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Be thankful you live in America

May 12, 2008

by Kristen Miller

My job is like continuing education. Each story I write, I learn something new.

This past week, I learned about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that took place 22 years ago last month.

During an interview with Pastor Philip Geoffrion, we discussed his trip teaching at a seminary in Belarus.

He said there are still many who suffer from the medical fallout associated with the explosion of a nuclear reactor in what is now the Ukraine, just south of Belarus.

Unfortunately, due to the direction of the wind after the explosion, the people of Belarus are suffering the most from the consequences.

Pastor Geoff told of his translator, Valera, who at the time of the Chernobyl incident, was a child living in Minsk.

Since then, she has been rendered sterile and has undergone four operations associated with thyroid cancer caused from the radiation.

Interested in learning more, I got on Google, my trusty search engine, and read more about Chernobyl and the effects it had on those cleaning up the mess and those living in the surrounding area (the photos are saddening).

About 23 percent of Belarus is contaminated, and to this day, statistics about illnesses associated with Chernobyl are kept secret by the country’s current president.

And we wonder why people want to live here. It’s hard to even fathom the corruption some countries are under. Apparently, George W. Bush isn’t so bad after all.

So, I was thinking this was all history – having happened more than 20 years ago and all – until I found an article from the International Herald Tribune, written by the Associated Press, dated April 26, 2008.

The title: “Belarusian graduates sent to work in Chernobyl zone against their will.”

First of all, what took me by surprise was the fact that the government was assigning university graduates work in the first place.

We live in America, where we can work wherever our heart’s desire’s (for the most part). The government doesn’t “assign” us work, unless, of course, we work for the government.

In Belarus, students attending universities receive so called “free” education. Apparently, in that country, if something is considered “free,” it needs to be paid back because after graduation, students are then assigned work to pay off their “free” education.

If students do not fulfill their work assignments (on average, two to three years) or refuse to work, they will either have their diplomas confiscated or they will be required to pay back the full cost of their tuition.

The government is being accused of covering up the extent of the existing danger, and has removed nearly 1,000 cities from the radiation danger list.

Despite the declining levels of radiation, scientists disagree on the level of risk, according to The Associated Press. Some doctors downwind from the nuclear disaster are saying there are still health effects.

Under a corrupted government, I wouldn’t trust them telling me it was safe to work anywhere near affected, or even “previously” affected areas.

Since work assignments began only last year the students who are graduating this year didn’t agree to any of these requirements when they entered the universities.

One journalism student graduating this year, and recently assigned to work in a contaminated area, told The Associated Press, “My situation is little different than that of a slave who has been forced to do dangerous work.”

Another student said, “The government is hiding the truth from us. My health and my future are in danger.”

And we wonder why America gets involved with other countries.

There were many things in this particular article that made me relieved to be an American, but the last, though certainly not the least, was that these people were part of a 3,000-member march in Minsk, the capitol of Belarus.

On the anniversary of Chernobyl, protesters were demonstrating against the alleged cover-up and the dangerous work the graduates were forced to do.

Demonstrations aren’t so uncommon in America – we have the right to free speech – but it is rarely allowed in countries like Belarus. On this particular day it was allowed.

The protesters also were opposing the proposed building of a nuclear power plant. After Chernobyl, who could blame them, right?

The president of Belarus called the opponents of the plant “enemies of our people.”

With all the hoopla surrounding the upcoming US presidential elections, let us all remember, none of our candidates for president could really be all that bad compared to the situations in some other countries.

Also, with Memorial Day just around the corner, take time not only to remember our fallen veterans, but also the freedoms we so often take for granted.