Boy from Belarus thrives during stay in the region


Andrei Nikoliovitch Slesarev, 9, has spent all his growing years in the shadow of Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident. The resulting pollution has taken its toll, leaving him underweight, with poor teeth and eyesight.

Andrei has gained 10 pounds since he arrived in Annandale, Va., on June 17 for a six-week visit with Ann L. Gates and her family, but he still has room to grow before a child's size 7 clothing will be a good fit.

During his stay in Annandale, the boy and his host family studied music and peace lessons at Common Ground, a 10-day multicultural arts program at Western Maryland College in Westminster.

"He is very shy, but he loves to sing," Ms. Gates said during a visit to Westminster for classes at Common Ground. "He just breaks into song all the time and he is a bright, able communicator."

Andrei came to this country through the Belarusin Charitable Fund for the Children of Chernobyl, a group founded in 1989 by churches and charitable organizations from several countries. A church in Annandale is one of many sponsors. The fund, based in Minsk, has paid for vacations abroad to 20 different countries for nearly 100,000 children. About 600,000 are eligible.

The little boy from Belarus speaks in hugs, smiles and a steady stream of Russian, injected with a smattering of English.

"Careful, careful, Molly," he said to a 7-year-old climbing a stairway.

"He treats her like a big brother would," said Mrs. Gates as she watched her daughter and her young guest from overseas.

The boy is used to the role, said Ms. Gates, the woman he calls "Mamma Ann." At his home, a farm near the Russian border, Andrei is the older brother and father figure.

"He works on a collective farm with his mother and grandmother," said Ms. Gates. "There is no father, and Andrei is probably the strongest back his mother has."

When Ms. Gates explained Andrei's background, Common Ground organizers gave him a scholarship to the program.

"What better place for this child than a peace gathering?" said Robyn Boyd, Common Ground's administrator. "A scholarship was the least we could do."

Ms. Gates said, "I figured there was something here he would want to do."

Andrei took violin lessons, went on picnics with other children and counted his favorite birds and squirrels, which he said he doesn't see at home.

He also met Wazyl Palijczuk, an art professor at the college and a native of Ukraine -- a man who speaks his language.

In April 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant went into a meltdown, Andrei was an infant in nearby Belarus.

"Radiation came over the border like a cloud," said Andrei, as Mr. Palijczuk translated during an interview last week.

Andrei's mother has instilled in him a fear of contaminated foods.

At a fast food restaurant and on a berry-picking excursion, Mr. Palijczuk said, Andrei "only wanted water and white bread. He wouldn't eat any berries.

"Look how thin he is," the professor said. "He is a very disciplined eater, scared of eating because of the radiation."

Andrei spoke constantly of farm work and had no word for "play."

"I have to help my family all the time on the farm," he said. "I bring in the wood for the stove."

The children, usually 8- and 9-year-olds chosen at random, spend about six weeks abroad, mainly in Canada, the United States or Israel. This year, 12 children from Belarus are visiting Annandale families who volunteered through church groups. An additional 78 children from Belarus are now in Seattle.

"They are not sick, but they live in the radiated zone. They all need to build up their immune systems," said M. Jo Garrett, coordinator of the program for Annandale United Methodist Church. "We bring the children here for clean water, air and food."

And maybe new clothes, said Ms. Gates. Andrei, arrived in the United States with the clothes he wore and little else. He will return home with a new wardrobe large enough to share with Ruslov, his 7-year-old brother.

"I hope somebody helps me carry the suitcase," he said.

"He has so very little, and he appreciates everything," said Mr. Palijczuk. "He really is a great example for our own children."

A combination of radiation, bad diet and poor dental hygiene have ruined several of Andrei's teeth and impaired his ability to chew.

"At his home, they pulled out some teeth without anesthetic," said Ms. Gates. "Here, we bring him an unimaginable distance and give him a root canal. He was terrified, but we found a patient, gentle dentist," she said.

"My teeth were all hurting," said Andrei, who opened his mouth wide to show his new fillings. "Now, they don't."

Andrei also will get an eye exam and glasses, if he needs them, said Ms. Garrett. "He can't read well," she said. "It may be his eyesight. With the right care, he can go back to school and be successful."

Because of a farm accident, Andrei is about a year behind in school. "I had to go to the hospital on a horse," he said.

"With all these worries, sometimes, you think you are talking to an old man," said Mr. Palijczuk.

Andrei had no toys other than a harmonica when he arrived here. But Ms. Gates soon discerned his love of music and gave him a violin to use in his studies at Common Ground -- and to take home.

"I know I couldn't possibly have a violin in Belarus," Andrei said.

In just a month, Ms. Gates said, her family has developed a strong bond with Andrei. "This little boy is affectionate, childish and loving," she said. "He has made an immense effort to communicate with us."

Andrei wears a fanny pack, another present from his American family. It is full of new-found American treasures that include pictures of Molly and her brother Liam, and a well-worn address book where his many new friends have added their phone numbers.

Ms. Gates said saying good-bye to Andrei on July 30 will be difficult.

"I don't like sending him home to not enough to eat," she said.

The fund in Belarus tries to give as many children as possible a summer vacation and sends a different group abroad each year. Ms. Gates said she her husband would like to bring Andrei back to the United States next year at their own expense.

"He has to have more dental work to survive," she said.

"I would love to live here," Andrei said, "although sometimes I am lonely and can't speak the language. I do not have a good life in my village. I would love to move my family here. But it is not a reality."

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