Belarusian Exchange Student Refuses To Return Home

PETALUMA, Calif. -- A North Bay family is caught in the middle of an international dispute between the former Soviet Republic of Belarus and a 16-year-old girl who's from there.

Tatiana "Tanya" Kazyra is living with the Zapata family of Petaluma and says she doesn't want to return to her homeland.

"I call (the Zapatas) my mom, my dad, my sister, my brothers," said Kazyra. "I love my family and my family love me. And in Belarus my life is no good, with my daddy drinking and doing drugs. My life is really scary (there.)"

Kazyra is in the United States as part of Chernobyl Children's Project International (CCPI). The exchange program was established after the Chernobyl disaster with the country of Belarus, a former Soviet Republic. Kazyra spent nine summers in Petaluma with the Zapata family before deciding this year not to return home. Her visa, provided by the program, allows her to stay in the U.S. until December.

Her decision sparked an international incident with the Belarus government, which contends that Kazyra belongs with her 68-year-old grandmother in Belarus. Officials also accused the Zapatas of holding Kazyra against her will. To lure her back, the Belarusian government proposed to Kazyra several concessions to be awarded to her upon her return to her home country.

"We know that Tatiana and the Zapata family will understand the situation and consider our proposal and will still come to the only wise solution in this situation -- to send Tatiana back," said Pavel Shivlovsky, special envoy of the ministry of public affairs in Belarus.

Kazyra said the proposal included lavish offers if she would go home.

"One -- make my house new. College for me. Police walk with me everywhere," said Kazyra.

Zapata matriarch Debra said she fears for Kazyra safety if she returns and says talks with Belarus officials are over.

"I'm a little bit leery about so many offers being made to one child," said Zapata.

Kazyra's decision to make Petaluma her home is more than just about her -- about 1500 children participate in the same exchange program that brought her to the United States, and now the government of Belarus has suspended that program and threatened to cancel it altogether.



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