Student visits remain at risk

Many host families grow weary of stay-behind student who could unhinge exchange programs



Tearful goodbyes have given way to nail-biting and anger for host families of Belarusian exchange students across the United States as Tanya Kazyra, 16, continues to refuse to leave her Petaluma host family.

"If this girl does not return to Belarus then the chance of us seeing our daughter is over," said Gina Baumgarner of Hickory, N.C. Baumgarner is a host mother to 12-year-old Zaryna of Belarus.

"\[Kazyra's] return is the only chance we have of seeing our daughter," she said.

Children in the Belarus programs often visit the same families year after year, and many of them are involved in respite programs for young residents of areas hit hard by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in nearby Ukraine.

With exchange and adoption programs to the United States now halted by Belarus, families like Baumgarner's are joining the Belarusian government's efforts to convince Kazyra to return.

Among those families protesting the situation are many who participate in the Petaluma-based Chernobyl Children's Project, which coordinated Kazyra's summer visits to the home of Manuel and Debra Zapata of Petaluma for nine years.

The teen-ager's attorney, Christopher Kerosky of San Francisco, said Monday that Kazyra intends to remain in the United States. Though she could change her mind after meeting this week with Pavel Shidlovsky, envoy of the Belarus ministry of foreign affairs.

Kerosky said he met with Shidlovsky on Saturday and that Kazyra met with him Sunday. However, Shidlovsky said in a brief statement Monday afternoon that he has yet to meet with the girl.

"I came to Petaluma to resolve the situation peacefully and in the best interest of the child," he said.

Shidlovsky said he could not comment further until having met with her.

Phone calls to the Zapata home were not returned Monday.

Host families of students who are now back in Belarus after spending the summer in the U.S. said they are sending photos of the children to Kazyra.

"I want to ask her to please consider all the children that she's affecting," said Susan Jones, also of Hickory, N.C. "Going back would be the most generous thing she could do in her life."

But Kerosky said the government of Belarus has not offered to reinstate the exchange programs if Kazyra were to return and that the debate remains one more about government than about a child's choices.

"Why is the government so upset? Why is the government insisting on the return of a 16-year-old girl with a visa whose grandmother has voiced her support of her continued stay?" he said.

Kazyra's grandmother is her guardian.

"It would be a tragedy if the programs were to not continue. But there are a lot of other factors that may be contributing to that decision beside Tanya's decision not to return."

Kerosky and Belarusian officials said Monday that an ideal solution would include the re-instatement of exchange programs that allow approximately 1,400 Belarusian children to visit the U.S. each summer.

The respite programs for young people living in the path of Chernobyl nuclear contamination typically ask that families provide medical and dental care for their host child and feed them healthy food.

Other programs serving Belarusian orphans give children an opportunity to live outside an orphanage for the summer.

"We are looking forward to [Kazyra's] return to make things better to her and all to all the thousands of families," said Oleg Kravchenko, charge de affairs at the Belarus embassy in Washington D.C.



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