The carpet on the floor of the airplane was frayed and pulling up. A petite hand reached down and lifted back the tapestry. Once removed, the fuselage of the plane showed clearly to the occupants above. This was not an ordinary flight to an ordinary country. This was a flight to the ailing country of Belarus.
In many ways, that plane would represent the country itself, and the people within.
The helping hand on board that day was President Antoinette Iadarola. Iadarola was asked by the U.S. State Department to submit proposals for a conference of Non Government Organizations in three different areas of the country. The trip, as well as the conferences was funded by the United States, which gives the project bipartisan support. The State Department has an invested interest in turning Belarus into a market economy. Iadarola was to give three seminars on the topics of “strategic planning” and “negotiating skills.”
Belarus is a flat piece of land wedged between Poland and Russia. It was once part of the U.S.S.R., but declared its independence in July of 1990. The country and its people have suffered greatly since both world wars. The Ukrainian Chernobyl power plant meltdown of 1986 sent most of its fallout into Belarus. The result is a country of more than 10 million people whose children have enormous occurrences of throat and larynx cancer.
When Iadarola’s plane landed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, a translator, Igor Samavich and a driver, simply known as Sergi, greeted her. These three would become great friends before the trip was over. Iadarola would be one of the last volunteers allowed into the country.
The KGB is still an ever-present factor in Belarus, a country that claims to be democratic. It is still very much an authoritarian-style country. Iadarola was told to bring American money, not to convert it into Rubles.
Iadarola said her experience upon arrival was “moving.” The Belarusian women have a “great spirit of concern,” and seemed to be cautious towards Iadarola’s Westernized thinking. The women of these NGOs were mostly lawyers, doctors, and PhD’s. They were at an even playing field with Iadarola professionally. Their skepticism was short lived, as they began to ask questions about America. One group of women wanted to know if Iadarola had a car. These women were interested in the modern world of America. Of these women, Iadarola said they “had a tremendous respect for our country.”
Iadarola was representing a school of thought that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko didn’t approve. Consequently, all Americans have been asked to leave the country. Lukashenko is a corrupt President who is believed to have murdered his opposition in a recent election. Iadarola said, “I haven’t met anyone who likes this man.”
Some of the issues that face these NGOs are spousal abuse and prostitution. Many Belarusian girls are lured into prostitution under the promise of a better life. Iadarola thought that many of the women brought up common issues that are relatable as members of the human race. Many of these seminars would end with crying or hugging. Iadarola felt that these women had a “sense of hope, of spirit.” These NGOs want more contacts with the Western world. They don’t understand democracy, and don’t think that it works. Iadarola explained to them that democracy is adaptable to all forms of living. The people of Belarus have no confidence in themselves. They think that they cannot be successful. They need a sense of hope, a spirit.
Many of them have little opportunity to leave. The average income is about $1,000. Teenagers and adults alike have curfews and are often stopped and questioned in their travels. “Bathrooms are to be desired,” said Iadarola.
During her time in Belarus, Iadarola traveled across the country in a car with her translator and her driver. The rides were long, oftentimes eight hours on a dirt road. On one of these trips, Iadarola came across an accident on the road. There were eight bodies lying on the road, bloodied and gored. Iadarola assisted the victims on the road. There was no language barrier between her and the victims, just the reality of human suffering. It would be an hour before the police would arrive. Iadarola left before the ambulance arrived, but already one man was dead.
Every year, Cabrini students are encouraged to volunteer in the community. Iadarola said that she considers this her duty to volunteer. She feels that giving back is important.
Iadarola went to Belarus with a job to do. She was there to teach women’s NGOs skills to use in their world. But listening to her speak, one can’t help but tell that perhaps it was Iadarola that learned more on this trip. She brought along Cabrini shirts and pens to hand out to the people she met. She treated them to caviar, chocolates and champagne.
There is a war memorial in Belarus that “speaks to the human spirit.” This trip was about the human spirit. Dr. Iadarola’s driver in Belarus told her, “We are bonded, we are friends.” It is that ability, to see beyond all obstacles and barriers, that has kept the Belarusian culture alive. It is that courage that is seemingly non-existent, that has led Belarusian’s to challenge Lukashenko with their own candidate.
Iadarola entered Belarus on an airplane that was seemingly falling apart. She left on an airplane that was in good condition. On much the same note, Iadarola entered a country that was ailing. She has left that country a renewed sense of optimism, of hope.