not get people to get involved in the program until that problem was settled and we couldn't settle it," said Chuck. "So, that really killed it."
Despite the dissolution of a national body, local groups and individual families were still encouraged to invite children for visits. One of the many strengths of the program in Canada was its ability to remain neutral, apolitical and resilient in the face of worsening relations between the two countries politically.
"It never affected the children's program as far as I could tell," said Chuck. “We did not make any attempt at all to agitate or politicize anything. The whole idea is to help people who need help and it's been very successful."
In the years after Natasha’s last stay with us, she eventually found her way to the U.S. There, with her husband, she started a family and found work. She’s living the American dream.
But with news that Vika would be staying in Barrington, Natasha saw an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. Her family drove to Nova Scotia to see her.
You see, it had been 14 years since the last time these sisters saw each other.
They have Facebook, Skype and Viber – a Belarusian-made smart phone app – so the thousands of miles between them don’t seem so vast. But time creates distance too. Vika has never met Natasha’s three children, her nephews.
Before the Internet, we had to rely on handwritten, loosely translated letters that took weeks to arrive both to and from Canada. Now, we chat with someone in Belarus instantly, defying the time and space.
Natasha’s son Zak, 12, has never met his aunt in person. From a young age, he's only knows her as an image on a computer screen, via Skype. In a conversation with his mom a few days before Vika arrived, he confirmed with his mom, Natasha, that she would be visiting them in Barrington.
"Yes, she'll be there," she said.
"But if she's here," Zak asked, "what about the person on the computer? Where will she be?"
But that digital permanence ended when Natasha pulled up the driveway.
The reunion wasn’t as dramatic as we thought. Rather, it felt familiar. It felt like they were home.
Vika and Natasha smiled, hugged and then it was back to the visit. It felt like we were transported back to those days when there were so many kids around playing, getting into trouble and making the house feel full and busy.
“Canada will always have a special place in my heart,” Natasha wrote to me on Facebook a few years ago.
Over tea, coffee and stronger drinks, we reminisced about our summers together. It’s funny how all the times we argued or disagreed - usually about who would sit in the front seat of our van or whose turn it was on the Nintendo – seemed to fade away.
We’ve all grown up.
It wasn’t said, but I know we all took a moment and shook our head in thanks and amazement, that this family reunion, with members from three countries, was able to happen. Through the CRFCVB, our Belarusian visitors health improved and we all learned from each other. Despite being worlds apart, we all need and want the same things – a healthy environment, a family, to be loved.
As relationships deepened between groups and organizations in Belarus and Canada, a medical exchange began, which saw Belarusian doctors invited to Canada to train with local doctors. Several people in Western University's medical school took it upon themselves to share their knowledge, training and techniques with eager Belarusian medical professionals.
"All these medical issues dealt with were connected with Chernobyl problems," said Chuck. "There were kids that had problems too, not only adults in Belarus."
Despite losing their primary source of funding, several doctors have continued to travel annually to Belarus to this day, with the next trip scheduled in May 2016. In some cases, the doctors pay their own way. With them, they bring along a box of medical supplies, mainly cardiac stints and catheters to the tune of $50,000 CAD.
"No exchange project has had the ongoing impact that this particular one has had, as far as I know," Chuck said. "It's become an ongoing and a personal project, in a way. We've discussed things with the Belarusians, who maintain that what has evolved into a connection with Western University, and in a wider sense, Canada, is exceptional."
In one of his more poignant memories of the program he was instrumental in organizing, Chuck recalls one 16-year-old Belarusian girl who suffered from a severe heart arrhythmia
“She was almost on death's door,” he remembers.
She was examined at medical facilities in London, Ont. and an arrhythmia expert determined the best course to fix her broken heart. After a successful surgery, she lived a healthy and normal life; she even attended nursing school and got married.
The arrhythmia had taken its toll however, and she needed a replacement for her weak heart, which just wasn’t possible in Belarus. Sadly, she passed away.
“But her friends and family to this day say that trip to Canada gave her six more years of productive life,” says Chuck. “She did all kinds of things that she wouldn't have had if it hadn't been for that. All of us felt very gratified by that.”
It was one of those misty Maritime mornings in early September when the car was loaded up to head for the airport. There had been so many tearful greetings and farewells at the airport under similar circumstances. While Natasha has headed back to the States a few weeks earlier, it was now Vika’s turn to head back to Belarus.
It took all our strength to keep it together emotionally. But we did and even made plans for when the next reunion would be. I think we’ll go visit her this time.
With a final wave she was gone, suitcases full of gifts from Canada – including maple syrup – for friends and family back home.
Time passes and memories fade but our connections grow stronger. I think we all knew that being part of this relief program was special. But I don’t think any of us realized how important we were all going to be to each other. It truly was a family reunion.