In an Italian Town by the Sea, a New Class of Refuseniks Waits

In a modest two-room apartment, just a block away from the Mediterranean Sea, fear, uncertainty and bewilderment sit hand in hand.

“We can’t understand why we were singled out from all the Jews in Ladispoli,” said 22-year-old Eugene Zafrin.

“Our reasons for leaving the Soviet Union are strong enough to leave as refugees,” he said. “They don’t differ very much from those of people who were let in” to the United States.

Zafrin, a computer technician from Moscow, is one of approximately 200 Soviet Jews who have left the USSR in recent months and have been refused permission to enter the United States as refugees.

With grim humor, they call themselves “refuseniks” — an ironic reference to the refusenik Jews still in the Soviet Union who have been denied exit visas by the Soviet authorities.

“Yes, we are refuseniks here,” said Ljubov Myaskovsky, a vivacious 35-year-old economist from Moscow with dark brown hair and eyes.

She, her husband, Ramon, who is a 35-year-old auto mechanic, and their two young children also were refused refugee status.

“We were very surprised at the U.S. consul’s decision, she said. “We didn’t see any reasons for it.”

Jewish sources here said that as of a few weeks ago, 67 Soviet Jewish families awaiting U.S. visas in Italy had been refused refugee status.

ROOM AND BOARD PAID BY JDC

Soviet Jews have been entering the United States as refugees through Italy for at least 15 years. Italy has a relatively open-door policy as a transit country for political refugees waiting for visas to enter such countries as the United States, Canada and Australia.

Besides thousands of Soviet Jews, there are also thousands of Poles, Ethiopians, Iranians and others here hoping for visas.

Currently there are about 1,000 Soviet Jewish families awaiting U.S. visas — as many as 4,000 people. They are temporarily housed in this seaside resort town north of Rome.

They are given a per-diem financial allowance, covering rent and food, by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, assists the immigrants with documentation, pre-migration planning and transportation.

American sources say that about 6 to 7 percent of Soviet Jews who have applied for visas in recent months have been found not to qualify for refugee status.

The U.S. State Department, however, has said that Soviet Jews seeking entry to the United States will not be turned away.

If they do not qualify for refugee status, they may enter the United States under the U.S. attorney general’s parole authority. But this disqualifies them from receiving U.S. refugee resettlement assistance and makes it much more difficult for them to become American citizens.

Under the parole system, potential immigrants must find sponsors in the United States. Soviet Jews waiting here say that if they do not find a sponsor within a month after they have been refused refugee status for a second time, their living allowances are cut off, their stay in Italy becomes illegal and their only choice is to immigrate to Israel.

Many here who have been refused refugee status do not have family or friends in the United States. They do not know what they will do, said Zafrin, the computer technician from Moscow. “They are frightened of not being able to find a sponsor.”

In fact, the Soviet refugees can go to Israel whenever they want. But most do not want to live there.

‘WANT TO LIVE IN A FREE COUNTRY’

“The United States is the only country in the world where I have relatives and friends,” said Zafrin, explaining his own preference for America over Israel. “I have an uncle, close friends from my institute in Moscow.

“Besides,” he added, “I know the United States is the country which over the years has shown respect for refugees and immigrants.”

The Myaskovsky family also chose the United States, because they have friends in New York, Boston and Hartford, Conn., but know nobody in Israel. “We want to live in a free country,” Ljubov Myaskovsky added.

In order to obtain U.S. refugee status, immigrants must demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” in the country of their origin.

Both the Myaskovskys and Zafrin detailed anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination in Moscow, which they said was as bad as the persecution suffered by those Soviet Jews who have received refugee status.

“For five years I could not find a job,” said Ljubov Myaskovskys, the economist. “They checked the page on my identity papers. When they saw I was a Jew, they didn’t want to hire me.

“When our child went to school, the teacher refused to have him in the class because he was a Jew,” she added.

Zafrin said he was refused admission to Moscow State University, apparently for no other reason than his Jewish background. He said he could not attend synagogue, because “if you were seen in synagogue, you could be expelled from the institute where I worked.”

JUST SITTING AND WAITING

Meanwhile, the “new refuseniks” sit and wait. Zafrin and the Myaskovskys left the Soviet Union together on Sept. 2. They spent about 12 days in a transit center in Vienna, then a week at a transit center in Rome, before coming to Ladispoli.

The three adults and two children share an apartment located, ironically, on Via Kennedy — a quiet, block-long street leading directly to the Mediterranean, at the point where the Miami Beach Club is located.

It is a small apartment in a modern building, with two rooms, a good-sized kitchen and a bath.

The money they receive from the Joint Distribution Committee is sufficient for rent and food.

There are opportunities for Jewish life right here in Ladispoli. There is a rabbi. A movie house has been converted into a synagogue. A new synagogue is under construction.

Holidays are marked with traditional festivities. During Chanukah, for example, there were concerts, parties and candle-lighting ceremonies. There was even “Chanukah gelt” for the children, Zafrin said.

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