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Get to Know 2008's Kids
Rostislav Balakir is being raised by his mother, having lost his father a few years ago. He has an older sister. He likes working with gouache and oil, as well as pencil. Other interests include music and playing the bayan (a type of accordian). He has studied some English at the Art School, and is eager to practice it when he visits San Diego this summer.

read about all of the artists...
This guide is based on the host family guide developed by the Canadian Relief Fund for Chernobyl Victims in Belarus. It has been edited with permission.


We, on the Steering Committee of the Children of Chernobyl Foundation, are delighted that you have chosen to participate as a host family. Your warm generosity in hosting a visiting child from Belarus provides a boost to the health and spirits of not only the child, but also to their family, friends and community who worked hard to get their young one into this respite program. Parents in Belarus have gratefully sent their children on brief respite programs, such as the one here in San Diego, to various locations in the US, Canada as well as countries in western Europe and Asia. For opening your home and hearts, we thank you.

Some of you may have hosted foreign exchange students in the past. There are significant differences in this program. The children are younger (8 to 12), and so, may require more parenting or attention than an older child. The children come from a wide range of backgrounds; some from rural areas with no indoor plumbing, or others may be quite sophisticated as children of urban professionals. Most, however, speak no English.

We hope you find the following information helpful. If you have any concerns at all, feel free to contact us, the Belarusian guardians (who speak fluent English and Russian) accompanying the children, or anyone on the Russian interpreters list.

Because we have many families who host a child year-after-year, we believe this experience may be as memorable to your family as it is for your young visitor.

Table of Contents

The Children

Selection of Children

Children of Chernobyl Foundation works in conjunction with charitable non-governmental organizations in Belarus. Similar to our organization, these are non-profit, grassroots organizations comprised of thousands of Belarusian volunteers. These volunteers have sent more than 150,000 children for health respites to over 20 countries around the world since 1989. Within the framework of their programs, they have also sent hundreds of children abroad for medical treatment, distributed humanitarian aid, constructed homes for resettlement projects, arranged for physicians to train abroad, set up educational centers, and organized many more projects to aid the victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Our Foundation is one of many worldwide organizations that help Belarusian victims of Chernobyl.

For the children's program, we send requests for specific numbers of children according to age and sex as invited by prospective San Diego host families. In Belarus these requests are passed on to organization volunteers in the cities that we sponsor. A selection committee made up of our liaisons with "Medicine in Chernobyl" choose, on our behalf, children that they believe will be most likely to benefit from our program.

Where Do the Children come From?

Since many countries are inviting Belarusian children for respite vacations, our organizational fund has decided to focus on one area within the contaminated zone. For the past several years we have directed our aid to the district of Mozyr and Minsk.

A typical house in the village is a small wooden frame cottage heated by wood stove. In many of these buildings there is no water or communal sewer systems and on average a house has 4 to 15 people living in its two or three small rooms. Most homes have a small vegetable garden with a few fruit trees.

High-rise apartments are the other type of dwelling your child could live in. While they offer heating and plumbing, the families are again crowded into very tiny living spaces, often shared with grandparents.

Children’s Health

The children selected for our program are considered healthy. They have passed a standard health examination required to enter. However their immune systems are weakened due to the lack of vitamins in food and the accumulation of small doses of radiation.

These children pose no health risk to others. Host parents may find their visitor will tire faster than U.S. children will.

Dental Care

Almost all of our visiting children are in urgent need of dental treatment. Dental hygiene, preventative dental care and common dental treatments are just not available to the average Belarusian. In most cases, San Diego families have approached their own dentists and have been successful in receiving free treatment. If this is not possible, contact our organization, as we have names of dentists who have offered their services.

You may give your dentist the following information — It is a good idea to have the Belarusian interpreter accompany the child on the first visit. The children are not used to having anesthetics and they will be very frightened. A Canadian dentist who traveled to Belarus in 1995 to treat children as well as research their dental treatment system reported that dental services, even in the major centers, were equivalent to what we had 70 years ago. This explains why even the interpreters don't believe that a trip to the dentist can be painless. Please be gentle with the children's fears-they have good reason to be frightened. In their country, most believe it is better to endure a toothache than a trip to the dentist.


As noted in the discussion on Belarus, children are taught Russian in schools, but many speak Belarusian at home. Older children may have had some instruction in English or German. Hand gestures and simple words may be enough in many cases. Encourage the child to point to the English words in a dictionary if they can't pronounce them.

Other suggestions:

Post signs in Belarusian (Cyrillic alphabet) and English, post "food" words and translations on the fridge, write common words you'll use on recipe cards and pull them out for quick use. Be creative with your pronunciation, expression and gestures and hopefully the children will do likewise. Keep a sense of humor; laughter can be a form of communication.

Hosting a Child

Role of the Host Family

The most important role of the host family is to provide the visiting Belarusian child with day-to-day care in a loving and stable environment. Remember the children are coming to have a respite from radiation. They are in need of wholesome food, fresh clean air and the love that will make them feel at home in a foreign country so different from their own.

Undoubtedly, the true pleasures of San Diego for these children are the simple ones, many of which they have been restricted from doing in their home country. They love to swim (agreed by all host parents to be the #1 favorite pastime) and they love to ride bicycles and play cards. Unlike many of our own children, they do not need the countless toys and trappings of our materialistic society. Driving through an automatic car wash or getting take-out food at the drive-through at McDonald's are unbelievable thrills. This, of course, provides an excellent lesson for our own children.

It's a good idea for host families to participate in some or all of the group's planned summer activities, which allow the child to speak his or her own language and play with friends from home.

In the event of an illness, accident or emergency, host families should seek the immediate help of the Belarusian interpreter and the group leader. The host family should also inform its dentist of the child's proposed visit and solicit his interest and hopefully free dental treatments.


Gift giving is a very important part of the Belarusian culture and the children always arrive with something special for their host families. In return, if you wish to give "your child" something, popular gifts for the Belarusian child include Barbie dolls for the girls and Lego and baseball caps for the boys, brightly colored T-shirts, etc.

Most of the children arrive extremely tired. It may be their first time away from home and the length of the trip takes an understandable toll on such young bodies. Many of the children seem to have a problem with motion sickness and will have been ill on the airplane as well as the buses and cars bringing them to your town.

Once home, the child will most likely want to unpack right away. In most cases the luggage contains more gifts than clothes and the children want to present them immediately to their hosts. If you are helping your child to unpack, check for food he might have brought.

Pour a bath for your guest, showing him the soap, a towel and a supply of fresh clothes. After the bath offer a light snack and then get her off to bed. You will be pleasantly surprised the next morning by a much more relaxed and excited child.

Don't overdo the activities in the first week -- it is very tempting. Try to remember how overwhelming and over-stimulating our lives, customs and material wealth are for these children. Try to get a few of the Belarusian children together in the first week or two for a barbecue so they can see that their friends are O.K. and they can share impressions in their own language. They may also be able to exchange phone numbers if it is not long distance. A phone call can be a great cure for homesickness.

Bathroom and Grooming Habits

Buy a toothbrush and toothpaste for your child before he arrives - he will most likely not have one. Encourage him to brush his teeth regularly.

As soon as possible show the child the toilet and flush some paper down. By hand signals you should be able to make it clear that toilet paper can go down the toilet, but nothing else. (In Belarus their system cannot handle toilet paper, so it is usually discarded in the wastepaper basket.) On the one hand you might have a child who thinks nothing can go down the toilet; on the other hand, there are the children who begin to think anything can go down-as one family learned after pulling apart their entire bathroom to find a peach that had been flushed.

Another important point to get across is that soap is not rationed in the U.S. This means washing and changing underwear daily is part of normal U.S. hygiene. Show the child where his soiled clothes should go and let him know you will do his laundry. As his visit progresses, you will want to show him the washer and dryer. Most of the children find this quite interesting.

Food and Mealtimes

The Belarusian diet includes many potatoes (cooked in a million different ways), many pickled items--and plenty of fried, greasy, fatty food (try some of these Russian & Belarusian Recipes). Belarusians are not used to salads or raw vegetables, and have little access to fruits. Bananas, fruit juices, watermelon, peaches are rare treats for the children and many will make up for years of shortages at one sitting. With a plentiful supply of these fruits and other good foods, many host families literally watch their children "bloom." The color comes out in their cheeks and almost all go home many pounds heavier.

The children are not used to drinking milk. At home, they are warned that dairy products are high in radioactivity, which ends up in the bones of those that consume them. They can be encouraged to drink milk here, but sometimes are not able to digest it in large quantities.

One child informed her hosts that the doctor told her not to eat spicy food (heard from many host families) but she loved salami and sausages. This same child struggled to eat cold cuts and bread with a knife and fork the first night, then observed the family's example and made a sandwich. She wouldn't eat spaghetti, but the sauce on a potato seemed to work. The children are more likely to eat cooked vegetables than raw. Cabbage is very popular. Many hosts found the children to be picky eaters. Suggestions: try ketchup on everything (they universally love it); let the children help shop for and cook some Belarusian meals; and when all else fails - cook lots of potatoes and hot dogs.

Some of the children have wonderful manners, others don’t. Have an interpreter explain which behaviors are not acceptable in your household and why. A common problem is children leaving the table before everyone has finished. This is because in many Belarusian families, the children are allowed to roam around during mealtimes. Children may or may not be familiar with all the eating utensils, or respectful of grace being said at the table.


Families may have problems getting the children to bed. In Belarus children may not go to bed until their parents do. In many cases, this is because the living area doubles as a bedroom. One girl was up and dressed every morning, but did not come out of her room until her host mother knocked on the door to see if she was awake. The host mother managed to explain that she could sleep in and come down for breakfast whenever she wanted. If they had an early appointment, she would be told the night before that she had to get up early.

Using the Phone

If you allow the children to use the phone, show them which numbers they may call. One boy called 911 because it was written on the phone. If this happens or you have reason to believe it may happen, have an interpreter explain that calling 911 under false pretenses is a serious offense. Phones in Belarus are uncommon (108 for every 1,000 households) and unreliable. However, they are inexpensive (for calls within the country).

Behavioral Problems

There is a general tendency for Belarusian boys to be rambunctious and aggressive. Try to keep in mind that aggressiveness is a key to survival in their home country. Belarusian fathers are often absent figures because of working two jobs, standing in lines, a more sexist culture, etc. Girls may take time to warm up to host fathers.

Having children a similar age as the visiting Belarusian children may cause some sibling rivalry problems. Your own children should be warned well in advance that the visitor won't speak English, and that he will require a lot of extra attention from Mom and Dad. Families with older children of their own fare well for several reasons. The older children were able to take some of the responsibility away from the parents (taking them to a movie, or bowling, etc.) and for young children, it is always a treat to hang out with older children. Host parents with no children also managed well because the visiting children received lots of attention.

Very early in the visit, it is important to establish the house rules by which you expect your visitor to abide. You are less likely to be challenged on an issue if you have been consistent from the start and have not spoiled the child with special privileges at the beginning of the visit, which can set the tone for future expectations. Some children (like our own) are very timid and may never challenge your authority. Others may become very stubborn about having to wear seat belts, putting on lifejackets or getting to sit in the front seat. One host mother laughed as she told the story of how East met West at a campground when her eleven-year old visitor refused to take her turn in the back seat of the car. Her own three children had been kindly giving up their turns in the front seat for the first few weeks, but now wanted them back. The visitor wouldn’t hear of it and refused to get into the car. The standoff between the host mother and the visitor lasted well over an hour, until finally the visitor gave in.

It is important to remember that children use two main tools to communicate - language and behavior. Their ability to use language has been reduced. Expect the behavioral expressions of feelings, wants and needs to increase. Being aware of this simple fact can often help us to adjust our own expectations of the child. Sometimes, with this in mind, behavior might not be confused with a "behavioral problem."

If behavioral problems are serious, call the interpreter to try and determine the root of the difficulty.


In a medical emergency, contact your Belarusian interpreter in charge of your child. Have your insurance number on hand to give to the doctor or hospital.

In case of dental problems, contact your own dentist and ask if he would consider treating your child for free. If you are turned down, call our organization since we will most likely have names of dentists who are willing to treat the children at no cost.


The chaperones who accompany the children from Belarus act as interpreters. We also have a list of local San Diego residents who volunteer to translate, as necessary.

All the chaperones are responsible for the well being of the children they accompany to San Diego. They are in fact acting as the children’s guardians while here.

The other aspect of their "job" is translation and interpretation duties, for the child and host family, including letters if any. Most families like to write a letter to their child’s parents at the end of the summer and the interpreters try to translate these before getting on the plane home.

Host families must always let the chaperones know about any times the child will be away for more than a couple of days. They should contact the chaperone for any medical emergencies with their child, and hopefully for dental visits that may be stressful for the child.

Many families invite a chaperone to accompany them on trips or excursions. As when inviting someone to be your guest it is usual for the hosts to cover the costs of the event.

Chaperone's Schedule

While in San Diego, the interpreters are a wonderful source of information on Belarus, its culture, customs and history and are happy to share this information with host families. Many families invite the chaperones for dinner or to go on outings with them which they seem to enjoy. However, there have been times when the interpreters seem to book up every hour of the day and become exhausted. Be sure to schedule with the chaperone in advance.

Lines of Communications/Support

In addition to the chaperones and interpreters, each first year family will be "buddied" with an "experienced" family. This is a good starting place for problems like food dislikes, discipline, creative communicating, etc.


A reminder for host parents who have not recently been involved in medicating children: an acceptable medication for pain control (i.e., headaches, muscle ache or to reduce fever in a child) is acetaminophen (Tylenol). Also, the recommended dosage by age may not be appropriate for your Belarusian child as Belarusian children are often smaller than their American peers.

Helpful Hints

BELARUS Capital – Minsk

Population – 10.5 million

Time Zone – GMT+3 hours (Pacific Standard Time + 10hrs)

Phoning Belarus – If your Belarusian child’s family has a telephone it will have a 5 or 6 digit local telephone number. It will also have a routing (area or city) code as well as a country code of "375". You can dial this number yourself using your telephone company’s overseas access codes.

Consult your telephone directory for overseas access codes in your locality. Also, check for discount time periods because rates for calls to Belarus can be up to $3 or more per minute. Finally, keep the 10-hour time difference in mind when placing a call.

Special Thank You’s

There may be several people or organizations who help in bringing the children over or while they are here, for example dentists, doctors, local business. These people may appreciate a special thank-you. Below are a few ways to do this or be creative.

  • Take a picture of your child and send it along or take a picture of the donor with the child and give them a copy. This helps personalize the help that was given.
  • If your child has brought some gift from Belarus you do not have a use for, someone special may love it.
  • Take your child to meet the person who donated to the group. It’s nice to be able to put a face to the help given.
  • Have your child draw a picture or some other artwork for the donor and give it to them.

Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye is more difficult for the host family that their visitors. Typically very strong bonds will have formed during the child's visit. Sending such young vulnerable children back to face the hardships of their homeland is hard for host parents. The children also feel the trauma of a difficult goodbye, but it is usually balanced by an equal desire to return to their parents and siblings, full of exciting stories of their summer in San Diego.

Gifts to Send Home

Don't feel as if you must spend hundreds of dollars on your child. Some families can, but many cannot. The most important gift you can give is sharing our healthy environment. With a little ingenuity, you can probably get many suitable gift items without going over your budget.

The children themselves need winter clothing, coats, boots, socks and shoes. Sometimes neighbors, friends and relatives ask how they can help. You may consider asking them to buy clothes that you are not able or willing to buy. Many groups organize a clothing exchange where used clothing is collected and distributed to the children before they leave. These clothing exchanges usually provide sufficient donated items of clothing to ensure the children can bring home items for siblings. Winter boots are very difficult to get in Belarus. Our fund has heard of more than one child unable to go to school on very cold day because they did not have boots.

Gifts for family members can include some common everyday items - taken for granted here, but impossible to find in Belarus and greatly appreciated. Please use common sense! A new bike would be great, but how practical will it be in comparison to new winter boots? The Belarusian lifestyle is one of harsh practicality; it is not filled with designer or brand name items.

Sewing kits, thread, sewing needles, knitting needles, wool, soaps, gloves, Teflon pans, cooking spices, knives, gloves and inexpensive perfumes are all wonderful gifts for Mothers and Grandmothers. For the men in your child's family, small tool kits, wrench sets, fishing poles (that can be disassembled) fishing line, gloves and utility knives make useful and welcomed presents. Dried fruit, art supplies and school supplies are also great items to send home with your child. Photo albums are greatly appreciated. Photos of daily life and special events make it easier for a young child to recall and explain what he or she has seen while in San Diego.

Basic health care items we take for granted are practically nonexistent in most of our children's homes. Due to the harsh climate, poor living conditions and ongoing radiation Multivitamins, Vitamin C and Tylenol are items that are extremely useful for the entire family. Some group's canvas their area drug stores for donations and discount pricing for bulk purchases, ensuring they will send a year supply of vitamins home with the children, enough for the entire family. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, antiseptics, toilet paper, Band-Aids, are for the most part very limited; these items will be appreciated. When sending ANY HEALTH CARE ITEM HOME WITH THE CHILD ENSURE A COMPLETE TRANSLATION OF THE INSTRUCTIONS IS ATTACHED TO THE CONTAINER!

If you choose to send money home with the child, send AMERICAN DOLLARS ONLY, ALL BILLS MUST BE IN PERFECT CONDITION, TORN OR WORN BILLS WILL BE UNACCEPTABLE IN THE MARKETPLACE. Money should be hidden inside the clothing the child wears, possibly sewn in a secret spot. Make sure your child knows where the money is so they can alert their parents when unpacking. A letter should be sent home with the child explaining the items sent home and their uses. This will ensure they are distributed and used correctly.

Luggage Restrictions

Each passenger traveling with our program is permitted:

1 piece of carry-on hand luggage (this must be able to fit under the seat of the plane)

2 pieces of checked luggage - 40 Kilograms (80 pounds) total weight

It is critical you remember that the children must handle their own luggage during the return trip. Baggage must remain within the weight and size tolerances to ensure nothing is left at the airport. No child or chaperone will be allowed to exceed the weight, size, or bag limits.

The departure at the airport is a stressful and confusing time for the volunteer members that help in organizing the children's departure. To improve the chances of your child's baggage arriving safely at its destination do not send new luggage home with the child. Should your child require additional luggage, pick this up at a second hand shop, Salvation Army or a garage sale. Ensure that your child's luggage is labeled well and she is familiar with it. It is recommended that groups individually weigh all luggage BEFORE it is loaded on the bus departing for the airport to ensure that there is no OVERWEIGHT luggage at the airport weigh in. The meeting at the departure bus is an ideal time to color code the luggage with duct tape. Color coding the baggage by chaperone will help the chaperone in finding the baggage and provide security from tampering. At the airport there is a real risk that luggage will be opened if it is not secured with duct or box tape.



String, rope, fishing line (even on the fishing reel), tape, knives, plastic or toy guns, sharp objects, anything that could be remotely considered a potential weapon. (Believe me they have a good imagination.) Should any of these items be found in the child's carry-on luggage, they will remove it! Make sure these items are packed in the suitcase. See the Transportation Security Administration website for an up-to-date list of items.


Please remember the length of the children's trip home; they will spend a minimum of 24 hours on the move, and in some cases, 30 to 36 hours. Food and drink will be provided on the plane only. It is your job to make sure that your visitor has enough food and drink to get him from your home to the plane and for the 10 hours or more it will take to get from the Moscow airport to his home. Please ensure that your child has plenty of snack items and juice boxes in his carry-on luggage. At the airport he will not be subject to search or removals of any food items from his carry-on luggage.

Letters to Belarus

Before your child leaves for Belarus ensure that he or she writes down (in Cyrillic letters) their home mailing address, this can be photocopied for future use as a label on any correspondence. Note that addresses in Belarus are written in reverse order (country, province, city, street, person). Most standard letters from the U.S. are now getting to their destinations in Belarus in 8 to 14 days. Please be careful to use standard size envelopes, oversized or thick envelopes generally do not reach their destination, many are stolen with the assumption that they contain money. The inconsistency of the mail makes communication to the Belarusian families extremely frustrating although the result is worthwhile.


Congratulations on your decision to host one of these special children! You are certain to find it a rewarding experience. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it or to pass on your questions and concerns. Have a wonderful summer!