Teen's choice still 'big story' in Russia

TV crew comes to Petaluma from Moscow to follow saga of Belarusian girl



The Belarusian teenager who refuses to leave her Petaluma host family and return home continued to draw international attention Tuesday.

A Moscow-based TV crew arrived in Petaluma to interview 16-year-old Tanya Kazyra about her decision to stay, an act that has cast doubt over the future of all youth respite trips to the United States from the former Soviet republic.

"In Russia, it's a very big story," said Ksenia Chubarova, a reporter for state-owned NTV. She was with cameraman Ivan Kharitonov. "It's especially interesting to women."

Kazyra, from the city of Borisov, had been visiting the family of Manuel and Debra Zapata for nine summers as part of the Chernobyl Children's Project, which organizes six-week relief trips for kids living in the path of the 1988 nuclear disaster in nearby Ukraine. She was in her last year of eligibility.

Instead of returning home Aug. 5 with the 24 other young people who came to the North Coast with the program, Kazyra announced she would remain with her hosts, whom she said had become her "real family."

"I love this family," she told The Press Democrat last month. "And I want to stay a little bit longer. It's my real family."

An immigration lawyer working for the family said Kazyra has a valid visa and permission from her grandmother, her legal guardian. The girl also has applied for a visa extension, the lawyer said.

The move sparked a sharp response from Belarus officials, who initially claimed Kazyra was being held against her will.

The government halted all future trips until the United States could guarantee a similar incident wouldn't happen again. It also sent two special envoys to persuade Kazyra to return, to no avail.

The story has been watched intensely in Belarus, Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, said Chubarova, who produces stories for a popular Saturday night program called "Maximum."

Like some American TV news magazines, "Maximum" focuses on scandal, intrigue and investigations for a broad audience, she said.

The story of Tanya Kazyra fits the mold.

"There is great interest," Chubarova said.

Many people in Russia sympathize with the teen's plight because Belarus is a poor country with a corrupt government, Chubarova said. She described it as a police state.

Kazyra has said she was abandoned by her mother and has a drug-addict father.

"I think people want Tanya to be able to stay in California," the reporter said.

At the same time, Chubarova said many Russians wonder about U.S. laws that permit a minor from another country to defy the terms of a travel agreement.

Chubarova hopes to get answers today. She will sit down with Kazyra and tape an interview that will run later this month. The piece will be about 10 minutes long, she said.

The Zapatas did not respond to calls from The Press Democrat on Tuesday.

The Petaluma stop is one of several the Russian crew is making in the United States.

Chubarova said she had been in New York City since early August taping a 40-minute documentary on Russian super models. She flew to San Francisco on Tuesday morning and will leave for Portland on Wednesday night to interview the granddaughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whom she described as "a hippie."

"I'm really tired," said Chubarova, who is on her first trip to the United States. "I just want to go home."

Cameraman Kharitonov, who wore a bright orange Florida shirt and Nike shoes, said he's been all over the country. He said he once taped an interview in Santa Rosa for a story related to Marina Oswald, the wife of John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Kharitonov said he was impressed with Dallas.

"Ivan wants to move to the United States," Chubarova said.



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