- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

CHICAGO Walter Polovchak knows quite a bit about being torn between two countries one communist, one democratic as relatives separated by miles of ocean and political ideals battle over his custody.
Two decades before Elian Gonzalez was found clinging to an inner tube off Florida's coast, Mr. Polovchak, then 12, earned the nickname "littlest defector" for refusing to return with his parents to Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union.
Now a successful 32-year-old office manager with a home in Chicago's northwest suburbs, Mr. Polovchak has become a veritable spokesman for American patriotism. And that love of country colors his opinion about Elian's father and his battle to return the boy from the United States to Cuba.
"He's under tremendous pressure from the government to make public demands for his child," Mr. Polovchak said of Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. "I don't think he's speaking from his heart, and if he is, he's pretty selfish."
To stress the point, Mr. Polovchak mentions his own son, Alec, who is 6 the same age as Elian.
"If I would be in the same situation, I would do whatever it took to be with my family and my son," he said. But if he couldn't come to the United States, he said, he would leave his son behind, knowing a better life was in store for him.
Mr. Polovchak will eagerly tell you he's been "living the American dream" since 1980, when he ran away from his family's home in Chicago rather than return with his parents to Ukraine. His decision touched off a highly publicized 5 and 1/2-year custody battle that ended when Mr. Polovchak turned 18 and was granted U.S. citizenship.
In the years since, he got married, changed jobs a few times and traveled the world with his family. They just got back from Jamaica.
"I thank God every day for the choice and the opportunities and the people who came into my life to help me stay in this country," said Mr. Polovchak, whose trace of an accent sounds more Chicago than anything else.
There are differences, though, between the stories of Walter Polovchak and Elian Gonzalez.
Harvey Grossman, who represented Mr. Polovchak's parents in the custody case and is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, notes Mr. Polovchak's case came during the low point of U.S.-Soviet relations.
"Basically, we were at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the evil empire and Ronald Reagan was saving a child from communism," Mr. Grossman said.
State and federal courts eventually agreed Mr. Polovchak should not have been taken from his parents, but the drawn-out process allowed him to stay long enough to reach his 18th birthday and adult status.
Elian, meanwhile, has been ordered home by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a decision supported by President Clinton.
Mr. Polovchak had been in the United States with his family for six months when he and his 17-year-old sister ran away to stay with a 24-year-old cousin. His parents returned to Ukraine and battled to take him along.
Mr. Polovchak eventually reconciled with his parents and has returned to Ukraine three times to visit, as recently as August. He would not disclose where in Ukraine they were living.
Elian's story plays out in reverse. His mother brought him on a boat from Cuba to Florida and was one of 11 refugees to die in a November shipwreck.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez said he didn't know of his ex-wife's plan to flee Cuba with Elian and argues his son wants to come home but that the American relatives who took him in distract him with toys or trips every time he hints at that wish.
Mr. Polovchak said the toys, trips and opportunities in general are what make it so crucial for Elian to stay in the United States.
"Comparing myself or Elian to a typical 6- or 12-year-old American child is an unfair comparison," he said, adding that children here play with "G.I. Joe or Barbie" while his family was standing in long lines for food back in Ukraine.
Mr. Polovchak also isn't so sure a child's view of what the United States has to offer is a bad one. He once listed Jell-O and bananas as top reasons for wanting to stay.
But what he really was expressing was a love for freedom, he said. He marveled at walking into a grocery store and plucking things from the aisles; he was used to long lines and small rations.
Mr. Grossman, also father to a 6-year-old boy, said those arguments are economic and discount the bond between parent and child.
"We all know as parents that separating a child from his parent is a devastating lifelong trauma," he said.

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