Teen rejects final offer for return to Belarus Despite incentives from her government, girl in Petaluma intent on staying here



Tanya Kazyra, the 16-year old Belarusian girl at the center of an international standoff, has refused her country's final diplomatic offers that would have put her on a flight home via Frankfurt today.

"No way," she said, explaining in broken English her refusal of the offers. "I love my family and I scared in Belarus."

That decision ends negotiations between Pavel Shidlovsky, a special envoy from Belarus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Kazyra and the Zapata family, her host for nine summers in Petaluma.

Belarusian officials said Kazyra would have been able to apply for a student visa to the United States after her return to Belarus and reunion with her grandmother. Kazyra, however, would have to graduate from high school in Belarus before she could come back.

"Basically he said this is the only option to return and she said 'no,' " her host mother, Debra Zapata, said. "We are backing Tanya in whatever decision she wants to make. There were offers and the answers were 'no.' "

The stalemate came Friday after three hours of talks in English and Russian that included Kazyra's grandmother on the phone from Belarus.

Shidlovsky also met with Kazyra on Tuesday and spoke with her by phone last Saturday.

"The family's decision is wrong," he said. "They should let Tatsiana go back to Belarus sooner rather than later. Tomorrow is the last chance for her to get on an airplane, go to Belarus, get reunited with her grandmother, finish her studies and do everything the right way."

Kazyra and the Zapata family's decision threatens the travel plans of about 1,400 other Belarusian children who participate in youth programs in the United States each summer. The Belarusian government has halted those programs in the wake of Kazyra's refusal to go back.

"The decision of Tatsiana and the Zapatas to stay here creates a bad and dangerous precedent," Shidlovsky said. "It means that other children from Belarus on summer respite can take advantage of the situation of staying in the U.S. to apply for legalization and stay."

Although today is the last chance for Kazyra to follow the direction of her home government, she will be welcomed back into the country should she decide Sunday, or later, to return, he said.

"We believe the sooner she returns the better, but she is our citizen," Shidlovsky said. "If she chooses to return, she will always be welcome."

The remaining Belarusian chaperone, who stayed behind in Petaluma with Kazyra, is expected to return to Belarus today. Shidlovsky said he is awaiting orders from Belarus on how to proceed with his diplomatic mission and whether or not he might return to Belarus without her.

Kazyra, who will be 17 on Dec. 14, has participated in the Chernobyl Children's Project for nine years and was in her last year of eligibility for the program. The project gives children from areas affected by radiation released in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a chance to visit other countries.

The visa granted to her by the State Department for the trip is valid until Dec. 25, about 20 weeks longer than the program runs.

Project organizers fear for the girl's well-being, warning that she is now an unchaperoned minor without insurance.

"We are gravely disappointed in the Zapata family," said Ruth Williams of the children's project. "Decisions that are not in Tanya's best interest are being made by people who are not her legal guardians."

A San Francisco immigration attorney hired by her host family said Kazyra's extended stay is permitted by the State Department.

Belarusian officials, however, said the visa had been issued expressly for travel with the program and believe her refusal to return to her family in Belarus violates agreements made by host families with the organization.

"The decision of the Zapata family to hold the child violates the provision of the agreement," Shidlovsky said.

Shidlovsky arrived in San Francisco from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Aug. 16 to speak with Kazyra and negotiate her return to Belarus.

Those close to his discussions with Kazyra and her host family said various offers were on the table, including allowing her return to the United States, granting her a place in a boarding school in Belarus to remove her from an abusive home life, and English lessons to improve her chances of receiving a student visa to the United States.

"Even with all these things that were offered to her, she is still fearful, very fearful to go back. Her life isn't going to be normal there anymore," Debra Zapata said.

"My question to (Belarus) was why are you offering 'Princess Tanya' all of these things, but you didn't care about the 1,400 other children whose program you were canceling? Why are you pushing so far for this one child?"

News that Kazyra had declined her government's offers saddened national organizers of the Chernobyl Children's Project.

"When (the Zapatas) go to bed at night, they should lie there and think of 1,400 children that are crying and hoping that they can see their American mama and their American papa next year," said Cecelia Calhoun, Belarus liaison for the Children of Chernobyl United States Alliance. "Children crying big tears because one family has decided to be selfish in keeping her."

Kazyra, exhausted from a week of diplomatic attention, planned to have a pizza Friday night and attend a family gathering today.

Her tourist visa does not allow her to attend school, but the Zapatas are home-schooling her in Petaluma with an emphasis in reading and writing English, Zapata said.

The family is also looking into Kazyra's legal options, Debra Zapata said.

"I don't know what is legally available to her now," she said. "I haven't dug too far. I will now, as soon as I have an extra moment. I will start now."



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