SLAVUTICH, Ukraine (Aug. 28)
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster is still haunting the lives of thousands of Ukrainians living in the area near the now-defunct power plant. In addition to ongoing health and environmental issues, which the Ukrainian government is trying to resolve with the help of the international community, many of those who formerly worked at the plant are now facing a new challenge — economic survival.
To address this issue, an international Jewish group has teamed up with one of the world’s leading technology companies to provide computer skills and professional training to those whose livelihoods were dependent on the nuclear plant. The Digital Community Center project was opened last year in the town of Slavutich, with the help of World ORT and the Hewlett-Packard Corporation.
Slavutich, with a population of 25,000, is 125 miles north of Kiev and just 30 miles from Chernobyl.
The town was built after the deadly April 26, 1986, disaster in which the plant’s reactor exploded, spewing a cloud of radioactive matter across much of Europe. Slavutich is home to former employees at the Chenrobyl plant who lived in Pripyat, a town that was hit especially hard by radiation.
In 2000, the Ukrainian government closed the remaining working facilities at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
Slavutich’s economy entirely depended on the plant, so the town faced a serious unemployment problem. Most of the plant’s employees were laid off: Of 14,000 workers, only 4,000 continue to work on the maintenance of the reactor’s stone casing, or sarcophagus, which was built to prevent radiation from spreading.
“Many of us now have to look for a temporary or seasonal job in the area or in Kiev,” says Nikolai Petrovich, a man in his mid-50s who was a worker at the nuclear plant. “Life is getting harder here. You can see it in the number of intercity bus routes to Slavutich, which goes down every year.”
There are few local organizations able to help Slavutich cope with the unemployment issue, and the town administration opened bidding for a technology training center. ORT, which gained a solid reputation in Ukraine in the last decade operating technology centers to benefit the Jewish community, won the contract and now sees its mission in Slavutich as using its expertise to train high school graduates and retrain adults who lost their jobs after the closure of the nuclear plant.
Vlad Lerner, the Kiev-based director general of ORT in the former Soviet Union, said the Slavutich center has proved to be one of the most successful projects his organization helped run in the region.
The local mayor agreed with this assessment.
“The project is very successful, and we want to develop it further,” said Vladimir Udovichenko, the mayor of Slavutich. “This project has a great immediate return and helps us to create a whole new quality of life in our town,” he added.
According to Lerner, the HP-ORT Digital Community Center has already provided training in computer technologies to more than 1,500 people, including high school and college students, unemployed people and even the staff of the town administration.
Training at the center is free, with Hewlett-Packard providing the equipment and the $330,000 budget for the facility’s first three years of operation and ORT specialists running the center and developing its programs.
“Before the Chernobyl plant was closed, Slavutich was a mono-profile town,” said Yevgeny Antonov, a computer specialist at the center. “Now we have many young people who want to get a good education but cannot afford to go elsewhere. The center is a good starting point for many of those who want to have a new career or build a better one.”
The 3,000-square-foot center includes three classrooms equipped with modern computer and multimedia equipment.
Katya Tugbaeva, 23, a former student at the center, used to be registered as unemployed. After she completed a course in drafting and engineering software, she found a job with the city administration office for residential properties.
“Now that I have this job, I certainly feel more confident about my future,” she said.
Valentina Mozhega is another recent graduate of the center. A deputy principal at one of the local public schools, she said she never saw a computer before she took a five-month computer-literacy course.
“I’m not sure today how I could work without a computer before,” she said.
Nastya Ryabchenko, 18, is a local college student who speaks fluent English. “Even in Kiev, many schools don’t have the level of computer equipment that we have here at this center. I’m sure everyone who comes here appreciates that.”