Don't attack Belarus girl for making valid choice


As the immigration attorney for Tanya Kazyra, I have watched with dismay at the personal attacks made against Tanya and her host parents, the Zapatas, since she decided one month ago to extend her stay in the United States in accordance with her visa and not return as planned to Belarus.

When bad things happen, the natural inclination is to look for someone to blame. In this case, it will be tragic if the programs that bring Belarusian kids here to families in Sonoma and Marin counties and others like it across the country are suspended. No one would dispute that these are wonderful programs that benefit many children from Belarus and enrich the community as well.

However, often overlooked in the commentary on this case is the simple fact that the Belarus government, not Tanya, is responsible for closing these programs. To read the statements of some quoted in the newspaper, one would get the impression that she or the Zapatas closed them down single-handedly. It is a little like the scene from Oliver Twist when the malnourished orphan Oliver dares to ask the managers of his decrepit orphanage for more food and is attacked as a villain for doing so.

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 and instead stay longer with a family here that showers her with love, care and support. She did so with the express permission of her guardian in Belarus, her grandmother. She did so with a valid visa from the U.S. government that allows her to stay here longer. How can we attack her for that?

It is the Belarus government that has overreacted here, singling out this one instance among thousands of kids who have come here and returned over many years and insisting that it result in the complete closure of all programs here and throughout the United States. It's a wrong decision, and it needs to be called that. As an immigration lawyer, I can tell you that many children come to the United States on various exchanges and decide to extend their stay, just as American children do in Europe. These decisions are not the cause for objection by their governments, much less the diplomatic crisis and public controversy that resulted in this case.

Now that the two Belarusian envoys sent to Petaluma to retrieve the girl have returned home without her -- both realizing that this is not a kidnapping (as it was originally called) and that the girl desperately wants to stay here -- perhaps it is time to look for another solution.

In that vein, two weeks ago, I proposed to the Belarus officials and the directors of the local program, the Chernobyl Children's Project, what I view as a win-win-win solution. This was done with the support of the Zapatas and Tanya. I have had no response as yet.

I would like to offer these ideas in order to hopefully advance a creative solution that allows Tanya to escape her dangerous home life there and still save the children's programs and the good work they do. I suggest these ideas here, not acting as her attorney, but as a concerned community member who would like to see a positive outcome. Here are some suggestions:

Tanya and the Zapatas would agree that Tanya would not be adopted by the Zapatas and that no adoption proceedings would be started at any time. It is apparently important to the Belarus government that these programs not be used as a means of adoption.

Tanya and the Zapatas would act in close cooperation and contact with Tanya's grandmother at all times that Tanya remains in the United States.

Tanya and the Zapatas would agree that Tanya would attend high school here on a student visa. The Zapatas would seek permission for Tanya to attend school here from local authorities and a student visa from the U.S. government.

Tanya would issue a statement to the Belarus government and the Belarussian people, apologizing for the problems and difficulties caused by her decision to stay on beyond her planned departure and expressing her affection for her home country.

Tanya would devote a substantial amount of time during the next year in an effort to increase knowledge and understanding of her country, Belarus. With the cooperation of local school officials, Tanya would agree to make presentations at elementary and high schools about Belarus, its culture, its history and its traditions.

A campaign would be started to raise money for the Chernobyl Children's Project here in Sonoma and Marin counties. These funds could be used to expand the program or enhance the services it provides the children. Certainly many more people here know about the Chernobyl Children's Project than one month ago, and I believe that community people would donate to see the programs continued and strengthened.

When the Chernobyl Children's Project children return here in the summer, a "Belarus Day" would be organized, where community members can be exposed to Belarus culture, food, music and national traditions.

The suggestions above are simply initial ideas; I am sure that, involving the participation of those in leadership positions in the Chernobyl Children's Project and other programs, we could enhance these ideas and develop a plan that should be satisfactory to the Belarus government and benefit all concerned.

We as a community can advance with the Belarus government a resolution that maintains the youth programs but allows Tanya to stay, this would be a positive outcome that would benefit Tanya, the local community, the people of Belarus and, ultimately, their government. At the very least, we should not be vilifying this young girl and her host family but working together to find a good resolution for all concerned.Christopher A. Kerosky is an attorney licensed in California for 24 years with offices in San Francisco and Santa Rosa.



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