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To Brooklyn From Ukraine, Orphan's Rescue Has a Happy Ending

February 27, 2006, 0:00 3615 Author: NINA BERNSTEIN The New York Times

She was a girl left behind for years in a Ukraine orphanage while her grandmother and older brother started a new life in Brooklyn. Their failed efforts to bring her to America under an immigration provision known as "humanitarian parole" underscored the mystery of the process that lawyers liken to a contest of human suffering, with the United States as the prize.

But on Sunday, in the kind of happy ending that is rare outside Hollywood, the girl, 12-year-old Raisa Skakun, was welcomed to America as a winner, with balloons at Kennedy International Airport, the hugs of long-lost relatives and a billionaire's pledge of financial support. Immigration officials had reconsidered her case, urged on by an outpouring of concern after Raisa's story was detailed in an article on Oct. 14 in The New York Times.

Still, the road to the Jan. 24 approval of the fourth petition on Raisa's behalf was not simple. This time, however, Raisa's champions included influential public officials and private citizens. The former counsel to immigration services, Bo Cooper, helped redraft the petition. Alexandra W. B. Malick, the wife of the filmmaker Terrence Malick who is better known as Ecky, enlisted supporters like Sean Penn, the actor, Max Palevsky, a billionaire philanthropist, and — when nothing else seemed to work — appealed to one of her neighbors in Austin, Tex.: Karen Hughes, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy in the Bush administration.

"Many people called in and tried to help," said Raisa's grandmother and adoptive mother, Larisa Bebeshko, 65, who flew to Ukraine as soon as travel arrangements could be made to bring Raisa home from the orphanage for destitute Jewish children where she has lived since she was 6. "This has taken a very long time and I'm very thankful and very happy."

Shy at first, Raisa, a slim, dark-haired girl, was soon chattering happily in Russian as she explored the two-bedroom public housing apartment in Coney Island where she will live with her grandmother and her 17-year-old half-brother, Alex Krylov.

She was still a baby and Alex was 7 or 8 when their heroin-addicted mother left her to his care. They were rescued by their grandparents, only to see the family broken up again by deaths, illness, and the twists and backlogs of a visa process that gave Alex a new chance in America but left Raisa orphaned and alone in Ukraine.

Alex was 12 when he and his grandmother arrived in Brooklyn as refugees, determined to retrieve Raisa. The one disappointment of her homecoming was the absence of Alex, now 17 and a student earning A's at Edward R. Murrow High School. He was on his way to Israel on a previously scheduled educational trip sponsored by the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst.

"We never expected it to be that quick," he said, shortly before Raisa's plane landed and his left. "It's awesome. We'd been working on it for the past three and a half years and nothing happened."

The reasons for Raisa's earlier rejections remain a mystery, said Irina Matiychenko, a lawyer for the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group, which saw her case as perfect for "humanitarian parole," an exceptional measure limited to "urgent humanitarian reasons" or "significant public benefit" at the discretion of the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Among more than 50 people who called to help after the Times article was published, she said, were some who work for members of Congress from New York, like Representative Jerrold Nadler and Senator Charles E. Schumer, who wrote letters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others donated money, like a man in Chicago who wrote a $400 check to cover the fee for expedited handling of Ms. Bebeshko's citizenship application. But no one became more personally involved than Ms. Malick, who flew to New York and arranged for Alex and his grandmother to meet Mr. Palevsky, 81, a computer industry pioneer, Hollywood film producer, campaign finance reform activist and art collector, in his hotel suite at the Sherry-Netherland overlooking Central Park.

To dispel any official concern that Raisa was likely to become "a public charge," Ms. Malick and Mr. Palevsky both signed affidavits of support. Then, at Mr. Cooper's suggestion, Raisa's case was added to the agenda last fall when Democrats in Congress questioned Julie L. Myers, President Bush's nominee who went on to head the immigration enforcement agency. But the written answer was discouraging.

"I am troubled by the implication in the New York Times article that high-profile cases are treated differently," Ms. Myers replied, referring to the finding that some of the 1,465 cases approved in the last six years out of 6,718 applications had been denied before news media accounts brought Congressional intervention.

By Jan. 6, Ms. Malick was almost ready to give up, she said, when her Bible fell open to a passage about caring for widows and orphans. That is when she put a copy of the article about Raisa in Ms. Hughes's mailbox. "She called me immediately," Ms. Malick recalled. "She said, 'I'll do what I can.' "

Exactly what tipped the scales is unclear. But last week Ms. Malick was in Odessa, Ukraine, sharing the joy of what she calls "rescuing Raisa." At the orphanage there, Raisa slept in one of six bunk beds and sometimes went hungry so she could feed stray kittens.

In New York last night — after skating in Central Park, eating in Times Square, and marveling at the Empire State Building — she slept in her grandmother's arms in Coney Island, beside the plump, purring cat she now calls her own.

"You can't cure all the ills of the world," Ms. Malick said. "But you could fill the ocean if everybody put a few drops in every so often."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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