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In a New Country, Coming to Terms With Losses Old and New

Most people associate Chernobyl with the devastating accident that took place at a nuclear power plant there in April 1986. Maria Kolesnichenko, now 16, has a more personal connection.

She was not yet born when her parents, in search of work, moved the family to Chernobyl from Kiev in the fall of 1986 and took jobs on crews cleaning up the radioactive waste that had contaminated the area after the disaster. In 1995, sickened by exposure to that radiation, they died, leaving Maria and her brother, Dmitriy, four years older.

In the overcrowded orphanage in Kiev where they were sent, Maria and Dmitriy shared a single bed and, as far as she can recall, they were not allowed to go outside.

“We did nothing,” Maria said in an interview in Brooklyn. “No food, no playtime, no clothing, no shower. They just ignored us.”

Meanwhile, their grandmother, Margarita Bordyug, who years before had moved to Brooklyn, was frantically searching for them. She called people in Kiev, begging that they search the hospitals, search anywhere, for her grandchildren.

Months later, Ms. Bordyug’s ex-husband found the children, and his brother agreed to take them in temporarily. About a year after that, Ms. Bordyug met a woman in Brooklyn who helped arrange to bring the children to the United States. In December 1996, they arrived at Kennedy Airport.

Ms. Bordyug said she recognized Maria the moment she saw her. She looked astonishingly like her mother.

The children moved into Ms. Bordyug’s one-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst and quickly became Brooklynites, as Maria put it. After six months at school, she was speaking English fluently, she said.

But Ms. Bordyug faced the challenge of raising two grandchildren on her own, complicated by health problems that had become worse with the stress and anxiety she suffered while her grandchildren were missing.

She has lupus, asthma, diabetes and heart problems. By the time her grandchildren arrived in Brooklyn, she could not work and had to be hospitalized every four or five months.

Dmitriy remained Maria’s only constant.

“My brother is my best friend,” she said. “That’s the only person that’s always been there for me, since the start, that’s like my right hand.”

Even as she grew closer to her grandmother, she said, Dmitriy remained her confidant. That is, until 2004, when Dmitriy, given the chance to play on a hockey team, left Brooklyn for Arizona.

When he left, Maria withdrew, she said, from everyone.

“If you asked me what was wrong I would say ‘nothing,’ even though deep down there was a lot wrong,” she said. “I wouldn’t talk to anybody.”

She started skipping school. She would leave the apartment in the morning, she said, but often go to a friend’s house to sleep. Sometimes she just rode the train all day. And when teachers or school counselors tried to talk to her, she refused to open up to them, remaining, she said, in her “own isolated little box.”

“People were offering me help,” she said. “You know they’re offering help but you just choose not to see it. You think they’re trying to hurt you.”

Ms. Bordyug and Maria had previously sought help from the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in Bensonhurst, an agency affiliated with the UJA-Federation of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

About a year after Dmitriy left, Maria and her grandmother learned about a program offered by the Jewish Board called Break-Free Adolescent Services, which would provide Maria with a therapist.

They met weekly, Maria and her therapist, and slowly, she began to talk about the pain she felt after her brother’s move.

Her therapist also used money available through the Jewish Board, including about $700 from the Neediest Cases, to buy Maria a new coat and winter clothes, as well as a desk and a computer to help her focus on her schoolwork.

And with time, Maria said, she “lightened up a little bit,” although she is still a work in progress.

“I kind of realized it’s better to talk to somebody than to tell them it’s not your business, because maybe they’ll help you with whatever situation you have going on in your life,” she said.

She says she believes that little is more important than helping people learn that. Indeed, she said, it is the kind of work she wants to do herself as an adult.

“I just want to give kids someone to talk to,” she said. “Because it’s like if you’re closed in, you learn not to trust anybody.”

And without trust, she said, “you’re not going to be able to have a life, to live life.”



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