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Girl from Chernobyl refuses to go back

Her U.S. host family is on her side, igniting an Elian-like controversy.

September 08, 2008|John M. Glionna | 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."

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