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The lonely vigil. Families kept apart by governments try desperately to be reunited

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1986


When Phuong Thao Tran left Vietnam in 1975, she was eight months pregnant with her third child. That child has never seen his father, Bui Tuong Huan, a law-school professor who joined the last South Vietnamese government. ``He apply and apply for exit visa,'' says Mrs. Phuong, ``but they don't want to process his case.'' Except for letters sent via friends in France, and rare phone calls made from a country maintaining diplomatic relations with Vietnam, they have not been able to communicate.

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Elena Balovlenkov, an American-born daughter of Soviet 'emigr'es, met and married her husband, Yuri, in the Soviet Union. She's seen him intermittently during their eight-year marriage and given birth to their two daughters. Although the Soviet Union has invited her to come live with him in Moscow, her husband is not allowed to emigrate to her home in Baltimore. THESE are just two families caught in a pattern of long-term separation brought about by government action.

What keeps them and so many more like them apart are governments that feel it ``necessary to interject the state into very personal decisions -- who you should marry, where you should live, even where you should spend your summer vacation,'' says Lynne Davidson of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a United States advisory agency.

The reasons these governments give for such personal interference vary from state to state and from case to case.

``There's a story for every family,'' Ms. Davidson says. East Europeans take a paternalistic stance, she explains: ``They think the spouse in Romania has been tricked into marriage with a tricky Westerner, and the state must protect them by keeping the couple apart.'' WHATEVER their reasons, governments that throw a wedge into family lives have created a problem affecting ``hundreds of thousands of families,'' says Nick van Praag of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Families caught in the net of state-to-state conflicts argue strenuously that politics should not be allowed to engulf their usually unpolitical lives.

``Our marriages are not political statements, and shouldn't be treated as political items,'' says Mrs. Balovlenkov, speaking for the US-USSR Separated Spouses Coalition (which represents 23 couples). ``We are simply people in love.''

The separations do, however, politicize these ``people in love.'' The US State Department and members of Congress are besieged with letters from such people, asking for help in negotiating with the withholding country. State Department sources say ethnic organizations like the Polish American Congress and religious organizations such as the American Jewish Congress have been particularly effective in keeping up the drumbeat for these families.

But ``it's often difficult to do anything about individual cases,'' says Israel Levine of the American Jewish Congress, ``so we work to obtain more-generalized permission.''

Such avenues yield little hope for the nearly half-million displaced people in Thailand who don't have even the status of refugees, since the Thai government decided in 1980 to accept no more refugees, and those who had already fled to Thailand can't get out through normal refugee channels. Because of their homelands' government, they can't go back.

Mr. Van Praag says those still in Vietnam who wish to emigrate are also stalled, since the 1979 Orderly Departure Program came to a ``temporary'' halt in January of this year. ``There are probably no complete Vietnamese families in the US,'' says a spokesman for the International Red Cross, which runs a tracing service that helps family members find each other.