U.S. parents battle to restart aid to children of Chernobyl

John Seagondollar put 11-year-old Vika on a plane back to Belarus in August with the promise that she would return. Next summer, he told her, she would again spend her days swimming, eating pizza and watching cartoons in his North Raleigh home.

"There was no doubt in my mind that she would be coming back," Seagondollar said.

Instead, the program that allows about 1,400 children who live in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to spend their summers in the United States is endangered. Saturday, Seagondollar will gather with other host families from around the country for a three-day conference in Raleigh, in which they hope to come up with a plan to bring the children back.

The children come from an area in southern Belarus that still suffers the effects of the 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown -- a place where cancers and other illnesses are rampant, and are made worse by poor nutrition and lack of medical care. A few hundred of the youngsters come to the Raleigh area each summer as part of the Children of Chernobyl program.

The program, started in 1991, is designed to give the children access to U.S. medical and dental care and to give them a six-week respite from the polluted region.

It is in jeopardy because a family in California decided to keep their child in the United States.

The 16-year-old girl, who spent nine summers with her California host family, said she had been abandoned by her alcoholic parents and faced a bleak life with an ill grandmother. She remains in California and is trying to get a student visa.

The Belarus government reacted angrily, immediately shutting down the program.

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