Italian Resort Finds Itself Swamped by Flood of Soviet Emigres

Times Staff Writer

For a decade, this down-at-the-heels resort town northwest of Rome has served as a friendly staging point for emigre Soviet Jews headed to the United States. Now, with refugees arriving in unprecedented numbers, disillusionment washes Ladispoli’s dour streets and polluted beaches.

It is glasnost backlash.

Soaring emigration made easier by relaxed Soviet controls is proving a double-edged sword for the emigres, the American Jews who are their financial benefactors and the Italians who have been their willing hosts. To some, it is beginning to seem like too much of a good thing.

In Ladispoli these days, everyone feels the pressure of an overloaded humanitarian network:

-- For the first time, U.S. immigration authorities are refusing refugee status to some Soviet Jews. More than 900 have been turned down since October, triggering fear and anger in the transit community. “I am rejected. They said I was insufficiently persecuted,” snapped an engineer from Kiev.

Said a doctor from Moscow: “That is not what those Voice of America broadcasts about freedom led me to expect.”


-- With U.S. government refugee funds reduced, the flood of emigres is overwhelming the resources of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committees. The overseas arm of the American Jewish community, Joint, as it has been known for 75 years, cares for the emigres en route to the United States.

After 3,500 Soviets reached the West in January, Joint warned it would stop accepting new refugees as of April 1. A resettlement program that cost $500,000 in 1986 would require $53 million this year if Jews continue to leave the Soviet Union at current rates.

-- The 17,000 citizens of Ladispoli, until now the Soviets’ remarkably tolerant hosts, feel the strain of having 6,000 restless foreigners in their midst. “People are beginning to ask, ‘Are we losing our identity?’ ” said Crescenzio Palliotta, the Communist deputy mayor of Ladispoli. “It is time to say: ‘Enough,’ ” shout street posters of a small neo-fascist movement. On one wall, vandals have daubed a swastika and the legend: “Russians Go Home.”

In the only Italian town where the main language of downtown streets is Russian, emigres wait for news and speak of Kafka. Around the fountain in the main piazza, at the disused movie-house-turned-synagogue, in the Shalom Club near city hall, visitors soon hear the story of the two Jewish brothers from Moscow who are Ladispoli legends.

The brothers, it seems, did everything together. They worked together; they lived together in the same apartment; they even emigrated together. But--just listen to this--they were interviewed separately at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. And, yes, one brother was accepted to America as a refugee, but the other was rejected. So what else is new?

Maybe the brothers are mythical, but their plight is a sure echo of the nonplussed emigre mind-set.

“It’s a lottery,” said Mikhail Kotsunski, a 28-year-old construction engineer who has been cooling his heels in Italy with his wife, child and parents since September. He was rejected for refugee status and is appealing.

“I felt persecuted in Russia as a Jew, and I told them why, but they said it was not enough,” Kotsunski said in perfect English. “Why do they refuse some and accept others? There is no logic: old, young, from different parts of the country, educated or not. . . . We can’t even find a common denominator.”

An emigre’s fate is decided at a make-or-break interview with a U.S. consular official in Rome. Since Oct. 1, 1988, when the Soviet emigre upsurge began, the consulate has processed 8,752 applicants, accepting 7,823 as refugees and rejecting 929, or about 11%, according to Mark Dillen, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy. As of Jan. 31, according to embassy figures, 6,942 Soviets were in the Rome area awaiting visas.

“Our policy has not changed,” Dillen said. “Each interview is on its own merits. The consular official weighs the definition of ‘refugee’ and individual circumstances in making a decision. All those who do not qualify as refugees have the chance to apply for admission as parolees.” Under 1980 legislation, an individual must justifiably fear “immediate persecution” to win refugee status, Dillen noted. Until last October, though, award of refugee status to emigre Jews from the Soviet Union was almost automatic.

Parole status is slower, more complicated and expensive. A parolee requires a sponsor in the United States to certify he will not become a public charge. He also is denied the travel allowance and social benefits accorded refugees.

“In the Soviet Union, we never realized we could be refused,” said Igor Boretsky, a design engineer from Kiev.

“The members of Congress, the radio broadcasts . . . they said we’d be accepted, no problem,” said Azskady Uspenskay, a physician from Kiev whose sister, Luba, “sings with the St. Petersburg Band in some Los Angeles restaurant.”

So it is that for many of Ladispoli’s Soviets today, “The Interview” has replaced the KGB secret police as life’s most onerous fact.

“Will it help me or hurt me at ‘The Interview’ if my name’s been in your paper?” asked one forthright soul from Odessa. He gave his name but called the next day. “Please don’t use it,” he urged.

Soviet emigres began filtering through Ladispoli a decade ago because Italy is less expensive than Austria, the usual first stopping place for Westward-bound Soviet Jews. Today, it would cost about $20 a day to support a refugee in Austria. In Italy, it is about $10, according to Amir Shaviv, director of public information for Joint.

Jews leave the Soviet Union on visas for Israel, but last year only about 10% of the emigres actually went there. Those headed for the United States come from Austria to Italy, where visas are issued after documentation is prepared by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, called HIAS. Half of the U.S.-bound Jews go to New York, with Los Angeles the second favorite choice, according to Joint.

Although Israel, the United States and American Jewish organizations have long sought the expanded emigration that has come with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, resettlement is a costly business.

In 1986, according to Joint, 600 Soviet Jews went to the United States at a resettlement cost of $500,000. In 1987, the number grew tenfold: 6,000 emigres at a cost of $1.5 million. Last year, with emigration higher than at any time since 1979, it cost $15 million to resettle 17,000 refugees.

How many Soviet Jews will come West this year is known only to the Soviet government.

Merrill Rosenberg, the HIAS director in Rome, looks for a 1989 total of about 25,000. But in January, the figure was 3,500, and the Joint projection for the year is 38,000. American officials say the total could be even higher than that. About 2.5 million Jews live in the Soviet Union.

If its projection is accurate, Joint--which is almost completely funded by United Jewish Appeal--estimates it will need $53 million this year to continue its services.

The American government’s United States Refugee Program, which in the past has reimbursed most of Joint’s costs, has cut back its reimbursements to the first 30 days of transit time. As of Jan. 1, the average wait was 44 days, according to the U.S. Consulate.

Now, Joint says, the increased emigration and the rejections have pushed the transit time to an average of 75 days. All rejections are appealed, and the Soviets remain in Ladispoli while their cases are weighed in Rome. Rosenberg says 93 emigres have won appeals thus far, while 52 have lost them.

Joint already has reduced aid levels to the emigres, and Joint President Sylvia Hassenfeld announced earlier this month that after March 31, money-short Joint centers in Rome and Ladispoli will not accept new cases.

While emigre benefactors seek new funds, the State Department has expanded the number of 1989 refugee slots for Soviet Jews from 18,000 to 25,000 to speed processing. The department also seeks legislation to create a new immigration category for up to 30,000 people other than refugees “whose admission is deemed in the national interest.”

Backstage maneuvering is little immediate solace to bemused Soviet emigres weaned in dread of bureaucracy, or to the increasingly exasperated townsfolk of Ladispoli.

On the Mediterranean about an hour northwest of Rome, Ladispoli is the kind of town where Space Invaders is still a first-run feature at video parlors. In a country where cities revel in their age and their beauty, Ladispoli can boast little of either; neither is there much sense of place. Of the 17,000 Italian residents, only 2,000 to 3,000 were born here, according to Deputy Mayor Palliotta.

Founded by a neighborhood aristocrat in 1888, the town enjoyed a building boom in a brief moment of fashion as a lower-middle-income summer resort in the 1960s and 1970s. Tastes changed, and there are many unoccupied apartments in Ladispoli. Today, some tourists still come in the summer, but most of the year-round residents are pensioners or young couples who cannot afford Rome’s rents.

“This is not a racial problem; nobody is seriously saying, ‘Foreigners out,’ ” said Deputy Mayor Palliotta. “We’re talking about pragmatic concerns--better services, more trains, more buses.”

Ladispoli leaders want a ceiling on the number of refugees. They also want help from the Italian government in providing services--in particular, more buses and trains. Joint recently donated an ambulance to the town as a thank-you gift and will pay to repair lighting in public parks.

“There have been few incidents, and those have been the result of the mix of different cultures; nothing anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic,” Joint’s Shaviv said. “If we think of the number of people who have been through here--24,000 Jews in the last year and a half--we couldn’t ask for a better place.”

Joint stopped sending new refugees to Ladispoli earlier this month and has begun using other nearby resort towns to house the emigres, Shaviv said. As processing continues and refugees head for the United States, the burden on Ladispoli should ease. In the meantime, though, more Italians are having to learn to live with the flip side of glasnost.

Like Ladispoli, even smaller Santa Marinella, a few miles up the coast, is accustomed to a long winter’s nap. Not this year.

“We must have 3,000 Russians already, and more are coming every night,” said Santa Marinella Deputy May Pietro Tidei.