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Yugoslav Exchange Students 'Stranded' After U.N. Embargo

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As hundreds of high-school exchange students from the former nation of Yugoslavia completed a year of study in the United States this month, many exchange program officials found themselves in a bind, unable either to send the students home or to let them stay.

A United Nations embargo against Serbia has blocked air travel to the region, while a year of ethnic violence in the former Yugoslav republics has made travel there dangerous.

As of last week, however, federal officials had made no special provisions to extend the exchange students' visas.

"In effect, our kids are stranded,'' said Howard Bertenthal, the president of Open Door Student Exchange in Hempstead, N.Y.

Mr. Bertenthal was trying last week to make arrangements to send home 50 high-school exchange students, some of whom did not want to return.

"We have some students now who no longer have families in Yugoslavia,'' said Wendy E. Siegel, a spokesman for A.F.S. Intercultural Programs in New York. "They have to go home to another country.''

Last week, Ms. Siegel was attempting to arrange to send home 37 students between the ages of 16 and 18 by early July.

Humanitarian Concerns

Several exchange-program officials said last week that the events in Yugoslavia have not only posed logistical nightmares, but have jeopardized their academic exchanges with the region by saddling their programs with humanitarian concerns.

"We are not a refugee organization,'' Ms. Siegel said. "It is our responsibility as a cultural-exchange program to reunite these kids with their families after the exchange is over.''

At least seven exchange programs brought more than 450 students to the United States last August from Yugoslavia. Although the tensions between the republics at that time were severe enough to disrupt travel from Croatia and to discourage the exchange programs from sending American students to study there, few could have predicted the severity of the conflicts that have erupted. As of last week, more than 12,000 people have died and an estimated 1.5 million others have been forced to flee their homes.

The fighting has disrupted communications with the region, making contact with some exchange offices and some students' families there difficult or impossible.

Sanctions imposed on Serbia have suspended the landing rights of the Yugoslav airline, J.A.T., cutting off air travel and leaving many of the students without plane tickets home.

"We encountered many unusual problems this year,'' said Jody Morelli, the director of the student-exchange program for International Travel Study in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We had students, especially the males, afraid of being returned home to their country because they would be recruited directly into the army.''

Ms. Morelli said the 25 students who came here through her exchange had signed agreements to return home by June 20, the end date of the program's agreements with their families and with insurance companies that provide them coverage. Many were in the process of returning home last week after the organization told them their visas would not be extended.

Visa Extensions Possible

But other programs reported that at least some of their students did not want to return.

Craig H. Brown, the vice president of the Aspect Foundation in San Francisco, said two Moslem high-school students from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the current violence is centered, have refused to go home.

"They are worried about transition through areas that are unfriendly to people of their religious and ethnic background,'' Mr. Brown explained.

Their refusal has put Aspect in a difficult position because "we are a United States Information Agency-sponsored program, so we are obliged to return students,'' Mr. Brown said.

Robert Persiko, the chief of youth-programs divisions for the õ.ó.é.á., which oversees student exchanges for the U.S. Department of State, said last week that students from the war-torn areas can individually request a voluntary extension of their departure date from the é.î.ó. They also could obtain new student visas after being accepted into an American college, he noted.

The State Department is also considering whether to grant "temporary protective status'' to students from the former Yugoslavia, as it did for about 40,000 Chinese students after the government crackdown against political dissidents in 1989, Mr. Persiko said.

Rebecca L. Crabtree, the director of program development for Academic Year in the U.S.A., said about a third of the 200 high-school students brought over by her program have left the United States. Some two-thirds of those who have left have met their families in other nations to which the families had fled, she noted.

Ms. Siegel said A.F.S. believes that, given their age, it is best that the students in her program be returned to their families. The group plans to send the students home unless both the students and their families formally object and present good reasons why they should be allowed to stay.

Mr. Bertenthal of Open Door said many of the host families in his program are not in a position to house the students longer than expected, although "no one is going to put them out on the street.''

Those students who had made plans as of last week to return to their families were generally either flying to such Central European cities as Budapest or Vienna--from which they would travel overland, often with escorts--or were arranging to meet their families in other countries.

Planning for Next Year

Klaus Bergmann, the program director for the American Intercultural Student Exchange in La Jolla, Calif., was one of the few exchange-program officials who said violence in the region has not affected plans to bring over a new group of students next fall.

Ms. Crabtree of AYUSA said that, although private exchange programs are not covered by the United Nations sanctions against Serbia, the fact that her organization's office is located in that republic has prevented participation by students from other republics and reduced the number of anticipated arrivals by about half.

Other exchange-program officials said they have put plans to bring students here on hold out of concern that students may not be able to come to the United States or may not be able to be repatriated once they are here.

Ms. Morelli of I.T.S.. said her program is expected to receive about 66 students in its first exchange with Macedonia, where fighting is expected to erupt soon.

The parents of the students, she said, are concerned that they "continue to have a good education and it not be interrupted by any sort of political struggle.''

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