Strong Like A Willow: Helping Chernobyl Families: Helping Chernobyl Families One at a Time

Even though willow trees bend with mild breezes and break when storms blow, you can almost never uproot them. So, an organization that helps people tormented by decades of war and radiation might logically take its name from this pale green symbol of endurance. At least, it made sense to Hope Burwell, an English professor at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

Five years ago Hope traveled with a German humanitarian group to Belarus, the country between Poland and Russia most affected by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. Hope felt compelled to record the unimaginable illness and suffering that she encountered there for the grassroots magazine Orion. The article has been received with respect in the scientific community, earning third place for “best feature” from the Society of Environment Journalists and selected for The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005. She has expanded that story into a book manuscript and placed an article in Ms. discussing Chernobyl’s devastating health effects on Belarusian women.

Last year Hope reduced her teaching load to half time in order to research, write, and rewrite her manuscript. “It is not an upbeat book,” she concedes. “And I’m having trouble placing it.” The next step may be to find a European publisher. Canadian photojournalist Menno Meijer, who is equally committed to offering the world the human face of those who suffer the effects of radiation, contacted her last year about collaborating. Perhaps together their stark message will work its way back to North America.

“We are individually responsible for the quality of our lives,” Hope believes. “If you want to live in a world that takes care of other people, you’d better do the care-taking. My parents raised me to believe that if you see an accident you stop and render aid. It was clear in Belarus that I’d wandered onto the scene of an accident.”

Nineteen years after the worst nuclear accident in history, the UN is issuing yet another report minimizing the long-term effects of radiation, government relief payments have stopped, there is no work, and everyone is too poor to move. Children try to learn in unlit, under-heated classrooms, where every sheet of paper is so precious it is written on horizontally and vertically before they use the other side.

Hope offers a voice to the people of Cherikov, a small village 150 miles from the disaster site on land that will be radioactive for another 200 years. In addition, she found a way to give material support to a few of the families. Strong Like a Willow, the relief group she created, matches a family in Belarus with an American family that can help. The sponsored families receive a box of food and clothes six times per year. Every other month their American sponsors wire $40 directly to the families.

Along with a few friends, Hope donates hundreds of hours every year to make this idea a reality. In order to avoid the red tape necessary to obtain 501(c)3 status, donations are not tax deductible. On the other hand, benefactors know that 100 percent of the money goes to help families that used to go to bed hungry.

For Denise Schmidt, a librarian in San Francisco, that is precisely what she was looking for in a charity. While her family gives to several international groups, “I really like the idea that I know the person that I am helping,” says Denise. “Svieta is a friend now, even if I may never meet her in the flesh. I know that we have similar hopes for our children and our futures.”

Around the globe in Belarus, Svieta Stolerova, an unemployed farm worker, writes, “It is very hard to find work here. A lot of people don’t want a woman with two children, especially one that didn’t finish college. My husband is a painter. He paints very well, but here painters don’t get a lot of money. Because of that he has to sell food at the market. In his spare time he catches fish and we have that for dinner. If anyone needs a picture, he will paint it. That is how we live.”

She continues, “It is hard for me to ask you for help, but our children’s clothes are very expensive. Other expensive items are women’s underwear and socks. It is really embarrassing and not easy for us to ask you for something. It is just that you are the first ones who decided to help us, and we are very grateful to you for that.”

Svieta’s situation is very typical. Six boxes of food and clothes and a total of $240 every year “have raised these people out of dire poverty into the middle class,” Hope explains. They save up for luxury items like a water heater, washing machine, or telephone that will improve the lives of everyone in their apartment building. Because utilities are included in their rent, these appliances are illegal. The families share with their neighbors, in part to buy their silence.

After her initial visit, Hope spent Christmas break of 2000 driving a 28-foot truck across Germany, Poland, and most of Belarus, to Cherikov. The risk of the convoy being looted was so great that their drivers essentially tailgated each other through the blowing snow on bad Polish roads. At the Belarus border the humanitarian group was waived ahead of the commercial trucks that had been waiting as long as two weeks. The group discovered that the customs agents had no paper to process any vehicle. The convoy drivers handed over some of the school supplies and were on their way in eight hours, hoping that the paper would allow the other vehicles to get moving before the next storm arrived.

During every trip a visitor’s concerns about limiting radiation exposure crashes headlong into the Belarussian tradition of offering a bountiful meal for guests. Fully aware that everything grown or gathered locally was contaminated, Hope rationalizes, “You can’t accept people’s hospitality and turn down their radioactive food.” Although it tasted delicious, she calls it “strontium stew,” referring to strontium-90, the radioactive isotope with a half-life of 29 years that rained down on the woods, fields, and rivers of Belarus after the disaster. It reappears in the mushrooms that people gather in the woods every summer.

As Hope continues researching everything written on Chernobyl she uncovers information with immediate practical applications. “One of the crimes of this situation is that people aren’t given iodized salt,” says Hope, which is an inexpensive way to protect their thyroid glands from radioactivity. Strong Like a Willow food packets include iodized salt, along with multivitamins, nuts, beans, vacuum packed fish and meat, toiletries, toilet paper, and little luxuries like coffee and chocolate.

When a broken willow branch falls into the water it will eventually sprout roots and become a new tree. During her most recent trip to Cherikov, Hope asked each of the current Strong Like a Willow families to find another family to whom they are not related and that is even worse off financially. The new names will be given to American families who commit to a year of nourishing and nurturing people who understand bending and breaking, but refuse to be uprooted.

For information on sponsoring a family in Belarus or to donate, visit Strong Like a Willow or call (319) 362-6196.