By Tina Comeau
Volunteering as a translator for Team Russia during the World Junior A Challenge in Yarmouth shows just how far Katia Antispenka has come since the first time she arrived in southwestern Nova Scotia.
When Antispenka, now 21, arrived here for the first time she was a scared and confused seven-year-old girl who had disembarked in the wee hours of the morning from an airplane in Halifax that had flown her to Canada from Belarus.
Antispenka didn’t speak a word of English and those welcoming her into their home that summer didn’t speak a word of Russian.
But seeing her at the rink during the World Junior A Challenge shows how things have come full circle. As a child she was the one who needed the help of a Russian interpreter to communicate with others. Now she is the one knocking down the language barrier by helping hockey players, their coaches and team staff who speak Russian to communicate with their hosts and an English-speaking community.
“It’s been amazing to be involved in this,” she said, adding it has given her the opportunity to brush up on her Russian.
Not surprisingly she doesn’t get the opportunity often to speak her native tongue in Yarmouth.
Known as one of the ‘Chernobyl children,’ – even though she wasn’t yet born when the nuclear accident occurred – Antispenka first came to Canada as a child to escape the radiation and contamination from the Chernobyl disaster of the mid-1980s that continues to have an impact in her home country. When explosions ripped through the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, a plume of highly radioactive fallout was sent into the atmosphere, drifting over the Soviet Union and Europe.
But it was places like Ukraine, Russia and Belarus that bore the brunt of the contamination, which continues to linger to this day and will do so for a very long time to come. The radiation was in the air. It was in the ground. It was ingested through the food. It was a vicious cycle.
“You can’t avoid it,” Antispenka once told the Vanguard. “There is no escape.”
Except for children like her there was an escape. With the generosity of host families in North America, children of caring and desperate families were sent to these faraway places in the summer months so they could be exposed to a healthy environment. Places where they could breathe in the fresh air. Where their pale skin would see some colour.
Antispenka made several of these summer trips until her host family here – Sheree and Dennis d’Entremont of West Pubnico – eventually asked her if she wanted to stay permanently with them to attend high school here. With the blessing of her family back home she made Yarmouth County her home, graduating from Drumlin Heights Consolidated School in 2010.
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Now she is studying nursing at the Yarmouth site of the Dalhousie School of Nursing, which is something she has known she has always wanted to do.
“That was my goal,” she says. “ I always said I wanted to give back to the community.”
Which is why when she heard about the World Junior A Challenge Antispenka embraced the opportunity to help out. She contacted the local organizing committee to see if they would require translation services.
“When I found out that we were having this amazing event I decided I definitely wanted to help,” she said.
All teams have a volunteer senior host – in Team Russia’s case it is Wedgeport resident Tim Schrader. The two junior hosts assigned to the team are his sons Luke and Drew. As hosts they are in place to assist the team. But it's tricky when you don’t speak the same language. And so Schrader and the others rely on Antispenka to be able to communicate with the team.
While the head coach and a few players do speak English, without a translator to assist them, communicating with the rest of the team would have been difficult says Schrader.
After all, you can only get so far with hand gestures.
“There’s a few kids that can talk English but without Katia translating the major part I would have been lost,” Schrader says. “You can point, you can make hand signals but without the language itself you’re not going to get far.”
For Antispenka, she’s happy to have been given the chance to help.
“When I came here I could not speak a word of English. I remember my first day at school. I didn’t know how to speak at all. I’m sitting in class, my first class was biology, and I had no idea what the teacher was saying,” she recalls. “After two weeks he gave us a test and thank God it was multiple choice. I was like well, my last name starts with an A, so A it is,” she says with a laugh. Later during her high school years she was posting marks in the very high 90s.
Still, it was tough starting out, she says.
“But I always got a lot of help and the community gave me a lot of help,” she says.
Now she’s been able to return the favour.