Belarusian girl sparks international incident


A 16-year-old girl visiting Petaluma as part of a summer exchange program apparently has refused to return home to Belarus, touching off an international dispute and threatening the future of a program meant to help young people living in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Tatsiana "Tanya" Kazyra, who has been visiting the same host family for nine summers, failed to show up Tuesday at San Francisco International Airport for the flight with her group back to her country, said Diane Decicio, president of the Petaluma-based Chernobyl Children's Project.

Decicio said she received a letter from a San Francisco immigration lawyer saying the girl has applied for an extension of her visitor status and would remain in the United States to await a ruling.

Her hosts, Manuel and Debbie Zapata, could not be reached for comment. No one was present Thursday afternoon at the Zapata home in east Petaluma.

"I know they love her dearly, but it's not part of the program," Decicio said outside the Petaluma Police Department, where officials from the Belarus consulate and the U.S. Department of State were meeting. "We are totally in support of sending her back."

Reuters news service reported Wednesday from the Belarus capital of Minsk that authorities in the nation formerly part of the Soviet Union had demanded that U.S. officials return the girl. According to the news service, U.S. Embassy officials said they were working with the Belarusians to accomplish the return.

Relations between Belarus and the West have deteriorated in recent years amid accusations of violations of basic freedoms. Relations with the United States are especially strained.

The teenager's decision to stay effectively postponed the return of 24 other Belarussian children ages 7 to 17 and two adult chaperones who had arrived with her June 26 to join families in Sonoma and Marin counties, Decicio said.

The chaperones, both Belarus citizens, initially said they would not go back without her because they would face arrest, Decicio said. But late Thursday they received word they could return with the remaining children and not be prosecuted, Decicio said.

One chaperone is to remain in Petaluma until the matter is resolved, Decicio said.

Anxious host families and their charges were outside the police station Thursday, awaiting an update. A Russian television crew stood by as lawyers and government officials from both sides ducked in and out of the meeting. A Belarus official said it was her last year of eligibility for the program.

Some of the children said they were surprised Kazyra was planning to stay. She lives with her grandmother in the town of Borisov, near Minsk, and loves to dance and sing, they said.

Tanya Siniutskaya, 13, said she hung out with the teen during a trip last week to UC Berkeley. She recalled joking and laughing with her.

"I have no idea why she did this," she said, sitting on a curb outside the police station. "She never talked about it."

The Chernobyl Children's Project was founded in 1991, five years after the Ukrainian nuclear disaster that spread fallout across parts of Eastern Europe. Chernobyl is near the southern border of Belarus.

Organizers said the program is meant to give kids respite from contamination that has been blamed for dozens of deaths.

Decicio said kids compare the experience of traveling from Belarus to Sonoma County as "like going from black and white to color TV."

"It's very bleak," she said. "But none of these kids are orphans."

Marin and Sonoma families have been hosting children for about 17 years. Some return to attend college but none have stayed.

Rosey Erickson of Petaluma, a host for the past four years, worried the controversy could doom the program. A similar program in Italy was shut down after host family tried to hide a 10-year-old who they believed had been mistreated in a Belarus orphanage.

Erickson said the Zapatas had been trying to find a way to adopt the girl for the past few years.

"We understand the emotional ties they have," Erickson said. "But we aren't happy with the way they are doing this."



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