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Italian Resort Finds Itself Swamped by Flood of Soviet Emigres

February 19, 1989|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

LADISPOLI, Italy — For a decade, this down-at-the-heels resort town northwest of Rome has served as a friendly staging point for emigre Soviet Jews headed to the United States. Now, with refugees arriving in unprecedented numbers, disillusionment washes Ladispoli's dour streets and polluted beaches.

It is glasnost backlash.

Soaring emigration made easier by relaxed Soviet controls is proving a double-edged sword for the emigres, the American Jews who are their financial benefactors and the Italians who have been their willing hosts. To some, it is beginning to seem like too much of a good thing.

In Ladispoli these days, everyone feels the pressure of an overloaded humanitarian network:

-- For the first time, U.S. immigration authorities are refusing refugee status to some Soviet Jews. More than 900 have been turned down since October, triggering fear and anger in the transit community. "I am rejected. They said I was insufficiently persecuted," snapped an engineer from Kiev.

Said a doctor from Moscow: "That is not what those Voice of America broadcasts about freedom led me to expect."

-- With U.S. government refugee funds reduced, the flood of emigres is overwhelming the resources of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committees. The overseas arm of the American Jewish community, Joint, as it has been known for 75 years, cares for the emigres en route to the United States.

After 3,500 Soviets reached the West in January, Joint warned it would stop accepting new refugees as of April 1. A resettlement program that cost $500,000 in 1986 would require $53 million this year if Jews continue to leave the Soviet Union at current rates.

-- The 17,000 citizens of Ladispoli, until now the Soviets' remarkably tolerant hosts, feel the strain of having 6,000 restless foreigners in their midst. "People are beginning to ask, 'Are we losing our identity?' " said Crescenzio Palliotta, the Communist deputy mayor of Ladispoli. "It is time to say: 'Enough,' " shout street posters of a small neo-fascist movement. On one wall, vandals have daubed a swastika and the legend: "Russians Go Home."

In the only Italian town where the main language of downtown streets is Russian, emigres wait for news and speak of Kafka. Around the fountain in the main piazza, at the disused movie-house-turned-synagogue, in the Shalom Club near city hall, visitors soon hear the story of the two Jewish brothers from Moscow who are Ladispoli legends.

The brothers, it seems, did everything together. They worked together; they lived together in the same apartment; they even emigrated together. But--just listen to this--they were interviewed separately at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. And, yes, one brother was accepted to America as a refugee, but the other was rejected. So what else is new?

Maybe the brothers are mythical, but their plight is a sure echo of the nonplussed emigre mind-set.

"It's a lottery," said Mikhail Kotsunski, a 28-year-old construction engineer who has been cooling his heels in Italy with his wife, child and parents since September. He was rejected for refugee status and is appealing.

"I felt persecuted in Russia as a Jew, and I told them why, but they said it was not enough," Kotsunski said in perfect English. "Why do they refuse some and accept others? There is no logic: old, young, from different parts of the country, educated or not. . . . We can't even find a common denominator."

An emigre's fate is decided at a make-or-break interview with a U.S. consular official in Rome. Since Oct. 1, 1988, when the Soviet emigre upsurge began, the consulate has processed 8,752 applicants, accepting 7,823 as refugees and rejecting 929, or about 11%, according to Mark Dillen, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy. As of Jan. 31, according to embassy figures, 6,942 Soviets were in the Rome area awaiting visas.

"Our policy has not changed," Dillen said. "Each interview is on its own merits. The consular official weighs the definition of 'refugee' and individual circumstances in making a decision. All those who do not qualify as refugees have the chance to apply for admission as parolees." Under 1980 legislation, an individual must justifiably fear "immediate persecution" to win refugee status, Dillen noted. Until last October, though, award of refugee status to emigre Jews from the Soviet Union was almost automatic.

Parole status is slower, more complicated and expensive. A parolee requires a sponsor in the United States to certify he will not become a public charge. He also is denied the travel allowance and social benefits accorded refugees.

"In the Soviet Union, we never realized we could be refused," said Igor Boretsky, a design engineer from Kiev.

"The members of Congress, the radio broadcasts . . . they said we'd be accepted, no problem," said Azskady Uspenskay, a physician from Kiev whose sister, Luba, "sings with the St. Petersburg Band in some Los Angeles restaurant."

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