The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 in the Soviet Union. Children born before and after 1986 were at risk of developing different health conditions. For example, instances of thyroid cancer increased 40 times due to release of radioactive iodine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, borders opened and many Western charities offered recuperation to affected children in host families abroad during summer. The idea was to take children out of contaminated territories and provide them with an environment free from radiation. Belarus was the most affected, having 23.5% of its territory contaminated with radioactive cesium and strontium. Italy was the most active in these recuperation programmes; it has hosted more than half of all affected children from Belarus.
The goal of my Identities article, 'Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy', was to uncover what happened to these children and their host families over time. I demonstrate that one of the unexpected outcomes of Chernobyl children’s recuperation in Italy was their educational migration to Italy for further education as they grew up (some went on to attend high school in Italy; the majority of these went on to do their Bachelor and/or Master’s degrees in Italy, as well). I argue that educational migration became possible due to kinning – strong emotional bonds developed between the Belarusian children and their Italian host families over their repeated encounters during the humanitarian programme of child recuperation abroad. The concept of kinning has been used in the studies of transnational adoption (by Signe Howell) and domestic and institutional care work (by Loretta Baldassar and colleagues). My article applies kinning to the studies of disasters, migration and humanitarianism.
Educational migration of Belarusian children to Italy was chosen over other unintended recuperation outcomes (e.g. being adopted by the Italian host family, meeting a life partner in Italy, changing religion from Orthodox to Catholic, choosing a profession related to Italy, or coming to Italy in adulthood with children of Chernobyl children), as it revealed how important a triad relationship between children, their biological families in Belarus, and their host families in Italy was in deciding to study in Italy as these youth came of age. I therefore argue that disaster migration occurred, not because of the damage done by the disaster, but due to the human relations formed between people involved in disaster response.
On the basis of ethnographic interviews I conducted with the grown-up Chernobyl children from Belarus, I examined the relational consensus and conflict between children, their biological parents in Belarus, and their Italian host families, which evolved around frequent contact, material and emotional support, family obligations, co-residence, over-parenting, etc. Educational migration of grown-up children as disaster survivors was not just about aspirations to improve their future career prospects and socio-economic statuses, but was also shaped by social relations with family members in both host and home countries in the negotiation of a simultaneous sense of belonging to different places.
In practical terms, formally recognising and supporting kinning in humanitarian assistance for disaster survivors would do great service to those who have already developed kinning and to those who are restraining themselves because of organisational rules. Kinning as a form of a long-term social support can be beneficial for children in overcoming prolonged consequences of a humanitarian crisis.
Blog post by Ekatherina Zhukova, Lund University, Sweden
Read the full article: Zhukova, Ekatherina. Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1686877