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

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.

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.

Add those to families torn by countries like the Soviet Union, East-bloc nations, and North Korea, which often prevent people from leaving to join their families elsewhere, and countries like Chile and Cuba, which maintain lists of exiles who are not allowed to repatriate or sometimes even visit their nation. IN the case of Soviet-based marriages, at least, it can require diplomacy on the highest level to bring about family reunification. ``I've never met Henry Kissinger, but he's written to me often about his negotiations with [Soviet President Andrei] Gromyko on our behalf,'' says Woodford McClellan, separated until this year from his Soviet wife, Irina.

The McClellans are convinced that the decision to let them reunite came from Communist Party chief Mikhail Gorbachev himself as a goodwill gesture. ``I was the easiest case,'' says Mrs. McClellan, ``because they weren't losing anything to let me go.''

The McClellans were separated for 11 years and admit freely that they were occasionally given over to despair, ``particularly after 10 years had gone past and there seemed to be no hope,'' Mr. McClellan recalls.

``Sometimes I was desperate,'' says Mrs. McClellan, ``but I didn't know how to put an end to this story. If I gave up and divorced Woody, I probably would have had to go on TV and give excuses for my bad behavior. It's not that easy to quit.''

The McClellans say they were fortunate enough to have been adopted by a small ecumenical group of students and townspeople at Purdue University called the Committee on Human Rights in the Soviet Union. The group's spokesman, Rabbi Gedalia Engel, says that ``sometimes we were acting like a marriage broker, encouraging them when they gave up hope.'' The group arranged for several conference calls among themselves and both McClellans, and also gathered signatures for petitions to send to US and Soviet Union officials. SPOUSES in the captive countries also sometimes try to draw attention to their case through dramatic means -- Mrs. McClellan chained herself to the US Embassy during a visit by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, for instance -- but these ploys can be dangerous.

Mrs. Balovlenkov worries that her husband, who has staged two fasts and organized other Soviet-American separated spouses to demonstrate in front of the Soviet Central Committee, may be pushing his government too far. ``I'm afraid one of these days they may decide to ship him off to Siberia,'' she says.

Like Mrs. McClellan, Mr. Balovlenkov lost his job when he first began to fraternize with Westerners. A computer engineer, he now works odd jobs on construction sites; Mrs. McClellan, an English major and specialist in international relations, had to take in typing. These two, like all such couples contacted, say the separation put them in a state of limbo -- ``you can't go forward and you can't go back,'' says Mrs. McClellan.

Do they ever think of divorce?

``Every day,'' says Mrs. Balovlenkov. ``I'd be kidding you if I said I didn't. But Yuri and I are both Russian Orthodox; divorce is foreign to us. We're used to the idea of sacrificing to save your marriage.''

``Never,'' says Mrs. Phuong. ``I am Vietnamese woman, And I wouldn't do that to my husband. He is so nice to me.''

Still, some State Department officials wonder privately about the state of these marriages. ``Some of these are seamen who jumped ship, or cooks, or people who are completely nonpolitical -- you wonder how they could walk away from their families, especially their chidlren,'' says one official, who prefers not to be named.

``Most of them do it to make a better life for their children,'' says Evelyn Cohen of the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), a refugee resettlement program. ``Anti-Semitism is rampant in the Soviet Union,'' she declares, ``especially lately. With the number of Jews trying to leave, they've started to say, `Why should we bother to educate them if they just leave?' So fewer and fewer of the [Jewish] children are allowed into the universities, and the parents can see the door shutting in their faces.''

About 1,000 Jews emigrate from the Soviet Union each year; far more leave from East-bloc countries -- particularly Romania, whose trade with the East is tied to emigration rights. Typically, says Mrs. Cohen, they'll take one parent and the children, or ``grandma will come with one daughter and her children.'' The others will be left behind, ``held hostage,'' says a State Department source, ``by the government.''

The group that leaves faces the same set of challenges as immigrants everywhere -- learning a new language, translating their skills into local jobs, learning the ways of a new society, watching their children adapt more readily than they to the new life.

``You have Chilean exiles living in Sweden now,'' says Edmundo Vargas of the Organization of American States, ``who've had to learn a very difficult language. Their children grow up speaking Swedish and knowing almost nothing about what it means to be a Chilean; how can they go back?'' he asks.

Sometimes, in fact, the reunification is harder than the separation. Reunified Soviet/American marriages have an 85 percent divorce rate, says Mrs. Balovlenkov -- a figure that fuels the Soviet argument that such marriages are fictitious ploys to get Soviet citizens out of the country.

Mrs. Balovlenkov sees it differently: ``Soviet women are used to living for their families; they do everything for their children and husband. But American women are very independent, very career-oriented, and expect their husbands to help out at home. So when Soviet men come over here, it's quite a shock to deal with the American lifestyle,'' she says.

Mrs. Cohen sees other lifestyle differences: ``Life in the Soviet Union is very crowded, with two different families occupying a two-bedroom apartment. So when the family comes over here and finds out they have a whole apartment to themselves -- their own kitchen, their own bathroom -- they adapt up very rapidly. Then grandma comes over and wants to move in with them, and they're back to being crowded; this doesn't go down so well.''

The families that make it, in her experience, are those ``from outside Moscow in the Russian heartland, or those who either had a flicker of Judaism that was fanned to full flame over here, or who became Jews after coming to the US. They fit right into a community, they have a strong support system, they practice the Sabbath, they read the Bible, they have a strong set of ethics, and it makes for strong families,'' she says.

Arie Bierman, also with NYANA, says he's never seen a divorce in the seven years he's been working with Indochinese immigrants. ``It's just not in the culture,'' he says. ``They have a much stronger sense of family than the average American.''

``Our marriage working is the second miracle,'' says Mr. McClellan; ``our getting back together was the first.'' ``I have a friend who told me, when Irina came here, that I have a unique opportunity to get to know this woman for the first time, twice.'' The McClellans almost never separate, they say, and deliberately choose activities that keep them together.

``In this country, 50 percent of the people divorce, and they have been together all that time,'' says Mrs. McClellan. ``We shouldn't emphasize [the divorce rate of reunited couples],'' she says, ``it just gives the Soviets another weapon to use against us.''

As far as she's concerned, no government should have the right to interfere in a couple's marriage. ``These aren't political statements,'' she emphasizes; ``they aren't about human rights, or dissidence. These are just very human cases. When people are in love,'' she says, ``there is no government involved.''

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