Belarus teen staying with Petaluma family is focus of diplomatic tussle

By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

PETALUMA, CALIF. -- -- Debra Zapata says she never intended to spark an international uproar. She just wanted the best for the young woman she invited into her home for nine summers in a project to help victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

So last month, when 24 other youths in the program boarded a plane home to Belarus, Zapata followed her motherly instincts and allowed 16-year-old Tanya Kazyra to stay behind.

Reaction was swift, angry and vocal.

Other host families from the Chernobyl Children's Project picketed her house and demanded to speak to the girl. Government officials called from Minsk and Washington. Two Belarus envoys visited the girl, eyeing her sternly across a table and trying to lure her home. They invoked her elderly grandmother, promised her a free house and college education -- and warned that Zapata's gambit could jeopardize the entire humanitarian program.

"The whole scene was like television," Zapata said. "It didn't feel like reality."

In a case reminiscent of Elian Gonzalez -- the 6-year-old boy who after a heated custody battle was returned to his father in Cuba in 2000 -- a foreign-born child now stands at the center of a tense diplomatic controversy.

Everyone, it seems, wants Tanya to adhere to the terms of the program and return to her homeland: project managers, Belarusian officials and the authors of the letters that arrive at the Zapata home every day. Some call Zapata and her husband, Manuel, selfish and shortsighted. A government television and print media campaign in Belarus has labeled them kidnappers.

But the couple, parents of two boys and a girl of their own, aren't backing down. Neither is Tanya. "I want to stay," she said.

Each year, 1,400 children from the Chernobyl region who were affected by the 1986 nuclear accident are offered six-week summer respites with U.S. host families, as well as health, vision and dental care. Tanya was one of 25 youths to visit the Bay Area as part of a local program affiliated with the effort.

Zapata, who works as a nurse, says she's afraid to surrender the girl back to her grim existence in Belarus.

A court long ago removed Tanya from the care of her alcoholic parents, and the grandmother with whom she lives is ill, Zapata said. Tanya insists her grandmother has encouraged her to remain in the U.S.

Because this was the last summer Tanya was eligible to visit under the exchange program, the Zapatas hired an attorney to explore their options. The lawyer has requested an extension for Tanya's tourist visa, which expires in December.

"I love Tanya like my own daughter," Debra Zapata said. "If she wants to look into the chance of a better life here in the United States, I am going to stand behind her."

Critics say it's not that easy.

The Zapatas' decision puts the future of one girl over the fates of thousands, said Cecilia Calhoun, Belarus liaison for the Children of Chernobyl U.S. Alliance, the umbrella group for numerous affiliated programs nationwide.

"Families get attached to these children, we can all understand that," Calhoun said. "But we also know that at the end of their stay, they go back home."

This is the first case of its kind, she said, since the program was established -- with clear rules -- in 1991. "We offer a health respite. We're not trying to rescue these children from any family condition in their home country," Calhoun said. "This family knew the rules. They made a conscious decision to break them. And it's harming the program."

The incident has strained already tense relations between the U.S. and Belarus, which pulled its ambassadors in March after Bush administration officials accused the government of muzzling political dissent.

A State Department official who spoke only on background said the agency has been in contact with Belarus on the Kazyra case.

Oleg Kravchenko, charge d'affaires at the Belarus Embassy in Washington, said Belarusian officials had initially pledged to shut down the exchange program unless Tanya was returned immediately. But he said the government has since reconsidered.

He said Belarus asked U.S. officials to guarantee that all youths in the program return home at the end of their stays. Until that happens, he said, further trips to the United States have been suspended.

"Our position is that this girl has to come home," he said. "In light of this case, I don't think any sane family in Belarus will decide to send kids to the U.S. again. It's a dangerous precedent. I have two sons at home. If one doesn't go to school, I do not allow him to hire a lawyer. It's the same with this girl. She's a minor and she cannot decide for herself."

Niels Frenzen, a USC law professor who specializes in immigration, said the Zapatas' decision to help Tanya stay may be an "improper action under international law."

"There's nothing black and white about this case -- it's all gray. There's a competing set of concerns," he said. "Under the American legal system, the girl has a right to consult with a lawyer and explore avenues available to her under immigration law. On the other hand, the fact that a foreign visitor has a less-than-ideal family life that involves alcohol or drug abuse, that doesn't give them any rights to remain in the U.S."

Zapata's attorney, Christopher Kerosky, said he is prepared to seek political asylum for the girl. "She chose not to return to a home life in Belarus that is life-threatening and abusive, and remain with a family here that loves her and cares for her," Kerosky said. "She had the right to do so under American laws. The decision of one child to stay should not cause the Belarus government to react like this."

Zapata said Tanya has come a long way since she first arrived in 2000 from the Belarus city of Borisov, population 100,000. "She was this tiny girl with short-chopped hair dressed in a Little Red Riding Hood jacket, with socks and sandals. She looked hilarious and so cute," Zapata said.

But her skin was gray from lack of vitamins and she needed $2,000 in dental work.

Translators were available to help Zapata communicate with the girl. Her daughter Ashley, who is two years older, began learning Russian to ease the transition.

At the end of the first visit, Tanya cried. So did Zapata.

"I was bedridden for two days," she recalled. "It was like my child died. What kind of life was I sending her back to? I was condemning her to hell, that's what I thought."

In Borisov, Tanya told her grandmother, "I want to go home," to which the old woman replied: "You are home." "My grandmother told me she was happy I had a new family, and I told her, 'But I love you, too,' " Tanya said.

As the summers passed, Tanya's English improved and she began adopting American ways. She has a crush on teen heartthrob Jesse McCartney.

Tanya and Ashley now share a room. At night, while the girls lie awake talking, Tanya sometimes describes to Ashley what she appreciates about life in the U.S., including the clean air and the way people smile back when you say hello. She calls the Zapatas Mom and Dad.

"Put it all together and she's been here more than a year now," Manuel Zapata said. "She's our fourth child."

Tanya is being home-schooled for now because she cannot attend school on a tourist visa. She talks regularly with her grandmother and thinks about the future.

"Wherever I live, I want to go to college," she said. "I want to be a singer, or work with children. That's what I want to do."



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