Orphan Reunited With N.Y. Relatives

NEW YORK -- For six long years, Raisa Skakun lived in an orphanage in Odessa, waiting for word that would reunite her with her grandmother and brother in Brooklyn, New York. Then, a twice- rejected application to bring the 12-year-old to the United States was suddenly approved.

On Tuesday, Raisa, who wore a denim skirt, her ponytail poking out from a turquoise cap pulled low over her forehead, smiled broadly at a luncheon to celebrate the happy outcome -- life in Coney Island with her grandmother, Larisa Bebeshko, 65, and her 17-year-old half brother, Alex Krylov.

"I like the attention, but I don't like being photographed," the relaxed-looking seventh grader said as cameras flashed during a ceremony at the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group.

The happy occasion was dampened somewhat by the absence of Alex, who left on a school-sponsored trip to Israel just hours before Raisa's Feb. 19 arrival. The siblings reunited Tuesday night.

"The whole family is one family now," Bebeshko said, fighting back tears.

Bringing the family together had been a long, hard road that involved a billionaire philanthropist, three members of Congress and many others who offered money for airfare and other needs.

The story of the family's immigration began in the late 1990s. After Alex's father died, his mother gave Bebeshko permission to adopt him. The grandmother applied for refugee status for herself and Alex, then 12, on grounds of anti-Semitic persecution. They left at the end of 1999 for the United States, where Bebeshko had an older daughter.

Raisa remained in Ukraine with her parents, but they both died soon after Bebeshko and Alex left. Bebeshko then had Raisa placed in an orphanage.

"I shared a room with 10 children" and attended school with 300, said Raisa, adding that she grew close to the other children and to the orphanage's pets.

Her grandmother and brother visited her several times, and they talked regularly on the phone.

Bebeshko, who now has a green card, also filed for adoption papers, which became finalized in 2004.

But Raisa still needed a "relative resident visa" -- a five-year process. Instead, NYLAG lawyer Irina Matiychenko decided to try a little-known "humanitarian parole" provision, which the Department of Homeland Security approves in rare cases. It normally allows stays of up to a year, but in this family's case it set in motion a series of events aimed at permanent residency.

Raisa's requests under the provision were denied in 2004 and 2005, then suddenly approved in December.

Hollywood film producer and philanthropist Max Palevsky and Alexandra Malick, the wife of filmmaker Terrence Malick, signed nonbinding affidavits of support to remove any concerns that Raisa might become "a public charge," Matiychenko said.

The offices of Senator Charles Schumer, Representative Jerrold Nadler and Representative Anthony Weiner also helped by writing letters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It is not known whether public support was a factor in the approval, but Bebeshko said she was eternally grateful to everyone.

Matiychenko is hopeful that the entire family will become U.S. citizens by the fall. Alex, a 12th grader, has promised to help his sister learn English.

For now, Raisa is getting to know her new country -- gawking at skyscrapers and skating in Central Park.