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Like many young people, 21-year-old "Ilana" took advantage of the Pessah holiday to take a break from her National Service and headed to the beach Thursday to enjoy the Mimouna festivities and the hot weather.
In a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post, Ilana came across much like any other young Israeli woman enjoying her day off. But as one of the thousands of children brought here as part of Chabad's Children of Chernobyl project, she has experienced more hardships than most people see in a lifetime.
"I feel great today," giggled Ilana. "Chernobyl does not enter my life at all."
Ilana was only one year old when the world's worst nuclear accident took place. She does not really remember the event, though she does have some recollection of her life in Belarus in the years following the explosion.
"I do remember a little about the place but Israel is my home now," continued Ilana, whose mother died of cancer four years after the explosion. Ilana, then five, was then thrown into a Belarus orphanage, where she lived until she was brought here by Chabad at the age of nine.
While Ilana seems to have found some semblance of normalcy in her life, there are thousands more children living in Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia who are still in serious danger of being poisoned by radiation in the air they breathe, the food they eat and the water they drink.
Ahead of the disaster's 20th anniversary on April 26, international organization Greenpeace has released a report showing that during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have died in Russia as a direct result of the Chernobyl accident and estimating that the total death toll for Ukraine and Belarus could reach 140,000.
The report also concludes that the radioactive fallout from the disaster has had a devastating effect on survivors, damaging immune and endocrine systems, leading to accelerated aging, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological illnesses, chromosomal aberrations and an increase in fetal deformations.
The children in the region are at even greater risk than the adults, said Rabbi Yossie Raichik, director of the Children of Chernobyl project in Israel.
"The main problem today is that the world will remember these victims for one whole day and then the story will sink into oblivion again," he said. "These are the world's forgotten children."
"There have been so many disasters since Chernobyl," he continued, citing the 2004 tsunami and last summer's Hurricane Katrina. "The main difference is that in other areas the situation starts to remedy itself within two or three years, but in Chernobyl the fallout is just as strong today as it was 20 years ago."
Raichik explained that children born today in the infected areas are at even greater danger than children who were around when the disaster took place, because a fetus has no immune system and can absorb radiation inside the uterus.
Furthermore, he said, doses of radiation that might not have a great effect on an adult can cause serious damage to young children.
The Children of Chernobyl project is just as active today in evacuating children from the danger zone as it was when it started 16 years ago, he said. Aside from the 2,248 children who have already been brought here since the project began in 1990, Raichik said that 15 children arrived last October and up to 30 are expected on the anniversary of the disaster next week.
Chabad puts the children through an intensive detoxification program, which can last as long as 18 months, said Raichik. Some of the children stay in the boarding school until they are ready to enter the army or volunteer for national service.
"Research has shown that three months of detox can extend an infected person's life for up to one-and-a-half years," said Raichik, adding that many of the children have gone on to lead relatively healthy lives, just like Ilana.
"Many of them even have children," said Raichik, estimating that roughly 20 children have been born to Children from Chernobyl now living here.
While some of the children return to live in the infected areas, Raichik said that a large proportion stay here, with their parents and extended families eventually joining them.
"We have organized some reunions for the children who have lived with us," he said.
As for Ilana, she said that Chabad saved her life and even given her a new family. Even though she has left the youth village where she lived for 11 years, Ilana is still in touch with many of the other young survivors that she met there.
"I do want to go back and see the place where it happened," she said, "but I would never want my own children to grow up there."
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