English teacher narrowly avoided disaster when born in Ukraine near Chernobyl


English teacher Sonya Shpilyuk, as a toddler in Ukraine shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Suriya Sundaramurthi, Lirim Krasniqi, and Jeff Flores

Growing up is tough for all of us, but it was especially tough for English teacher Sonya Shpilyuk who was born and raised in Ukraine for the first few years of her life… right next to the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

April 26, 1986, the day of the Chernobyl explosion. On that frightful evening, Shpilyuk’s mother received a worrisome call. The call was from Shpilyuk’s grandmother who worked as a chemist at the time.

“[My grandmother] told my mother [to] bring the baby in from the balcony, close all the windows, put wet towels around the windows, draw up a full bathtub of water and don’t let anyone in the house, [and] you may have to be evacuated,” Shpilyuk said.

Shpilyuk and her family had to adjust to the situation to keep baby Shpilyuk safe. Her family went to seemingly extreme measures to make sure she was healthy. “They would send the fruits in a box on a train every week for me,” Shpilyuk said. “Those were the only fruits I was allowed to eat.”

As a child, she came to realize she was a bit special in that aspect. “I was very aware that I was eating special food, not what everyone else was eating,” she added. Her father had to take cautious measures to ensure his safety as well; he had to take off all his clothes and take a cold shower every day after work to keep safe from the nuclear dust.  

Even Shpilyuk’s mother had to make sacrifices, she had to “be by herself for a long time while we were being evacuated,” Shpilyuk said.

For the first ten years of her life, Shpilyuk grew up under these conditions. The worst part was that the Russian government was withholding information on Chernobyl. “Chernobyl is still being covered up to this day,” Shpilyuk added.

Shpilyuk left Ukraine when she was ten years old. “I had mild health conditions that I had to deal with, but I ended up fine.” Shpilyuk said. Even though she left mostly unharmed with her family, they could have been much less fortunate, like many others near the explosion.

Shpilyuk became a mother herself on Wednesday night, but knows she will be up for the challenge because, “If my mother, at the age of 22 could raise a child, on her own, following a nuclear disaster [Shpilyuk’s husband and she] can probably handle it.”  

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