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Nine Years After Chernobyl, Fearful Parents Send Children to Israel

April 8, 1995

KFAR CHABAD, Israel (AP) _ They were only toddlers when disaster struck near their homes _ at Chernobyl. Nine years later, their parents are still so fearful of radiation they’re being sent to Israel to live with strangers.

``My mom wanted me to come here so I can get healthy,″ said 12-year-old Julia Cherenkevitch of Kiev, Ukraine, guarding her bags after arriving at the Tel Aviv airport.

Cherenkevitch was in a group of children from the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus, the regions hit hardest by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The group arrived in Israel at the end of March.

More than 1,100 children, all Jews, have been brought to Israel by the Hasidic group Chabad since 1990, when Chabad’s late leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson launched a campaign to save the ``children of Chernobyl.″

Radioactive particles spread across much of Europe on April 26, 1986, following an explosion at a nuclear reactor in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl. At least 32 people were killed in the explosion and fire, and scientists say thousands more may have died later from radiation poisoning.

Hundreds of parents fear that the milk, meat and water in the region is still tainted by radiation and that their children won’t get adequate medical care in the former Soviet Union.

Ukrainian scientists reported this week that the concrete sarcophagus encasing the wrecked reactor at Chernobyl is deteriorating, threatening another release of radioactivity.

David Kyd, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, said the agency considered an explosion unlikely but that radioactive dust could filter out of the sarcophagus.

Cherenkevitch and a group of other young nuclear refugees arrived in Israel at the end of March.

``For Ephraim to come here is a lifesaving event,″ said Nadezhada Giorgevna, whose 14-year-old grandson, Ephraim, was brought to Israel in 1992.

``It’s craziness there,″ said Giorgevna, who was visiting from Ukraine. ``If I had to raise Ephraim where he lived, I wouldn’t be able to save him.″

Keith Baverstock, a scientist with the World Health Organization in Rome, said some people exposed to radiation in the months after the explosion are just now getting sick.

In a telephone interview, he said that radioactivity no longer is a danger but that the children are still better off coming to Israel, where they have better food and medical care and escape the constant fear that pervades life around Chernobyl.

It is that fear that drives parents to contact Chabad missionaries in Belarus and Ukraine, Chabad officials say.

Chabad spends about $4.5 million each year to provide dormitory rooms, food, clothes, medical care and schooling to the more than 300 children who live in Kfar Chabad, the group’s religious village outside Tel Aviv. The funding comes from private donations.

Many of the children arrive here with weak immune systems and eye, teeth and skin problems, said Masha Schwartzman, chief doctor at Chabad’s medical clinic. ``The children get a lot better when they come here,″ she said.

About 700 children have moved out of the village to live with their parents in Israel, according to Chabad. Some have returned to the former Soviet Union.

Menachem Friedman, a Bar Ilan University religion expert who studies Chabad, said the group’s Chernobyl project is part of its ``longtime effort to return Jews to Judaism.″

The movement was founded in 1788 by a rabbi in Belarus, he said.