Coming to America

Cape Codder, MA
May 13 2004

Coming to America

By Bill Barnes / [email protected]

Artist seeks asylum in West Yarmouth

Stuck in the middle of Europe, wedged amidst Poland, Lithuania and
Russia is a little country called Belarus, just 10 million people in a
place the size of Kansas. It is one of the Soviet republics that won
independence after the collapse, but as is the case in many of the
former republics, independence for the country did not mean freedom
for its people.

The State Department’s annual human rights report on Belarus are
dismal. Human Rights Watch is constantly documenting cases of abuse.
Last year, The Committee to Protect Journalists cited Belarus with
a place on its list of the 10 “worst places to be a journalist.”

The way Alexandr Lukashenka, president since 1994, runs Belarus
reminds many of Stalin and people who don’t like that tend to wind
up in jail, or, in some cases, simply disappear. Elections are a
mockery. Dissenting newspapers are shut down.

Out of that climate comes Kseniya Kudrashova, a 23-year-old artist and
former university student. She expressed her views through her art,
on canvases that were sold clandestinely and in cartoons that were
published in an opposition paper.

She demonstrated with her fellow students from the University
in Minsk. She was hauled in by the police and threatened with
worse. Her apartment was raided and all her paintings were seized. She
disappeared, but she disappeared voluntarily.

Last June she escaped to Cape Cod, where she lives in a small house
in West Yarmouth with the man she plans to marry. She is not here
legally anymore, but she says she has nothing to go back to but fear.
With the help of friends she hopes to persuade the U.S. government
to grant her asylum.

On a recent evening, in the company of friends Vahan Hambardzumanyan
and Sergei Mahtesyan, she met with a reporter in a coffee shop in
the Cape Cod Mall to tell her story.

The young men are both from Armenia, legal residents working as
building contractors. Mahtesyan came to Starbucks to translate.
Hambardzumanyan is her fiance. They too come from a former republic
of the USSR, so Russian is their common language.

Kudrashova is an ethnic Russian who moved to the White Russian SSR,
now Belarus, with her parents as a baby. Her father was in the Soviet
military and had been ordered to work in a military aviation factory
in the republic. After the breakup the family became Belarus citizens
and lost the right to return to Russia, as did many others in their

In her hometown, an hour north of Minsk, Kudrashova studied painting
at the local academy and regularly showed her works in home-town
shows. When she went on to university in Minsk, where she studied
economics, she kept painting.

“In my free time I painted. I had regular customers who bought my
paintings. That is how I paid for my education and living expenses,”
she said. Along with the abstracts and the landscapes, there were
political paintings as well.

She also worked as an artist for the opposition newspaper Shag (meaning
“step”) and she was also involved with a group of young people called
the Youth Front who opposed the president. She did posters for the
demonstrations they held.

On April 14, 2003, she joined the Youth Front in a demonstration
which was broken up by police swinging batons. “They fractured her
collarbone when police were beating the crowd to get them into the
vans,” according to Mahtesyan. The medical papers from the hospital
are part of the evidence she will be putting into her application
for asylum.

Kudrashova could be considered one of the lucky ones that day. Forty
of the demonstrators were tried and sentenced to prison terms. Others
were expelled from the university. She was released without charges,
but the secret police soon visited her apartment.

“They warned me that if I do anything more against the president I
would have big problems. They confiscated all my paintings, including
those not concerned with politics,” she said, adding it was not her
role in the demonstrations that bothered the police as much as her
cartoons in Shag.

Last June, she did what so many Eastern Europeans have been doing
and joined the “Work and Travel USA” program to come to the United
States to work for the summer. She had no idea of where she was going,
but another girl on the plane suggested Cape Cod and she wound up
working at a McDonald’s in Hyannis.

Under the program, she was supposed to return in October, she said,
“but because so many students had escaped this way, the government
said that anyone who had not returned by Sept. 4 would be excluded
from the university.” She did not comply.

Over the summer the government shut down the newspaper Shag.

Since October, Kudrashova has been out of work. She spent a month
in New York trying to hook up with the arts community, but couldn’t
afford to stay. She has joined Belarusian dissident groups in the
United States and has been invited to submit cartoons for an exile
paper in New York.

According to Mahtesyan, she spends most of her time at home, monitoring
Belarusian affairs on the Internet and painting. She says she has
made no contacts with the arts community here and has no outlets for
her work, so the paintings are rapidly piling up.

They are an odd collection of protest and beauty. One of Minsk’s
main square enclosed in a prison cell faces a painting of a Cape
Cod lighthouse.

“Being in Cape Cod, I can freely create. Besides American freedom,
Cape Cod is a good environment for an artist,” she says. “I get a
lot of emotions from Cape Cod to put on canvas.”

Now she an the two Armenians are hard at work putting together her
application for asylum. Mahtesyan says the application is only three
pages, but the instructions are a book. They have no lawyer to help,
and the documentation is sometimes hard to get.

The rules for the granting asylum are strict and more are denied than
are accepted. But she and her friends are convinced it’s worth a try.
I have nothing to go back to. If I continued what I was doing there,
my family would be in trouble,” Kudrashova says.