Belarus teen seeking student visa

Stay could be extended significantly if approved by immigration authorities



The Belarusian teenager who refused to leave her Petaluma host family after a summer trip, causing an international stir, is attempting to lengthen her stay.

Tanya Kazyra, 16, and her hosts Manuel and Debra Zapata, are seeking a student visa and permission to attend high school for a year in Petaluma, said her immigration lawyer, Christopher Kerosky.

That overture Friday was the first sign that Kazyra plans to remain in the United States on a somewhat permanent basis.

It was a change from her announcement last month that she was not going home with other members of the Chernobyl Childrens Project because she wanted a short extension on her visit with her hosts for the past nine summers.

"She's on a tourist visa now," Kerosky said. "She would like to go to a student visa if the U.S. government will allow it."

Kazyra, from the city of Borisov near Minsk, outraged Belarusian officials and members of the respite program for children living in the path of the 1986 nuclear disaster when she failed to board a plane Aug. 5 to go home. She had been in the country for six weeks.

She said she had grown attached to the Zapatas and didn't want to return to a bleak home life marred by an abusive father.

Her government responded that she was being kidnapped and demanded she be returned. Two special envoys were dispatched to Petaluma to assure her she could come home safely and with the possibility of returning to the United States at a later time.

When she didn't change her mind, officials in the former Soviet republic suspended all future children's trips to the United States.

That incensed children's groups nationwide who host about 1,400 kids from Belarus each year. Many called Kazyra selfish and blamed the Zapatas for encouraging her to stay.

"Everybody is up in arms," said Rosey Erickson, president of the Petaluma-based group that organized Kazyra's trip. "Nobody understands. Everybody wants to know how they can be so selfish."

But Kerosky said the teen is in the country legally and has permission from her legal guardian, her grandmother. Her current tourist visa expires Dec. 25 and she has applied for an extension to February, he said.

Since she needs a student visa to attend high school for her senior year, she also will seek a change of status, Kerosky said.

That might involve traveling to a third country such as Canada and applying at a U.S. consulate there, Kerosky said.

The U.S. government frowns on student visa applications within the country in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.

Returning to Belarus to apply for the change is out of the question, Kerosky said.

"She's afraid to go back to Belarus for reasons I think are reasonable," Kerosky said. "What about a compromise?"

A State Department source who did not want to be named because of privacy issues confirmed Kazyra was in the country legally. The source said an extension or change of her visa status is possible.

Another official, Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said there are no specific laws that apply to minors entering the country with student groups.

Like adults, minors from most countries must have a visa to enter and they may remain for as long as that visa is valid and they comply with the terms of their admission, she said.

"Whether they are authorized to attend school depends on the type of visa they are issued," Kice said.

Meanwhile, hoping to help save the children's trips, Kerosky penned a letter to the Belarusian embassy suggesting some steps toward a resolution.

Kazyra could issue a written apology to her government and a statement expressing affection for her home country, Kerosky said.

In addition, Kazyra would not ask to be adopted and would act as a sort of cultural ambassador, he said.

He said blaming Kazyra for the cancellation of the programs is wrong. The Belarus government overreacted, he said.

"Tanya has simply made a decision not to return to a home environment where she has been exposed to abuse, violence, and drug use by others in the household," he said in a written statement. "How can we attack her for that?"

Whether the concessions will have an effect appeared doubtful.

Oleg Kravchenko, charge de affairs at the Belarus embassy in Washington, said Kerosky lacks the official standing to make a proposal to a foreign government.

Programs that bring children to the country each year will remain canceled until the U.S. government guarantees another child will not try to stay, he said.

The U.S. government is now considering a draft agreement, he said.

A U.S. government source said there are no ongoing negotiations with Belarus over any pact.

Kravchenko accused the Zapatas of attempting a "de facto adoption" and said Kazyra is being deprived of her remaining education while the family tries to home-school her.

School in Belarus began Sept. 1.

"We want Tanya to return," Kravchenko said. "It is the only right solution. The Zapata family is doing her a great disservice."



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