Belarusian girl refuses to leave California after program ends

By JULIANA BARBASSA - Associated Press

PETALUMA ---- In the Zapata family's photos, it's hard to separate Tanya Kazyra from the other children. They're shown hugging in portraits, smiling in Christmas cards, playing together.

The 16-year-old from Belarus has spent nine summers in this wine country town as part of an exchange program for children from regions affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. But now she's refusing to leave, causing a rift in diplomatic circles and prompting her native country to halt its exchange and adoption programs to the U.S.

"This is my family," Tanya says simply, and the Zapatas agree.

"She's called us mom and dad since she was 8 years old," says Debra Zapata.

Tanya's decision to outstay the program's Aug. 5 end initially led to accusations of kidnapping, with police visiting the Zapata residence to be sure the girl wasn't being held against her will. Her visa expires in December, and she's requested an extension from immigration authorities.

"I would not call this a small incident," said Oleg Kravchenko, charge d'affaires at the Belarus Embassy in Washington. Kravchenko said this is the first time an exchange participant has refused to return home, but it has led to the government suspending the trips.

"As a party responsible for these kids, we do not find ourselves in position to let them go here anymore," he said.

An envoy of the Belarus ministry of foreign affairs flew to Petaluma to talk in person with Tanya, while Belarusian representatives say they're talking with the State Department, seeking the girl's prompt return and a guarantee that this won't happen again.

State Department officials say they can't discuss the details of this case, but confirmed they're in discussion with the government of Belarus regarding one of its exchange programs.

"There was an agreement, and it was violated," said Kravchenko. "So we are suggesting an agreement between the governments."

Relations between the two countries were already frayed by U.S. sanctions and tensions over detainees described by Americans as political prisoners. Both sides recalled their ambassadors in March.

No resolution emerged from meetings this week, and as negotiations continue, pressure mounts on the Zapatas and Tanya. Other families who have hosted children over the years are afraid they won't have a chance to see again kids they've grown to love, and program organizers, who have promoted the respite exchanges since 1991, are worried.

Up to 2,000 children from regions still suffering from the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster get health, dental and vision care as well as a carefree summer through programs such as this every year, Cecelia Calhoun, Belarus liaison for the Children of Chernobyl United States Alliance.

"Thousands and thousands have benefited from this," said Calhoun. "It's all very unfortunate."

The Zapatas and their lawyer note the decision to halt the program came from the Belarusian government. Thousands of American children go abroad, and foreigners come as part of exchange programs, and on occasion, some don't return on schedule, said the Zapata's attorney, Christopher Kerosky.

"It happens, and it never leads to a diplomatic crisis," he said. "Isn't this excessive? Why is the government overreacting like this?"

He said blaming it on Tanya puts unfair pressure on the teenager, whose life in the industrial town of Borisov has been rough and relieved by monthly phone calls from the Zapatas and the knowledge of summers far away in Petaluma.

Now that she's 16, she's aged out of the program. And the life waiting for her at home is grim, she said. A court order removed her from her parents' care as an infant, and she was raised by a grandmother, who shielded her from her father's violence and drug abuse.

"There, my life is too hard," Tanya said, explaining that she's received her grandmother's blessing to do whatever she felt was best. "I love my country, and I love my grandma. But life is not really good. I have a family here."

To Debra Zapata, supporting Tanya's decision came from the gut. The Belarusian government is pushing hard, but this nurse and mother of three says she's not wavering either.

"Tanya is part of our family, and we'll help with anything, no matter how hard it is," she said.



Partners: Social Network