Israel is the only country that permanently opens its arms to children sick from radiation caused by the Ukrainian nuclear disaster 25 years ago.
On its 93rd rescue mission, the New York-based charity Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl (CCOC) brought another 25 children to safety in Israel at the end of April.
The plane touched down at Ben-Gurion International Airport almost 25 years to the day since a combination of engineering deficiencies and human error caused one of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s reactors to release massive amounts of radioactive materials into the environment — many times more than at Hiroshima during World War II.
The fallout directly led to the deaths of about 100,000 people, sickened countless others and continues to pose grave health risks — particularly to children there, who have a high rate of thyroid disease, birth defects, heart conditions and compromised immunity as a result of exposure to lingering radiation in the air, water and soil.
In 1990, the worldwide Chabad organization, a branch of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect, started flying out affected Jewish kids ages eight to 15 to resettle in Israel. The number of rescued youngsters now stands at 2,755.
“Israel is the only country that will accept the children on a permanent basis, and we are the only organization in the world that takes them out permanently,” explains Rachel Fertel, special events coordinator for CCOC. “Others take them out of Chernobyl [for treatment] but bring them back after a few weeks. We don’t want them back in contaminated areas ever again.”
Once the rescued children stop breathing contaminated air and eating contaminated food, their health improves, according to CCOC International director Yossi Swerdlov.
Reunited with relatives
Fertel tells ISRAEL21c that the Chernobyl kids are accommodated in youth villages at Kfar Chabad, an Israeli Lubavitch town, where they receive free medical, psychological and dental care as well as schooling for several years.
“We make sure they have the tools they need to survive. Many have gone on to the army or jobs, and stay connected with us as adults.”
Some later move to the United States or elsewhere, she added. About half of them choose to become Israeli citizens, and about 80 percent are reunited with their families at some point — either their parents join them in Israel or they move in with relatives.
The April 28 flight included 15 girls and 10 boys. It also included a man whose nephew, Pavlov, was brought by CCOC 18 months ago. The uncle had raised Pavlov after his father died and his mother became very sick due to the radiation, so CCOC arranged for him to be on the flight to visit the boy, who suffers from radiation-related heart problems.
Another new arrival, Stas, was reunited with his brother Danny, who was brought to Israel by CCOC last year. The boys’ mother is still in Ukraine with another brother, and CCOC reports that it intends to bring the entire family back together.
“The children are chosen on an application basis,” says Fertel. “A lot of times the parents send the applications, or sometimes community leaders or relatives apply, if the parents have passed away. They know that in order for the children to survive and have a healthy lifestyle, they need to get them out because children are most susceptible to radiation. The half-lives of the isotopes go on for hundreds of thousands of years.”
An expensive proposition
Rescuing, housing, feeding and caring for the Chernobyl children takes huge sums of donated money. The main source of funds is CCOC’s annual benefit dinner, Children at Heart, which attracts many celebrities among hundreds of guests.
“It costs us $18,000 per year per child,” says Fertel. “A flight full of kids costs $360,000. It is a huge expense, and that’s why we work our hardest to do this.” The organization also sends medical supplies to Ukraine to help the many remaining children and adults.
Last year, an MTV producer made a promotional video for the organization, “Let Dreams Take Flight,”, which interviews several “alumni” of Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl. The actor Michael Douglas narrated an earlier video about the disaster and the organization, “The Cry is Answered.”
“With 25 children on board, this flight was extremely meaningful and sends a powerful message to the world: To this day, a quarter of a century after the disaster occurred, there is still a need to permanently evacuate the children from the contaminated zones,” says Fertel.