Belarus teen: 'I love this family'

Denying she's being held against her will, girl says she just wants to stay longer By PAUL PAYNE THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat
Tanya Kazyra, 16, right, of Belarus with her "sister" Ashley Zapata. Kazyra has been visiting Zapata and her family in Petaluma for nine summers.

Every summer for the past nine years, Tanya Kazyra has escaped her grim existence in the Eastern European country of Belarus for six blissful weeks with a Petaluma family.

Through a program to aid children living in the path of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the 16-year-old from the town of Borisov, near Minsk, developed a second home with Debra and Manuel Zapata, an eastside couple with three kids of their own.

She became close to the Zapatas' 18-year-old daughter, Ashley, sharing trips to the movies, taking a gymnastics course, singing and having their nails done. The family came to know her as one of their own.

This week, when it was time to return to Borisov, the teenager balked. Instead of boarding a plane Tuesday with a group of 24 other Belarusian young people, her lawyer filed for a visa extension. The two Belarusian chaperones then refused to allow the other children to board the aircraft.

Kazyra's defiance outraged Belarusian government officials, who suggested she had been kidnapped, and sparked concern among members of the Petaluma-based Chernobyl Children's Project that their program could be canceled.

Sitting in the living room Friday night with members of her host family, the teenager said she was motivated by family problems in Belarus, including an alcoholic father, a mother she never sees and an ailing grandmother who takes care of her.

She rejected the notion she was being held against her will.

"I love this family," she said in broken English, sitting on a sofa between Ashley and Manuel Zapata. "And I want to stay a little bit longer. It's my real family."

In a phone call to Belarus on Friday, she said her grandmother gave her her blessing.

"She said, 'It's your life,' " Kazyra said.

Meanwhile, organizers of the summer program that brought Kazyra and the other Belarusian children to the country June 26 were frantically trying to arrange return flights Friday.

Diane Decicio, president of the Chernobyl Children's Project, said the children and one chaperone were likely to fly to Frankfurt, Germany, where they would be met by a Belarusian plane.

Another chaperone and Kazyra will remain in Petaluma. Decicio said she feared the incident could threaten the 17-year-old program that is modeled on others around the world.

"I'm trying desperately to get the other 24 children back to Belarus," said Decicio, speaking by phone from a travel agency. "But I don't have reservations yet."

A Belarusian Embassy official who flew in from Washington, D.C., said Friday his government is pressing for the girl's immediate return.

Oleg Popov, a vice counsel, said officials view the incident as a form of kidnapping. However, he acknowledged the girl has said to him she is staying of her own free will.

"Everyone wants her home," Popov said. "She can't stay here. It breaks the agreement she was here by. For sure we see the situation like kidnapping."

A spokeswoman for the State Department said the agency is in contact with Belarus, but declined to discuss details.

Immigration attorney Christopher Kerosky said the Belarusian government has overreacted. Americans who travel abroad frequently overstay their visas without incident, he said.

He said Kazyra was interviewed by local authorities after she failed to show up Tuesday at the San Francisco airport.

Police determined she was acting of her own volition, he said.

Kazyra's tourist visa is good until Dec. 25, so she is not violating immigration laws, he said.

She is seeking a six-month extension, he said.

"She has a loving family here who has known her for 10 years," he said. "They have become very close. At the moment, her only desire is to exercise her legal right to spend a little more time with the family."

Petaluma police have declined to comment on the case.

Debra Zapata, a licensed vocational nurse, and Manuel Zapata, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee in Santa Rosa, first met Kazyra when she was 8 years old.

She was selected for the program through her school, where she was a top student, Manuel Zapata said.

The family became attached to her and has been financing her visits ever since.

Kazyra has gone with them on trips to amusement parks and has attended church camp with their children. She sings with Ashley, an aspiring performer, and imagines her own musical career.

But family members said it was heartbreaking to say goodbye at the end of each summer, especially when the girl told them horror stories about her father, who she said waltzed in and out of her life with drug-addicted friends.

"They were shooting up drugs in front of her," said Ashley Zapata after conferring with the girl in Russian.

"Belarus is no good for me," said Kazyra, sporting jeans and a belt buckle with American flags on it.

Kazyra said she wasn't sure how long she will stay.

Debra Zapata said she hopes the girl will be allowed to attend school in Petaluma this fall. She will be in 11th or 12th grade, possibly at Casa Grande High.

But just what the future holds beyond that is unclear.

"She's here, she's healthy and happy and we're not holding her against her will," Zapata said. "We haven't made her stay."



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