Chernobyl kid seeks asylum from anti-Semitism in Belarus

A Belarussian Jewish teen who came to San Francisco last summer on a one-year program for "Chernobyl kids" has applied for asylum.

"I want to practice my religion without being beaten," said Yuri Disman, who remains in San Francisco — for now.

Disman, whose parents still live in Belarus but support his efforts to stay in the United States, recounts constant anti-Semitic taunts and beatings from schoolmates in his hometown of Gomel.

"They would wait for me and call me `kike' and hit me. It happened every day," said Disman, who turned 15 on Sunday.

The boy said he even fears for his life if he returns.

A slender teen with a hint of pink in his cheeks, Disman has brownish-green eyes that light up when he laughs.

But he suffers from health problems linked possibly to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, including swollen lymph glands, minor scoliosis and a condition that led to his chest wall slightly caving inward.

Disman doesn't quite dismiss the problems but said he "doesn't hurt so much. I have radiation inside. I know that outside I don't have any problems."

The teen arrived in the United States knowing only the English words "dog," "cat" and "clock" but today is close to fluent in the language.

He almost always wears a black kippah or cap over his brown, close-cropped hair. Though he doesn't describe his religious observance as Orthodox, he observes Shabbat laws, knows some Hebrew and keeps kosher "when I can."

The youth arrived here in July 1995 as part of a new program sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Educational Center and touted as a way to help children from areas affected by the Chernobyl accident. The dozen boys were promised secular and Chassidic Jewish education as well as medical treatment.

Disman abruptly left the JEC in early June, about two weeks before he was scheduled to return home. He now disassociates himself from the center and alleges he was mistreated. JEC officials deny the charge.

The youth applied for asylum in early July with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. His hearing took place in mid-August, and the decision was set to be delivered Aug. 26.

Neil Grungras, Disman's immigration attorney, said the hearing officer postponed the decision just a few hours before it was expected to be announced. The officer set no new deadline and told Grungras that he needed more time to investigate the conditions in Belarus.

If the hearing officer denies the application, Disman won't automatically face deportation even though his one-year tourist visa expired earlier this summer. He can appeal in front of an immigration judge.

If that appeal is denied, Grungras said, the teenager will be deported.

For Disman, that would mean returning to a life he describes in his asylum application as a "living hell."

The boy was born and raised in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic surrounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine. His hometown of Gomel, a large city in the southeast corner of the republic, is less than 100 miles from Chernobyl in the Ukraine.

As the only Jew in his elementary school, Disman said the taunts of "jid" — the Russian equivalent of "kike" — began when he was 6. Soon after the verbal jabs began, he said, children started to physically attack him. It never let up.

His mother tried many times to turn to his teachers, administrators and even the police for help, Disman said. Nothing worked.

He recalled one time in fifth grade when his mother was confronting a teacher about the constant problems. Disman said a group of about 100 schoolmates gathered and screamed: "Kill all kikes! Save Russia!"

When he would stay home out of fear, Disman said, he would face even worse beatings when he returned.

In 1991, he took part in a yeshiva program in Israel. When he returned home the next year, the problems grew worse. Children began asking whether he had been circumcised while in Israel, Disman said, and tried to force him to prove otherwise.

In one incident three years ago, Disman said, several boys tried to force him to have oral sex with one of them while referring to him as "this little kike."

During the past year in San Francisco, Disman chose to undergo circumcision — against the wishes of his mother, who feared the mark of a Jew would leave him open to more harassment when he eventually is drafted into the Belarus army.

"In the army, they beat Jews," he said.

Despite such concerns, Disman said he underwent the procedure because it's something Jews should do.

Disman's parents and older brother also have faced anti-Semitism, the teenager said. A decade ago, neighborhood children attacked his older brother Leonid. They hung a sign around his neck that read "Death to the kike," and unsuccessfully tried to hang him.

The teen doesn't seem exactly sure why his parents have not tried to immigrate to Israel, saying only his mother wanted to leave but his father worried about finding a job there.

Regardless of Disman's accounts, INS statistics on asylum cases aren't exactly promising.

According to the INS, 146,468 individuals applied for asylum in 1994 — the most recent information available. Of those, 11,764 applications were granted, including 1,197 for individuals from the former Soviet Union. Just two came from Belarus.

Grungras, who serves on the board of the ex-Soviet Jewry advocacy group Bay Area Council for Rescue and Renewal, said he can only hope for the best for his client.

"He was just being beaten up every day," Grungras said. "His mother is desperate to not have him go back there."

Grungras is optimistic about the outcome of Disman's case despite his first-hand knowledge that asylum cases are difficult to win.

Asylum applicants from any country must prove a "well-founded fear of persecution." This is a much higher standard than is required for Jews who are still living in the former Soviet Union and are applying for refugee status. They fall under a special category that requires they show only a "credible basis for concern."

Still, Grungras said, applying for asylum appears to be Disman's only option. In theory he could return to Belarus and apply as a refugee. But the teen's chances of making it back to the United States would be nearly impossible because he doesn't already have a relative here to sponsor him, the attorney said.

Grungras labeled Disman's case unique because of his age. Though there aren't any special rules for juveniles, Grungras said Disman's age could hurt him for other reasons.

"The only issue is that by age 14 most people have not suffered enough persecution to justify asylum," the lawyer said.

"The typical Jewish child [in the former Soviet Union] will be beaten up and harassed," he added. "But their parents manage to shield them from a lot of abuse."

INS spokeswoman Sharon Rummery described cases of youths applying for asylum without their parents as "quite unusual but not unprecedented." The INS would not comment on Disman's particular case.

Mark Vosko, the former program coordinator for the JEC exchange program who now disassociates himself from that organization as the result of numerous disputes, is paying for Grungras' services. Grungras called Vosko the boy's "guardian angel."

"Based on the stories he told me," Vosko said, "I'm absolutely shocked about what really took place [in Belarus]. I, as an adult, would be completely afraid to face what this 14-year-old boy has had to go through in his life."

If he is allowed to stay here, Disman must find a way to pay for school, housing and living expenses. He hopes to attend San Francisco's Hebrew Academy.

Vosko said he has offered to pay for Disman's education and other living expenses. He is setting up a fund and is requesting the community's help.

The rest of the 12 boys on Disman's program returned to the former Soviet Union in mid-June, though JEC's founder, Rabbi Bentzion Pil, said two of them are coming back to the United States to study in Chassidic yeshivas.

The program, which Pil originally planned to be ongoing, won't continue this year. The suspension was for financial reasons and was not related to Disman's case, Pil said. The rabbi added that he would like to resume the program next summer.

Why Disman abruptly left JEC on June 8 is under dispute.

Disman described the program staff members as abusive. He also called the living conditions, education and health treatment as poor or nonexistent.

Pil dismisses those allegations, contending that Disman wasn't a model child.

"He had problems associating with the other kids. He would fight," Pil said. "When he fought with the kids, he was punished."

Pil said those punishments, which included confining the boy to his room, did not degenerate into abuse.

The San Francisco Police Department got involved in Disman's situation on a report of a runaway juvenile when the teen left the program. Police checked into allegations against several individuals of misconduct or abuse and found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Inspector Kelly Carroll said.

The case is closed.

The teenager has remained under the San Francisco Department of Human Services' care while his political asylum case is under consideration by the INS.

Rabbi Yosef Langer, who heads San Francisco's Chabad House, said he is trying to help Disman find a good Jewish home in case he wins asylum.

"He's a very sweet boy," Langer said.

When asked how his parents feel about his attempt to remain here, Disman answers matter of factly.

"How can they feel when their child is 5,000 miles away? Very bad. They worry about me," he said. "They miss me. But they want me to stay here."

He feels the same way. He misses his family and wants to see them again, but he's not willing to pay the price.

"There, I will see them," he said. "But I want to be alive."